“There is none holy as the Lord" (1 Samuel 2,2)
"For Thou only art holy, Thou only art the Lord, O Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen" (Great Doxology)
“One is Holy! One is the Lord Jesus Christ! To the glory of God the Father, Amen.” (Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom)
These quotations, selected from the Holy Scriptures and Byzantine liturgical texts, clearly show that the Orthodox Church, deeply rooted in Biblical and Patristic sources, has always believed that holiness belongs to God alone, and that man can only achieve it by participation in the divine life (or, in the words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, "the acquisition of the Holy Spirit"). Even though all Christians are called to this "life in Christ" (Saint Nicholas Cabasilas) through the process of 'theosis' or divinisation, the radical following of the Lord and the Evangelical precepts is most evidently seen in monastic life, which becomes an example and "lung" for the whole Church.
In this essay we will analyse the search for holiness as found in the first three 'Collationes' by Saint John Cassian, where Abba Moses and Abba Paphnutius, two eminent holy men of the Scetis Desert, set out the itinerary to reach perfection and the contemplation of God, a sort of method to initiate oneself in the spiritual life and a safe orientation to advance though the stages that lead to the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our hope is that these wise indications will also become a beacon of light for us lay Orthodox Christians, "for even one dwelling in a city may imitate the self-denial of the monks" (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 55).
About the author
Saint John Cassian the Roman (also known as John the Ascetic) is one of the most important writers of the 5th century, and one of the very few who lived between East and West. He was born in Scythia (present-day Romania) around the year 360. As a young man he became a monk in Bethlehem, and some time later he went with his friend Germanus to visit the monasteries in Egypt, where he came into contact with some of the most renowned spiritual masters of his time. In 405 he traveled to Rome in order to intercede for Saint John Chrysostom, who had been sent into exile by the Emperor, and he never returned to the East, as he founded two monasteries in Rome and Marseille. His two main works (Institutes of the Coenobia, about the outer man and the organisation of his life, and Conferences of the Desert Fathers or Collationes, about the inner man) deal with monastic life, and their importance lies in the fact that they introduced the lifestyle of Palestinian and Egyptian 'coenobia' in the West (so much so that the later appearance of Saint Benedict and the mystic movements and religious orders of the Renaissance cannot be understood without them). His death is thought to have taken place in the year 435. John can thus be considered a "bridge" between Eastern and Western Christianity at a time when the two major traditions of the then same faith were starting to develop their own distinctive features.
The goal and end of spiritual life
John Cassian and his closest companion Germanus went to the Desert of Scetis, "where all perfection flourishes", and sought out Abba Moses, the most "splendid flower of good scent" due to his ascetic and contemplative virtues, looking for some words of edification. From the beginning of his 'collatio', John is emphasizing the eminently evangelical character of the Holy Man according to the words of Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians ("For we are the aroma/fragrance of Christ to God", the 'bonus odor Christi' as it is known in the Western tradition). Abba Moses was a hard man, reluctant to open the gates of his knowledge except to those who had a real aspiration to perfection, but after many prayers on the part of the two young men he eventually accepted to impart his teachings to them. We consider that this is a practical example of the so-called 'disciplina arcani' or, using the words of the Gospel according to the Evangelist Matthew: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine".
The first thing that John does (through the words of Abba Moses) is to establish a twofold distinction between the ultimate end and the immediate goal of the spiritual life. The end is the Kingdom of God/Heaven, for the obtention of which we must be ready to accept vigils, fasts, the reading of the Sacred Scriptures, efforts, nudity, deprivations, loneliness, etc., whereas the immediate goal is purity of heart, without which the end cannot be reached. A certain objective of the soul and a firm purpose of the soul (perseverance), is then needed to be able to collect the fruit of holiness. By fixing our look and putting all our attention on the goal, we will be able to advance in a straight line, and if we realise that we are deviating (however slightly it may be) from that line, we must immediately correct ourselves.
