Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Eight Demons of St. John Cassian

My life, along with many others (though I forget this often), has been a continual struggle with sin.  I am not alone in this, and there is a kind of comfort in that.  I found this out especially when I stumbled upon some writings of St. John Cassian in the Philokalia, arguably the most important spiritual text in the Christian East aside from the Scriptures.

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.

In the modern era, I think many forget that we do indeed fight a spiritual war - we fight in the battlefields of our hearts against our own selves, but against others spiritual enemies as well - "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places" (Eph. 6:12).

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.

13 comments:

  1. I have been coming across little bits of his Conferences and I am really tempted to give it a whirl since everything I read really spoke to me.

    The book I am reading from Bunge is on the vice of despondency...very good. Written for the desert monk...applicable for ALL of us.

    Have a blessed weekend.

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    1. Hi Theresa,
      Always glad to see your comments on here :)
      I always struggle with the notion that maybe these kinds of writings aren't meant for the lay person in the world...and then you come to mind. :)

      God's peace,
      Jason

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    2. Good Morning Jason...even if you are writing for one soul...it is enough LOL!

      You know that so many of the writings of the Desert Fathers and writings pertaining to monastic life can so easily be adapted to the present lay person living in the world. I read many books on monastic living and always come away with wisdom to live in my ordinary daily life.

      Cassian will go *on the list* for me too : )

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  2. Jason, you're really Orthodox. You just don't know it yet.

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    1. Jack,
      Well, after thinking about your comment over the last couple days, I still don't know what to say in reply to it...

      ICXC NIKA
      Jason

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  3. The 'Conferences' were one of the first works I read as I began my journey as an oblate of St Benedict..They were life changing for me. I have a copy on my nightstand, which I refer to often..because as with many of the spiritual writers, every time I come back to it it's that much richer. +

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    1. Caroline,
      Neat - I hope to get a copy of the Conferences maybe for Christmas from my Mum - Mum are you reading this??? ;^D

      ICXC NIKA
      Jason

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  4. Good morning Jason,
    Hope you're having a wonderful Sunday!

    I strongly encourage you to read the following article regarding John Cassian.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03404a.htm

    Jason, I reverted to the Catholic faith after a thirty year absence. Praise Jesus! However, I have found Satan, is not content to leave me be;-) and the closer I strive to come close to Our Lord AND Holy Mother Church the more he will seek to deceive me. He especially wants to lead us out of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Satan, knows all of my weaknesses and areas of confusion (I was a poorly formed and poorly catechized Catholic) he continuely strikes at these areas. Having a wise and faithful confessor, who is also my Spiritual Director, has helped me immensely.

    Jason, thank you, so much for creating this blog and for sharing your journey with us.I will pray for you, please pray for me. May the Lord Jesus, illuminate, heal and bless your immortal soul abundantly! Sincerely, your sister in Christ, Mary.

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    1. Hi Mary,
      Thanks be to God that you came home to the Church! Having a spiritual director is great, but my priest and I have such conflicting schedules that it's hard to meet. He recommended I put away the Aquinas and pick up St. Therese and St. Faustina very many times...

      Prayed for you too, and thank you for reading this blog. I am always surprised that anyone does at all...God seems to have really blessed my writing, and I am so thankful that it is hard to express it.

      May God be with you and bring you peace! Your servant in Christ,
      Jason

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  5. Good morning Jason,

    Have you ever read "Divine Mercy in my soul" by St. Faustina? This Diary changed my life, my relationship with Our Lord, His Priests, His Holy Church and was instrumental in me returning to confession after a thirty year absence!

    Sincerely, Mary. :-)

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    1. Hi Mary,

      Yes, I own a copy of the diary. It is extremely good, and was a big part of my conversion as well. I love St. Faustina, fantastic saint.

      ICXC NIKA
      Jason

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  6. Thank you so much for this article! I have been studying Conference #5 and was talking about it with some friends this past Sunday.

    I discovered Cassian's Conferences when I became a Benedictine Oblate. I read it last year, or better to say I attempted to "absorb" it, I read just a few paragraphs at a time each day and meditated on the writings throughout the day.

    I read the translation of Cassian's Conferences that are posted online, I printed out one chapter at a time and put them in a notebook to read daily. I prefer this translation to the book version that my husband later bought and is now reading. My husband has now told me that between the two translation, he now also prefers the online version. Here is the link, if you would like to start reading now, from the OSB.org website (Order of St. Benedict):

    http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/conf/index.html

    Hope this is helpful! Cassian changed my life, answered ALL of the questions I had been wondering about for many years, and put my soul at rest.

    Here is the direct link to Conference #5, which is the subject of this blog: http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/conf/book1/conf5.html#5.0

    Thank you again for such a GREAT blog! Not many people choose to write about Cassian.

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  7. Jason. Wonderful! Thank u so much for this. I've a very good friend who is a Dominican; he took John cassian for his name. (Fr. Cassian Sama). it is he who introduced me to John Cassian's writings. I must admit I found him a bit hard to fully get. You have broken this down very well. It is not often that I find John Cassian on any blog or otherwise. So keep writing abt him. I for one greatly appreciate it. God bless you. Happy & blessed Thanksgiving

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