Today is the feast of St John Cassian, a fifth-century Western saint who made a very close study and trial of the monastic traditions of the desert fathers of Egypt.
Originally from what is now Romania, he entered a monastery in Bethlehem in his early twenties.
After a lengthy stay among the hermits of the Egyptian desert, he went to Constantinople, where Patriarch St John Chrysostom ordained him deacon. He later moved to Marseilles, where he was ordained priest, and founded a monastery and a convent.
St John’s experiences decisively shaped authentic Western monasticism on Eastern practice, especially through St Benedict of Nursia, whose tradition was then championed by great English saints such as St Cuthbert and St Bede.
In the following extract, Cassian is speaking an Abbot named Theodore.
THIS man therefore, when some of the brethren were wondering at the splendid light of his knowledge and were asking of him some meanings of Scripture, said that a monk who wanted to acquire a knowledge of the Scriptures ought not to spend his labour on the works of commentators, but rather to keep all the efforts of his mind and intentions of his heart set on purifying himself from carnal vices.
For when these are driven out, at once the eyes of the heart, as if the veil of the passions were removed, will begin as it were naturally to gaze on the mysteries of Scripture: since they were not declared to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit in order that they should remain unknown and obscure.
But they are rendered obscure by our fault, as the veil of our sins covers the eyes of the heart, and when these are restored to their natural state of health, the mere reading of Holy Scripture is by itself amply sufficient for beholding the true knowledge, nor do they need the aid of commentators, just as these eyes of flesh need no man’s teaching how to see, provided that they are free from dimness or the darkness of blindness.
For this reason there have arisen so great differences and mistakes among commentators because most of them, paying no sort of attention towards purifying the mind, rush into the work of interpreting the Scriptures, and in proportion to the density or impurity of their heart form opinions that are at variance with and contrary to each other’s and to the faith, and so are unable to take in the light of truth.
Conferences Bk V.34. Translation from CCEL (with slight changes to the paragraphing).
THY words breathe forth the sweetness of heavenly cassia, dispelling the foul odour of passion and pleasures; but with the sweet fragrance of thy discretion and temperance, they make known the spiritual ascents in the Spirit, leading men on high, O righteous Father John Cassian, divinely-sent guide of monks.
On the Feast of Righteous John Cassian.
AND I pray thee, merciful Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously granted me sweet draughts from the Word which tells of Thee, so wilt Thou, of Thy goodness, grant that I may come at length to Thee, the fount of all wisdom, and stand before Thy face for ever. Amen.