John Cassian was only twenty years old when he set off to Bethlehem with his friend Germanus. Germanus was older, although how much older is unknown. I imagine that John was a pious and enthusiastic young man, attracted, like many were, by the stories of monasticism, especially Egyptian monasticism, that circulated in his native Scythia. Justo Gonzalez says that there were, at one time, more than 20,000 people living as monks and nuns in one region of the Egyptian desert alone. Many of the people who showed up at the monasteries, hoping to live as desert ascetics, needed to be baptized first, since the allure of monasticism was so powerful that even pagans were drawn to it. But John and Germanus went to Bethlehem before they went to Egypt. They lived there for five years, sharing a cell and a life of prayer and devotion. It was there that they met a fugitive abbot from Egypt, one Pinufius, who had fled from the administrative tasks of his position. Still, he must have spoken in glowing terms about life in the desert. When his fellow monks showed up to take him back to Egypt (and it’s hard not to imagine this as a comic scene), he left John and Germanus in a state of eagerness to follow.
John and Germanus were very popular in Bethlehem. Their fellow monks made them promise to return there after they’d gone to Egypt, and they did, but only for a short visit after seven years. And when they had fulfilled this obligation, they scooted right back to the Egyptian desert. What made life in the desert so attractive to so many people? To begin with, this was an uncertain time for the Roman Empire. Visigothic invasions were rendering things unstable. And the establishment of Christianity as the state religion was changing the daily practices of Christians and leading people to seek power in a way that was far removed from the apostolic ideal. The monks represented a purity movement. They were pioneers at the far reaches of habitable land, and pioneers in the far reaches of the soul.
They lived either as hermits or in communities. If hermits, they lived by themselves, although within walking distance of other hermits, whom they would gather together with on Sundays for church. They cultivated small patches of land and wove baskets, singing psalms and reciting scripture as they worked. They ate mostly bread, owned almost nothing, and slept on rough mats, which John Cassian found sufficiently comfortable. If the monks lived in communities, they lived in walled enclosures that were divided into many small buildings, which included a church, a meeting hall, a storehouse, and a refectory. Everyone shared in performing even the humblest tasks, and they prayed ceaselessly as they did so. Whether they lived as hermits or in communities, most of the desert monks were illiterate. This meant that the scripture they learned was memorized and spoken aloud with great frequency, so that others could memorize it.
John Cassian was not illiterate. He was fluent in two languages, Latin and Greek. And as he went among the desert fathers, he recorded their sayings. It’s because of him that we know so much about their spirituality. Its clear from the discussions that he and Germanus had with the monks that the men and women who lived in the desert were seeking purity of heart above all else. Abbot Moses puts it best. The ultimate goal of a Christian is to live within the Kingdom of God. But human beings need more concrete, less idealistic goals to aim for in our everyday lives. The metaphor that Moses uses is that of an archer. If one wants to learn marksmanship, it doesn’t do any good to shoot arrows into the blank sky. One needs to shoot at a target that is visible. Purity of heart, for the monks and nuns, was the visible target. We might find this to be a fairly idealistic goal in itself, but the desert fathers and mothers lived in a way that made it attainable to them.
At least some of the time. Because they were isolated and largely illiterate, they weren’t always aware of what was going on in the wider world of Christianity. Ideas that the church councils had rejected still drifted among them, and gained traction. And because the monks lived in a way that was considered more holy than the sophisticated, city dwelling Christians’ say of life, they couldn’t understand why decisions made by those urban Christian councils should trump their own understanding of orthodox faith. In 399 A.D., the theological divisions between the monks and the bishops exploded, and monks who held Origenist views were driven out of Egypt. Origenists believed in the pre-existence of the soul and that Christ would restore everything when he came again, rescuing even those parts of creation that had been proven to be evil. John and Germanus apparently sympathized with this point of view, or were at least disheartened to see the persecution of the monks, because they left Egypt in that year and went to Constantinople to seek refuge from John Chrysostom.
But John Chrysostom had problems of his own. He was in a life and death struggle with the Imperial family, and although he paused in his struggles to ordain John as a deacon, it wasn’t long before he was exiled and sent on the enforced march that took his life. But before Chrysostom died in his own wilderness he sent John and Germanus to plead his case before the Bishop of Rome. They never went back. In fact, at this moment Germanus disappears from John Cassian’s life. We don’t know if he died or if they simply parted ways. The next eleven years of John’s biography are a blank. John, the most private and reticent of men, didn’t return to the attention of other people until 415 A.D., when he went to Massilia (present day Marseilles) to found a monastery of his own. It was there, during the next ten years, that he wrote the two books that he is famous for. The first was The Institutes, which create a rule of life for his monks to live by. The second was The Conferences, which recorded his conversations with the desert fathers so long ago.
Why was John so shy of talking about himself? It puzzles historians, who look to the example of Augustine and sigh, wishing that John had been more like him. But John wasn’t just self-effacing. He may have been wounded by the Origenist controversy, and hurt by what happened to John Chrysostom. Seeing the end effects of the church’s political and theological disputes may have convinced him to stay out of them. Still, I think there’s more to it than that. If John truly believed what he reported in The Conferences, then what was the merit of his going into details of his life? He didn’t want to do anything for human glory, or lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume. He was seeking purity of heart, with the ultimate goal of living within the Kingdom of God. When he was convinced to enter into a controversy, by writing a series of tracts that were opposed to the Nestorians, he failed miserably. It’s hard to imagine that he had much enthusiasm for the task. He was content to live at Massilia with his monks, and the rule of life that they established there had more influence than any theological argument he ever made in a public dispute. Saint Benedict would read his Institutes a hundred years later, and use them as the basis for creating the Benedictine rule.
Cassian, John, Colm Luibhéid, and Eugène Pichery. Conferences. New York: Paulist, 1985. Print.
González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.
Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.