Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Human nature is to be transformed into what wine symbolises — 

namely, the Spirit. Notice that the miracle does not annihilate but 

transforms the water… we come to the wedding as guests and we 

leave as brides.

Thomas Keating, “The Kingdom of God is Like …,” p. 22.

Introduction

St. John Cassian

In his two works, the Cenobitic Institutions and the Conferences of the Fathers, John Cassian described in great detail the path of spiritual progress for those who seek perfection or, one could say, that happiness that consists in the contemplation of divine things. Although written as two distinct works, the Institutions and Conferences have been conceived as a single project and form a whole that expresses two stages of the spiritual life. In the preface to the Conferences Cassian explains the link between the first part, the Institutions, and the second part, the Conferences, in this way: 

“From the external and visible aspect of monastic life — which I have dealt with in other books — I will now pass to deal with the interior and invisible life. From the prayer of the canonical hours, I now come to deal with that continuous prayer of which St. Paul. Thus the one who in reading the previous work earned the name of Jacob according to the spirit (after having eradicated the carnal vices), now, through the study of the teachings of the Fathers of the desert, will be able to reach the contemplation of divine purity, he will be encouraged to call himself Israel, he will learn what duties are to be observed on the very summit of perfection.” [1]

Here we find a summary of Cassian’s entire doctrine and his key ideas: the spiritual life understood as a passage from the exterior to the interior; the final purpose of “continuous prayer” which is at the same time the contemplation of divine things, the invisible things; the active (or current) life, the first step necessary to make further progress, symbolised by the figure of Jacob, and the end of the contemplative life, represented by the name Israel. It must be added that the place where this development takes place is “the inner man”, a terminology clearly inspired by himself. Paul. [2] This is the vision of possible spiritual progress that is precisely developed in the twenty-four conferences that follow. Here I will only address a few main points.

I. Jacob / Israel 

Jacob/Israel

The use of the names Jacob/Israel to designate two phases of the spiritual life puts us in contact with a rich tradition. This etymological/allegorical interpretation dates back at least to Philo of Alexandria who explains that “he who loves knowledge believes that one must leave the land of sensation, which has the name (חָרָן) Ḥārān”. Later he says that Jacob left Ḥārān at the age of seventy-five and, after explaining the meaning of the number, he continues: 

“In this issue we find the ascetic, still intent on gymnastic training and who has not yet been able to achieve a definitive victory. Indeed, it is said that “the souls born of Jacob were seventy-five in all” (Ex 1,5). [200] Souls, and not children of bodies, belong, therefore, to those who fight and do not succumb in the truly holy struggle for the conquest of virtue, even if they have not yet broken the bridges with the irrational and still pull the mass behind them of sensation. Jacob, in effect, is the name of the one who paws and prepares himself for the fight and the clash, but who has not yet won. [201] But when it became clear that he was able to see God, then his name was changed to that of Israel.” [3]

The allegorical/etymological interpretation of the two names Jacob/Israel, which is also found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and in Anthony’s letters, [4] documents the widespread diffusion of the concept of the possibility of spiritual progress in early monasticism. Cassian himself returns to terminology in his twelfth lecture where he expands the interpretation with a chain of other allegorical interpretations. Referring to the text of Genesis 32:28, he says: 

“Whoever has passed the degree of chastity depicted in the” suppliant “Jacob, will not only paralyse the nerve in the side, but from the struggles for continence and from the work to substitute virtue for vices, will rise to the glorious title of Israel, and the his heart will no longer deviate from the right direction.” [5]

Cassian states that David also distinguished these two moments in the life of the spirit. He quotes the first part of the first verse of Psalm 75:2 “God made himself known in Judea,” explaining that the verse means “in the soul that has yet to confess his sins because Judea means confession”. Then he explains that “in Israel, which means” he who sees God “or — as another etymology wants — in man perfectly upright before God, the Lord is not only known, but “great is his name”, that is, the second part of the verse of the psalm. He then moves on to the second verse of the psalm: “His abode is established in peace” and comments: “In other words, the abode of God is not where the struggle against vice takes place, but in the peace of chastity and in the perpetual tranquility of heart.” [6] 

II. The goal of contemplation 

To better explain the difference between these two moments in the life of the spirit represented by Jacob and Israel, Cassian introduces the distinction between the end and purpose of the spiritual life.

Based on the saying found in Luke’s Gospel, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), and following an already established interpretation, he identifies this interior kingdom with contemplation. This is the goal of the spiritual journey: to see God, to become Israel “he who sees God”.

Already during the first conference, however, Cassian was trying to give his reader at least a fleeting appearance of the happiness that awaits those who make progress in contemplation. He explains that “divine contemplation is to be understood in several ways” and offers a long list of possibilities, or possible starting points for developing contemplation. God is known not only through his incomprehensible essence, but through all creation. The grains of sand and raindrops also offer a starting point for contemplating his providence. The whole history of salvation, long-suffering, mercy, the grace of God, offer opportunities for contemplation. First of all it is the Incarnation of his Son that gives us material for the knowledge of God. Cassian concludes: 

“On all these occasions we rise to divine contemplation. Considerations on the type of those enumerated so far can be had in almost infinite quantities: they are born in our intimate in direct relation to the perfection of our life and to the purity of our heart”. [7]

III. The purpose of purity of heart 

To reach this end, this happy condition of continuous prayer in which everything leads us to divine contemplation, we must acquire “purity of heart”. This is the “purpose” of the spiritual life. With “purity of heart” vision of God or contemplation becomes possible. To explain what the distinction between the end and the purpose means, Cassian introduces the example of the archer who, to obtain the prize (the end), must aim at the target (the scopos). Then he quotes Paul: «the holy Apostle, speaking elsewhere of our goal, says: “Forgetting what is behind me, and throwing myself at the things ahead, I go after the sign (Latin: bravium), to reach the reward of God’s supreme vocation”». Cassian insists that the Greek text is clearer and also mentions it: kata skopon dioko. Then he adds a paraphrase: “It is as if the Apostle said: “In aiming at the target, I forget what lies behind me — that is, the vices of the carnal man — and I try to reach my goal which is the heavenly reward.”” It must be added, however, to avoid misunderstandings, that, according to Cassian, this celestial prize can already be obtained in this world. The kingdom of God is within us.

Whoever does not keep his gaze fixed on the target (purpose), which is purity of heart, is in great danger. “It is inevitable — says Cassiano — that a soul, which no longer has a point to refer to and anchor itself to, changes at every hour and every moment, according to the thoughts that occur and under the solicitation of external events: that is, it changes the I mean by changing impressions.”  [8] This target is called purity of heart because it refers to the elimination of vices and passions. [9] The practice of the other virtues is to make our heart pure and keep it «unassailable to all perverse passions. Thus we will climb – as on a ladder (istis gradibus) — towards the perfection of charity”. [10] From a positive point of view, the target is charity, charity that cannot coexist with vices, with anger, with pride, with the contempt of a brother.

In the tradition prior to Cassian (Philo, Clement, Origen, Evagrius Pontus) this purpose was called apatheia. The phrase “purity of heart” comes from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and offers certain advantages. The reward promised to the “pure in heart” is that they will see God. Thus we see the connection with the end, that is, contemplation. At the same time, with the use of this terminology Cassian avoids the now disputed terminology of apatheia, at least in the West with the anti-Stoic and anti-Evagrian controversy of Jerome. [11] The problem for Cassian is not the theoretical one, whether it is possible to eliminate all passions, but rather the impossibility of coexistence of vices with charity or with the vision of God. Cassian underlines and reiterates this impossibility in various ways. In the fourteenth lecture on spiritual science he explains: 

«If one wants to reach contemplative science, he must first commit all his study and all energy to acquire practical science, because it is true that practical science can be obtained without the theory, but theoretical cannot be obtained without practice. The two sciences are like two distinct but ordered steps, through which our weakness can ascend to heights. If the two steps follow one another in the order described, you can reach the peaks of the spiritual life, but if the first step is removed, it will no longer be possible to fly to the top. It is useless to think of reaching the contemplation of God who first does not avoid the contagion of vices. [“The spirit of God flees deception and does not dwell in a body that is enslaved by sin” (Wisdom 1:45)]”. [12]

In other words, it is impossible to progress in the life of prayer and contemplation without making progress in the moral life. According to Cassian, the essence of the spiritual life lies in the depths of the soul (animae recessu). “In our depths there can only be one situation: either the knowledge of the truth or its ignorance; either the love of vice or the love of virtue”. 

Then he quotes Paul: “The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And he concludes: 

“If the kingdom of God is within us and consists of justice, peace, joy, whoever lives in these virtues certainly lives in the kingdom of God. On the contrary: whoever lives in injustice, in discord, in the sadness that generates death , is a citizen of the kingdom of the devil, hell and death. In fact, from these signs the kingdom of God and that of the devil are distinguished”. [13]

These generic considerations become more concrete in the course of the analysis of the different passions and vices. The person, for example, under the domination of the vice of gastrimargia (“gluttony”), is unable to withstand the struggles of the inner man. [14] 

She is too busy with the desires / pleasures of the throat. The incompatibility of vice with prayer/contemplation applies to all eight vices / thoughts. However, Cassian particularly emphasises the destructive potential of the passion of anger. Contemplation means seeing God, but the vision of a God of love is incompatible with the hatred and anger that destroy the inner and spiritual vision. Cassian says: “The impulses of anger, from whatever cause they are provoked, blind the eyes of the soul, and therefore, throwing into the sharpness of the gaze” the deadly beam “of a worse evil, they prevent us from contemplating the sun of justice”. [15] Towards the end of the conferences he returns to the topic in the context of an explanation of the need not to react to offences: 

“If one considers these and other similar damages well, not only will he bear all the offences, but also the insults and punishments of all kinds, even the most cruel, that can come to him from men. And the reason is that the thoughtful man will see how nothing is more harmful than anger, nothing is more precious than the tranquility of the soul and purity of the heart. For such a pearl, not only carnal goods deserve to be despised, but also those that seem spiritual: assuming that they cannot be acquired and preserved without endangering the tranquility of the heart”. [16]

IV. The small method 

The possibility and quality of contemplation depends on the extent to which the heart becomes purified, emptied of vices, of the motions of passion that blind the inner eyes. Without moral and spiritual progress, the contemplation of divine goodness will not come badly. The angry person is unable to experience the joy of human existence; he is not capable of making good use of opportunities, not even of giving thanks to God for all that he has received. The same thing goes for the proud man or greedy for money, and so on. All vices hinder that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle. 

However, if continuous prayer is not possible while the vices and motions of passion remain in the heart, prayer itself always remains a possibility in every moment of the spiritual life, indeed a principal instrument in the search for purity of heart. Towards the end of the second conference dedicated to the subject of prayer, after having spoken of the different types of prayer, Abbot Isaac reveals a small method, “a secret that has been revealed to us by those few Fathers belonging to the good old days “. The secret consists in continually repeating the verse of the psalm: “O God, turn to my help, Lord, hurry to help me” (Psalm 69:2). Isaac explains that this verse is suitable for expressing “all the sentiments of which human nature is capable; it is perfectly suited to all states and all sorts of temptations ». It expresses humility, vigilance, the recognition of our weakness, the confidence to be heard, the ardor of charity, the awareness of the dangers. This verse, incessantly invoked, becomes “an impregnable wall, an impenetrable armour, a very strong shield”. The abbot concludes: “In short: that verse is useful to everyone and in all circumstances. Asking to be helped always and in all things is equivalent to clearly recognising that we need God’s help when everything is favourable to us and smiles at us, as when trials and adversities assail us”. [17] 

He then offers a long list, in satirical form, of the occasions when this verse must be repeated. Some examples will make us the most concrete method:

«Does the passion of the throat haunt me?” Do I go in search of foods that the desert does not know? In my squalid solitude do I breathe the scent of the foods that are on the table of kings? Do I feel attracted to wanting them, even against my will? Here I will have to say: “God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me». 

The list of occasions follows the order of the defects already analysed in the Institutions and also in the Conferences. The verse can be invoked against sleep or when sleep escapes us, and against the temptations of the flesh. 

«I want to immerse myself in spiritual reading, in order to fix my thought in God; but here is the headache prevents me. Or: it is still early morning and my head falls drowsy on the pages of the sacred book and I feel obliged to increase the hours that the rule assigns to rest, or to anticipate the rest of this day. Sometimes, precisely during our meetings, sleep prevents me from continuing to recite the Psalms. In these situations, there is nothing to do but invoke: “Lord, come to my help, God, hurry to my help”».

«I’m still in the stage where it is necessary to wage war against vices: the flesh suddenly tempts me, tries to wrest my consent while I take my night’s rest. Lest an adverse fire burn the fragrant flowers of my chastity, I will cry out, “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

We must also invoke him against anger, greed, sadness, vainglory, pride. However, even if the heart were purified from all these vices, the temptation of spiritual pride would remain. Therefore we must continue the invocation of this prayer. But this form of prayer is not only useful in the fight of the active life against vices and temptations; it also serves in every moment of the contemplative life. For example, Abbot Isaac says: 

«I feel I have rediscovered, by gift of the Holy Spirit, the direction of the soul, the stability of thoughts, the joyful readiness of the heart. I feel that, due to a sudden illumination of the Lord, a source rich in spiritual thoughts is produced in me, abundant revelations come to me on the holiest mysteries, which until now had remained completely hidden from me. To deserve to remain in this luminous state for a long time, I will say repeatedly and fervently: “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

Isaac concludes the list of possible occasions with a passage that brings to mind another passage from the Scriptures where the Israelite is recommended to repeat the shema prayer. The prayer of this verse must be meditated continuously in our heart.

«In any work, in any duty, even while traveling, the monk must always sing that verse. In eating, in sleeping, in every other need of nature, he must meditate on those words. This continuous thought will become a formula of salvation that will not only protect from the assaults of the demons, but will also purify from every vice and from every earthly stain; it will raise to the contemplation of celestial and invisible things; it will lead to an ineffable ardor of prayer, which only a few know from experience».

This verse is for the monk his schema and, paraphrasing Deuteronomy, Cassian adds: 

«You will write those words on your lips, you will carve them on the walls of your home, in the depths of your hearts, so that they are a recurring theme for you when you pray, may they also be your continuous prayer”. The use of this prayer will lead to that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle and remembered as the goal of monastic life already in the Preface of the conferences. But it is capable and useful in bringing us to union with God that words are no longer able to describe. This prayer, explains Isaac, “is not fixed on some image, indeed it is not expressed even through words: it is born of a leap, from a fiery mind, from an unspeakable rapture, from an insatiable alacrity of spirit. The soul, transported out of the senses and visible things, offers itself to God amid unspeakable sighs and groans.» 

Here is the path of the spiritual life from the point of view of prayer and contemplation. This small method, this simple form of prayer should accompany the monk along the entire path of spiritual progress, from the beginning with external prayer to the peak of contemplation. He is able to lead him even to prayer so internalised that words are no longer needed. 

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