Having this said, John also emphasises the need for everything to be done with apostolic charity/love in order for our deprivations not to become sterile and fruitless (1 Cor 13,3), as perfection does not come automatically as a result of our works. Only a perfectly and completely pure heart can offer something pleasing to God, and this purity is expressed in very practical terms: avoiding envy, arrogance, wrath, iniquity, self interest, injustice, bad thoughts against our neighbour... The guard of the heart is thus indispensable in order to preserve it from any sort of infectious perturbation.
Having, then, the purity of heart as the goal of all his desires, the man who aspires to holiness seeks to live in loneliness (in the case of monks) and undertakes fasts, vigils, works, bodily nakedness, readings and the practice of the virtues that turn the heart invulnerable to pernicious passions. However, it must be clear that, according to John, all these elements are just instruments that help us to attain perfection, but they are not perfection itself. What about honest and necessary occupations that prevent us from fulfilling our ideal of life? Abba Moses' answer is that in this case we should not become sad or fall into indignation or wrath, as these are vices that need to be combatted: wrath is worse than not fasting, and despising our neighbour is worse than not reading, for example. Again, charity is the key element here. In contrast with the above, John says that if something, even if it seems useful or necessary, disturbs the tranquility of our mind, it should be eradicated as damaging. We should avoid the nonsense of an errant and wandering spirit and always follow the right direction. This is to be achieved by setting our mind on the divine realities and on God, as all the rest is of secondary importance or even damaging. A good example of this are Martha and Mary (Luke 10,38-42): the former was "worried and upset about many things", while the latter "chose what is better". Of course, this does not mean that virtues are not useful and necessary, but their place is secondary: they must be practised to obtain divine contemplation. This contemplation is the supreme good, but it can only be attained in a gradual way that starts by meditating on the example of a few holy people, and always with the help of God's grace. In fact, virtues and good works are limited by our physical reality, so their usefulness is limited to the present life and will be interrupted in the future, when equality will reign ("Love never fails. But [...] prophecies will cease". 1 Corinthian 13). Charity, then, is the only virtue that transcends our present life and will unite us with God with more passion and confidence due to its perpetual incorruptibility.
How to persevere in contemplation without being trapped by worldly things? John thinks that while man lives in the fragility of the flesh it is impossible for him to be united with God and contemplate Him ceaselessly; however, this should not distract him from his goal: on the contrary, he must direct the intention of his mind and avoid the impurity of fixing his look on other things. If nonetheless his attention deviates from Christ, man must nail the eyes of his spirit on Him, as only when the Devil has been expelled and sin does not reign over his soul will the Kingdom of God be established in his life. Man, then, has a twofold choice: either knowledge (the love of Truth that leads to God) or ignorance (the love of sin that leads to the Devil). Whoever remains in justice, peace and perpetual joy (Isaiah 65,17) finds himself in the Kingdom of God, whereas whoever prefers injustice, discord and sadness belongs to the kingdom of the Devil.
Much has been spoken about the Kingdom of God, but what exactly does this mean for John Cassian? Abba Moses proposes various alternative answers to this: that the Saints will reign over those who are subject to them (Luke 19,19), that the Heavens will become the Kingdom of Christ when every creature has been subjected to God, and that the Saints will reign in Heaven with the Lord. Eschatology, in fact, plays an important role in the 'Collationes', and John states very clearly that in eternal life the soul of man will be subjected to the one he has chosen to serve while in this life. That is why he emphasises the importance of living a virtuous life with a pure heart and a spiritual conscience in order to reach the Kingdom of God. According to Abba Moses, the souls do not remain idle or lack feelings after separating from the body (see the example of Lazarus and the rich man); quite the opposite: they start enjoying (albeit in a limited way) that which is reserved for them after the Final Judgment. The souls do not dissolve in the void, but are united more strongly to the worship of God. By stating this, John Cassian is fighting against some heresies of his time, which to us is a very clear indication of the inextricable interdependence of Orthodoxy (right belief) and Orthopraxis (right action).
Contemplation of God is the main goal of the man who seeks holiness. However, this does not mean that God can only be known by admiring his incomprehensible substance, but also through the greatness of His creatures; through His justice and providence in the governance of the world; when we observe with a pure mind what He has done together with His Saints; when we admire His power that governs, moderates and directs the universe; when we consider His immense wisdom; when we realise that He has created the sand and the waves of the sea, that he controls every drop of rain and that he knows everything past, present and future; when we admire His ineffable mercy; when we contemplate the vocation with which He has freely called us; when we consider how many times He has given us the possibility to save us in order to become our adoptive Father; when He became incarnate for our salvation and made all peoples participants of the wonders of His mysteries. Even though John Cassian does not mention it, our Orthodox Liturgy expresses this last point beautifully in various 'troparia' and 'theotokia', such as the one for tone/mode four: "The mystery hidden from before the ages and unknown even to the angels, through thee, O Theotokos, hath been revealed to those on earth: God incarnate in unconfused union, Who willingly accepted the Cross for our sake and thereby raising up the first-formed man, hath saved our souls from death". In any case, what is clear to Abba Moses is that we can see God and "possess" Him with a pure sight according to the perfection of our life or the purity of our heart, but this contemplation cannot last eternally if there is within us any fleshly affection.
The control of our thoughts is an indispensable element in John Cassian's thinking. According to him, it is impossible for our spirit not to wander because of our thoughts, but with effort these can be either accepted or rejected. The quality of our thoughts depends partly on ourselves: the frequent reading and constant meditation on the Scriptures provokes spiritual thoughts in our memory, and the singing of Psalms, contrition, vigils and fasts prevent our spirit from enjoying earthly goods and encourage it to divine contemplation. If we neglect this aspect, our mind becomes "thick" due to the influence of the vices and loses balance: it inclines itself towards the fleshly side. It is important, then, to examine where the thoughts come from in order to determine how to react to them. In this sense, Abba Moses speaks about three sources: God (when the illumination of the Holy Spirit elevates us, provokes pain in our hearts and arouses good intentions), the Devil (who tries to destroy us by inviting us to the enjoyment of vices and by presenting what is bad as good as an "Angel of Light"), and ourselves (when we remember naturally whatever has happened to us, what we have seen or heard). As a particular instance of the danger of our thoughts, John mentions the perverse interpretation of the Holy Scriptures that leads to their denaturalisation (Protestantism 'avant la lettre?). As we can see, it all comes down to discernment.
Discernment is in fact the main topic of the second conversation with Abba Moses. For him this is the "eye and lamp of the body" spoken of in the Gospel according to Matthew (chapter 6, verses 22-23), as it helps man to examine his thoughts and determine what he should do about them. Lacking the virtue of discernment (also often rendered as "discretion") is indeed very dangerous, as it governs our lives and includes wisdom, intelligence and judgment, without which we cannot edify the inner city or accumulate riches. But, according to John, only "robust adults" (i.e. those with experience in life) can take this food.
For Abba Moses, the way to acquire discernment is by true humility, and in a monastic context this means submitting to the judgment of the elders our intentions and thoughts, accepting their opinion and learning from their lips; in other words, not relying on our own judgment. However, true "elderness" does not depend on age alone, so only those Elders who have lived a venerable life should be followed. This obedience to the 'Geronta' is also expressed in the avoidance of extremes (for example, excessive fasting or excessive gluttony) and in the strict observance of the prescrbed diet (except when charity recommends us to eat the same as the brother we are hosting).
The three renunciations
As we have seen so far, for John Cassian the search for holiness manifests itself in very practical ways. In fact, he states that there are three types of vocation according to the three renunciations that they entail. The first vocation comes from God: some unexpected inspiration arouses in our heart the longing for eternal life and salvation, and exhorts us to follow God and adhere to His precepts with a salvific compunction, as happened to the Patriarch Abraham or to Saint Anthony the Great. The second vocation comes from other men: the examples and exhortations of some Saints ignite our spirit. The third vocation, finally, comes from necessity: absorbed by the riches and pleasures of this world, we are assaulted by temptations that endanger our life, or struck by the loss of our goods or the death of our beloved beings, so we have recourse to God. Apparently, the first two types of vocation are more elevated, but John, in this case trough the mouth of Abba Paphnutius, affirms that many perfect and most fervorous men have resulted from the third type, so it should never be underestimated.
