(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In the early fifth century c.e., when Christianity was not only legally recognized but also the preferred religion for advancement in social and political circles in the Roman Empire, many people with only the most rudimentary knowledge of Christianity flooded into the Church. Although monasticism had long been practiced by Christians in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the practice had not spread to Christians in southern France where John Cassian spent the last decades of his life. Devoting oneself full-time to the practice of monastic Christianity was a new idea in the Western Roman Empire. Cassian’s monastic writings, De institutis coenobiorum (419-426 c.e.; The Institutes of the Coenobia, 1894) and Conferences, are among the earliest writings in Latin to explain what monasticism is, what the purpose and motivation for a monastic life are, and how to organize a community centered on monastic practices.

Cassian had spent a number of years visiting and studying the lifestyles of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, each of whom struggled in his own way to find a path to God. He was convinced that such idiosyncratic patterns of fasting, harsh physical asceticism, and prayer would not help establish monasticism in southern France. What was needed was general guidance to gain the proper understanding of the monastic life as an example of living out the Christian faith. Day-to-day details about how long to pray, what prayers to say, when and how much to eat, were not Cassian’s main concern. He thought all these details could be worked out as a community of like-minded individuals grew, provided each member of that community had a shared and correct understanding of the purpose and goal of the monastic life.

Cassian’s twenty-four Conferences are retellings of his experiences during his studies with the Egyptian Desert Fathers. Each conference is retold in the name of the particular hermit with whom Cassian conversed on a specific topic. The Conferences take the form of interviews rather than systematic, scholarly discussions and contain general guidance on friendship, prayer, and discerning God’s will as distinct from one’s own will rather than precise regulations to be followed. Cassian argued that coenobitic, or communal, monasticism was the best form of monasticism, as a community could encourage...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Merton, Thomas. Cassian and the Fathers: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition. New York: Liturgical Press, 2005. This volume is a printed version of lectures Thomas Merton gave to novices at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in the early 1960’s when Merton was novice master. Students of Merton will want to read this volume to see how Merton understood later monasticism as an offshoot of the Desert Fathers.

Ramsey, Boniface, ed. John Cassian: The “Conferences.” Ancient Christian Writers 57. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1997. Ramsey provides a useful introduction to the state of Christianity in Western Europe at the beginning of the fifth century, as well as Cassian’s contributions to later monastic history.

Stewart, Columba. Cassian the Monk. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Stewart discusses Cassian’s somewhat controversial teachings on grace and free will. He also analyzes Cassian’s contribution to Latin Christianity as a monk, a theologian, and a bishop.