JULY 23, 2008: SAINT JOHN CASSIAN: MATTHEW 5:1–12
BLEST ARE THE PURE OF HEART FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD. In celebrating the Eucharistic sacrifice this morning we are continuing a liturgical practice that began just a few years ago by commemorating John Cassian as a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Cassian has long been venerated as a saint of God in the East. Part of his writings were translated into Greek and included in the Philokalia where he is known as Saint Cassian the Roman. Saint John Climachus, writing in the Greek monastery at Mount Sinai, refers to him as Cassian the Great. Karl Rahner points out that “Cassian was the most famous monk of Gaul and the great organizer of Western monasticism before Saint Benedict” (Marcel Viller/Karl Rahner, “Ascetica e Mistica nella Patristica”, (Brescia: Queriniana,  182). Cassian made it a point to disagree partly with Saint Augustine concerning the relation of grace and free will. For this reason he was not officially recognized as a saint by the Western Church until 2001, in the new edition of the Roman martyrology. In spite of the reserves concerning his teaching on grace, he was never censured by the Church; on the contrary, he was widely read and warmly recommended as a teacher by such holy and learned Catholic saints as separated in time as Saint Benedict and Rodriguez, the follower of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Recent translations of his writings attest to his continuing influence in the domain of spirituality and monastic life.
Perhaps Cassian’s most helpful single contribution is his decided emphasis on purity of heart as the immediate aim of all ascetic striving. He gives little importance to the miraculous, and extraordinary feats of asceticism. The first of his Conferences provides the perspective in which all that follows is viewed. Rooted in the New Testament this introductory conference is a practical commentary on the Beatitude we have just heard proclaimed in today’s Gospel: “Blest are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” Cassian stresses that, however necessary are the practices of the monks he describes, it is the interior dispositions of the heart that are to be purified, elevated, and perfected by the way the various observances are undertaken. The aim is not merely an orderly, disciplined, edifying lifestyle, but a transformation of the interior, the realization in the concrete of the new man of which Saint Paul speaks.
Cassian had learned well the psychology taught by Evagrius Ponticus whom he had frequented in Egypt. As a result another of his merits, as Cassiodorus points out, is to “help his readers to discover their own defects and to confront them, defects that previously they saw only in a vague and confused manner” (cited in Viller/Rahner, 184). This is no small achievement, for such sharpened insight renders one’s efforts at overcoming faults more effective, and as this takes place allows one to dedicated the liberated energy of the psyche to the works of true love. By gaining such practical self knowledge, the dedicated Christian expands the knowledge of God the Father, as revealed in the person of Christ Jesus. Description in concrete detail of such disordered passions as all of us encounter as we enter upon the inward journey that leads to God constitute a large portion of his writings. The second part of his Institutes is wholly devoted to a description of the Eight Passionate Thoughts based on the original work of Evagrius. But he does not confine himself to this preparatory effort; he supplements this teaching with a doctrine of prayer that is at once practical and ordered to the intensely mystical. The high point of the life of prayer is a union with God that is experienced as the beginning of a fulfillment that is the goal of all striving, and that is the one valid meaning of life on earth. Cassian teaches us still that truly blest are the pure of heart, for they already on earth enter into the kingdom where God is all in all.
In commemorating Saint John Cassian at this Eucharistic sacrifice we give thanks to our heavenly Father for his great gift to us in the person of his risen Son. Through the grace of this sacrament may we advance on the path Saint John Cassian marks out for us as we travel together on the way that leads to this sacred reality of intimate union with God, our Father through his risen Son in the Holy Spirit.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger