12 August 2009

The Mysticism of Ioannes Cassianus

Saint John Cassian was the first person to acquaint the West with the way of Eastern monasticism. As a young man he entered a monastery in Bethlehem. A true desert Father, he became familiar with the charisms of Syrian monasteries, but would eventually discover that the most holy and ascetic practices were to be found in Egypt. He ended up spending seven years of his life in Egypt, moving about from monastery to monastery until he became well-versed in the ways desert monasticism, coenobitism, and eremitism. More of this learning/discovering process was also given to him later in the Libyan desert where there were many monasteries.

He was ordained a deacon by Saint John Chrysostom in Constantinople, and then later to Rome and the priesthood. He finally settled in Marseilles. With his extensive knowledge of desert monasticism, in Marseilles he wrote two wonderful works. First was “The Institutes” which offer his skills on organizing a monastery including how monks should dress and the various times that the Divine Office should be prayed.

His second work written in Marseilles was titled, “The Conferences of the Fathers” which came about as a request from the Bishop of Arles.

Saint John Cassian was a mystic and defined mysticism with these words: “It transcends all human thought, not marked by any sound of the voice, nor movement of the tongue, nor speaking of words. The mind infused by that heavenly light, does not speak with human and limited language but richly pours forth with a mass of feelings, as if from a copious fountain, ineffably uttering such great things to God in the shortest possible space of time, that when it returns to its normal state it cannot easily express or relate them.”

The “Ladder of Contemplation,” according to Saint John Cassian, had only three rungs: The first rung involves the contemplation of many things; the second rung of only a few things; while the third and final rung was the contemplation of One, which was manifested by pure and wordless prayer.

His description of Ecstatic Prayer or Perfect Prayer is one in which he suggests that the intellect encounters Divine Truth which extends far beyond ordinary human thought, thus self-awareness vanishes. Saint Antony the Great said something very similar when he suggested that it is not perfect prayer when there is self-awareness or the knowledge that one is praying. The ascetical writer, Evagrius Ponticus, compares it to sleeping; when asleep, we do not know that we’re sleeping and when we are truly contemplating there is no awareness that we have entered into this state.

Here is Cassian’s description of ecstasy: “Our mind arrives at that incorruption of prayer… not distinguished by accompaniment of voice or of words, but with the intention of the mind on fire, is produced through an inexpressible ecstasy of heart, by an unexplainable keenness of spirit; and thus the mind altered beyond sense or visible matter pours forth prayer to God with unutterable groans and sighs.” Of course, these higher forms of prayer are very rare and usually short in duration as Cassian also teaches.

Interesting from a perspective of the Church’s daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours, Saint John Cassian also taught that the heartfelt singing of the psalms could open oneself up to receive the heavenly gift of ecstatic prayer.