Saint of the Day – 23 July – St John Cassian (c 360 – c 435) Priest, Monk, Theologian, Writer, Founder. Also known as John the Ascetic, or John Cassian the Roman (Latin: Ioannes Eremita Cassianus, Ioannus Cassianus, or Ioannes Massiliensis), was a Christian monk and theologian celebrated in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings. St John Cassian is noted for his role in bringing the ideas and practices of Christian monasticism to the early medieval West. He was born in c 360 in Scythia Minor (modern-day Dobrogea, Romania) and died in c 435 in Massilia, Gaul (modern-day Marseilles, France), of natural causes.
Cassian was born around 360, most likely in the region of Scythia Minor (now Dobruja, a historical region shared today by Romania and Bulgaria), although some scholars assume a Gallic origin. The son of wealthy parents, he received a good education: his writings show the influence of Cicero and Persius. He was bilingual in Latin and Greek.
Cassian mentions having a sister in his first work, the Institutes, with whom he corresponded in his monastic life; she may have ended up with him in Marseilles.
Around 380, John Cassian migrated from Romania to Bethlehem, where he embraced the monastic life. After 385 he wandered the Egyptian desert, the heart of eastern monasticism. He visited abbots at monasteries and hermits in their caves, absorbing their teachings about the Christian life.
The year 400 found him on the staff of St John Chrysostom in Constantinople. When Chrysostom was unfairly deposed and exiled, Cassian was among his defenders who travelled to Rome to plead his case before the pope, who was Innocent I. At that time he was ordained a priest.
While he was in Rome, Cassian accepted the invitation to found an Egyptian-style monastery in southern Gaul, near Marseilles. He may also have spent time as a priest in Antioch between 404 and 415. In any case, he arrived in Marseilles around 415. His foundation, the Abbey of St Victor, was a complex of monasteries for both men and women, one of the first such institutes in the West and served as a model for later monastic development.
To instruct his monks and nuns, Cassian wrote two significant books. The Institutes described the eastern pattern of monastic life and the virtues required of monks. The Conferences presented the wisdom of the Egyptian desert in the form of discourses by famous abbots. In the following sample we hear “Abbot Isaac” on the practice of the presence of God:
“To keep the thought of God always in your mind you must cling totally to this formula for piety: ‘Come to my help, O God. Lord, hurry to my rescue’ (see Psalm 70:2).
“With good reason this verse has been chosen from the whole of Scripture as a device. It bears all the feelings that human nature can experience.
It can be adapted to every condition and deployed against every temptation. It carries a cry to God in the face of every danger. It piously confesses humility. It conveys our sense of frailty, our assurance of being heard, our confidence in help that is always and everywhere present. Someone forever calling out to his protector is very sure of his nearness. This short verse is an indomitable wall for all those struggling against the onslaught of demons.
Whatever the disgust, the anguish, or the gloom in our thoughts, it keeps us from despairing of our salvation since it reveals to us the One to whom we call, the One who sees our struggles and who is never far from those who pray to him.
If things go well for us in spirit, this verse is a warning. We must not get puffed up at being in a good condition that we cannot retain without the protection of God for whose continuous and speedy help it prays.
This little verse, I am saying, proves to be necessary and useful to each one of us in all circumstances.”
Cassian’s achievements and writings influenced Saint Benedict, who incorporated many of the principles into his monastic rule and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict’s rule is still followed by Benedictine, Cistercian and Trappist monks, John Cassian’s thought still exercises influence over the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Latin Church.
The Church also ranks him as a saint, with a feast day on 23 July. Like his contemporaries Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint John Chrysostom, he was never formally canonised, a process that came into use several centuries after his death. Pope Urban V referred to him as sanctus (a saint) and he was included in the Gallican Martyrology. He is included also in the Roman Martyrology with a feast-day on 23 July. Like the great majority of recognised saints of the Church, he is not one of the saints in the General Roman Calendar, but the Archdiocese of Marseilles and some monastic orders celebrate his memorial on his feast day.
Cassian’s relics are kept in an underground chapel in the Monastery of St Victor in Marseilles. His head and right hand are in the main church there.
Today laypeople cannot practice the presence of God with the constancy that Cassian demanded. But we can frequently remind ourselves of God’s nearness and draw on his grace by praying “Come to my help, O God. Lord, hurry to my rescue.”