As regards the three renunciations, the first type is bodily, when we despise the worldly riches and goods; the second type is when we repudiate the customs, vices and passions of the flesh that belong to "the old man", and the third type is when, by deviating our spirit from present and visible things, we contemplate the future realities only and we long for the unseen goods. By practising the first renunciation with devotion, man will acquire a special benefit even if he adopts the second one with less zeal and ardour. Once the second renunciation has been embraced, man can reach the third one. But perfection in the third renunciation will only come when man's spirit is free from the fleshly contamination that hinders his soul, so that, purged from all earthly affection, it can attain the invisible realities through divine meditation and contemplation. Man should hurry if he wants to reach real perfection, which consists in abandoning with his heart (as he has already done with his body) his parents, motherland, riches and pleasures without ever returning to them. In this sense, he must follow the examples of virtuous life of a few chosen people and reject all the accumulated riches of his past life (the vices) so they will not accompany him to his eternal abode: the virtues beautify after this life those who love them, whereas the vices obfuscate and disfigure the soul. John does not say that riches are bad by themselves (some of them have been earned by virtue and merit), so their value depends on the will and character of the one who uses them; what is clear to him, however, is that the riches of this world do not really belong to man, so he can only claim as his own whatever is to be found in his heart and is united to his soul, which explains why perfection can only be reached with the third renunciation.
Finally, once the three renunciations have been put into practice, man reaches a "fourth degree" as a reward for his ascetic effort: he deserves to enter the "Promised Land", where the "weeds and brambles" of the vices disappear. But this is not just a future reality: man can live it while still in the body provided his heart has been purified by expelling the passions. For John Cassian it is clear that human salvation is a divine initiative, and so is the summit of perfection and purity (Genesis 12: "Go from your country [...] to the land I will show you"), but the "middle station" corresponds to man: he must respond to the opportunities offered by God. Man's effort needs God's help (Psalm 24: "Guide me in your truth"), because "apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15). God strengthens man's soul in order to perform good works and inspires him to the practice of the virtues. John does not deny man's free will, but he is convinced that human freedom needs the constant help and grace of God.
In their lack of experience, young John and his friend Germanus had thought that it was enough to abandon worldly riches and earthly goods (the first renunciation), but with the help of Abba Moses and Abba Paphnutius they discover that they are far away from the summit of monastic life: HOLINESS.
Theosis or Divinisation is the ultimate goal of man. As Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov said: "The world is called by God to become His body", and especially for monks (such us John Cassian) this means living according to the precepts and commandments of the Gospel "in every place, in everything and in every time" (Saint John of the Ladder), a Gospel that must be "learnt by heart" (Saint Pachomius the Great). This, together with the guidance of and obedience to a pneumatophore master, will help man avoid temptation and have a stable life. But everything must be done with charity: "The life or death of our soul depends on our neighbour" (Saint Anthony the Great, 'Apophthegmata'). As we have seen, all these elements (albeit sometimes with different names) are present in John Cassian's vision of the search for holiness.
According to our opinion, it is somewhat surprising that prayer is generally absent from John's account of the monastic life, especially taking into account its eminently practical character: no specific methods, let alone the Prayer of the Heart, are ever mentioned. Also, as lay Orthodox Christians we would have liked to find in the 'Collationes' some indications of a more general character, not strictly addressed to monks. Of course, our experience in the ecclesial life tells us that, 'mutatis mutandis', the strife of the monk is the same as that of any other believer (the city is our "desert"), and that is why we need the guidance of our Spiritual Father. What is clear is that all Christians without exception are called to holiness, as the compelling words of the Gospel remind us: "Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect".
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Casiano, J. (2016), Conversaciones para iniciarse en la vida espiritual. Salamanca: Sígueme
Casiano, J. (1998), Colaciones, I. Madrid: Rialp
Farrugia, E.J. (2007), Diccionario Enciclopédico del Oriente Cristiano. Burgos: Monte Carmelo
Montes, J.M. (2008), Los Santos en la historia. Madrid: Alianza Editorial
Francisco José Pino Rodríguez, February 2017