Thursday, November 15, 2012
The Eight Demons of St. John Cassian
Now, St. John Cassian is not a name that is heard very much amongst Catholics or in the Christian West period - I presume this is because the West is so focused on St. Augustine, and some have presented the theology of the two as being a little incompatible. Nonetheless, this saint of the late 3rd to early 4th centuries is a marvel, and is the major figure behind the spread of monasticism in the West. Behind the great St. Benedict of Nursia is the towering figure of Cassian.
Spending time amongst the monks of Egypt who followed in the footsteps of St. Antony the Great, St. John Cassian wrote down his conversations with them, recording their spiritual wisdom and spreading it evangelically amongst the Latin West (these writings are known as the Conferences). In addition, he wrote a treatise on the monastic life known as the Institutes.
In this treatise, St. John Cassian outlines with a kind of battle-hardened wisdom the eight chief vices that cause us to fall into sin. In some ways, it is a Christian monastic's version of Sun Tzu's Art of War, the great precursor to more spiritually militant works as the Spiritual Exercisesof St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (an Orthodox saint), and Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Combat. All provide excellent "field manuals" in the battle against sin and temptation.
Nowhere do we find the latter more prominent than in the writings of Cassian. Below is the list of vices, which he often describes as demons, and the remedies I have gleaned from the writings. It should be mentioned that none of the remedies are somehow to be taken in a Pelagian sense - the grace of God is needed every step of the way of course, and Cassian never says otherwise in my opinion.
The first vice that Cassian speaks of is control of the stomach,followed by unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem, and pride. I think that "self-esteem" would jump out immediately to the modern reader of the above list, but in this case, Cassian seems to be referring to a kind of pride, a seeking out and enjoying of the compliments and flattery of others.
What is absolutely fascinating is the way in which Cassian describes these vices in an almost personified way, depicting them in his words as hideous forms of demons, and describing them as almost living entities that afflict the Christian soul. For example, he talks about dejection as a "malicious demon" that "seizes our soul and darkens it completely"1.
To summarize the cures, then2:
Gluttony - "To eat moderately and reasonably is to keep the body in health, not to deprive it of holiness."
Unchastity - "We should therefore try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of the flesh, kindled daily by the king of Babylon with the bellows of desire. In addition, a great weapon has been given us in the form of sacred vigils; for just as the watch we keep over our thoughts by day brings us holiness at night, so vigil at night brings purity to the soul by day."
Avarice - Cassian here speaks of renouncing the world and becoming a monk, admonishing monks to not slip back into desiring what they "already renounced". He also recommends that we "remember the hour of our death, so that our Lord does not come unexpectedly and, finding our conscience soiled with avarice, say to us what God says to the rich man in the Gospel: 'You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: who then will be the owner of what you have stored up?' (Luke 12:20)"
Anger - "Self-reform and peace are not achieved through the patience which others show us, but through our long-suffering towards our neighbour."
Dejection - "The only form of dejection we should cultivate is the sorrow which goes with repentance for sin and is accompanied by hope in God."
Listlessness - "'...patience, prayer, and manual labor.'"
Self-Esteem - "The person who wants to engage fully in spiritual combat... should not do anything with a view to being praised by other people,but who should seek God's reward only."
Pride - "...perfection in holiness can only be achieved through humility. Humility, in received turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentleness, and the shedding of all possessions."
1 - "On the Eight Vices", qtd. in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume One
2 - ibid. on all following quotes.