St John Cassian: Do You Observe Simplicity and Innocence in the Character of Your Clothing?

Feast of the Holy Martyrs Adrian & Natalie

Cassian_Square.jpgTHERE ARE some other things in the garb of the Egyptians that pertain not so much to the well-being of the body as to the regulation of behavior, so that the observance of simplicity and innocence may be maintained even in the very character of their clothing. Thus, day and night they always wear small hoods that extend to the neck and the shoulders and that only cover the head. In this way they are reminded to hold constantly to the innocence and simplicity of small children even by imitating their dress itself. Those who have returned to their infancy repeat to Christ at every moment with warmth and vigor: “Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are my eyes lifted up. Neither have I walked in great things nor in marvels beyond me. If I thought not humbly but exalted my soul, like a weaned child upon its mother” (Ps. 131.1-2).

They also wear linen colobia [sleeveless or short-sleeved tunics] that barely reach the elbows and, for the rest, leave the hands free. The cutting off of their sleeves is to suggest that they have cut off the deeds and works of this world, and the wearing of linen clothing is to teach them that they have utterly died to a worldly way of life, that thus they may hear the Apostle addressing them daily: “Put to death your members that are on earth” (Col. 3.5). Their very dress proclaims this as well: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3.3). And: “I no longer life, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2.20). And: “The world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6.14).

They wear thin ropes, too, which are braided with a double thickness of wool. These the Greeks refer to as analaboi, but we may call them cinctures or strings or, to be correct, cords. They descend from the top of the neck, separate on either side of the neck, go around the folds at the armpits, and are tucked up on both sides, so that when they are tightened the garment’s fullness may be gathered close to the body. Thus their arms are freed, and they are unimpeded and ready for any activity as they strive wholeheartedly to fulfill the Apostle’s precept: “These hands have labored not only for me but also for those who are with me” (Acts 20.34). “Nor did we eat anyone’s bread for free, but we worked night and day in labor and weariness, lest we burden any of you” (2 Thes. 3.8). And: “If anyone does not wish to work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3.10).

After this they cover their necks and also their shoulders with a short cape, striving after both modest style and cheapness and economy. In this way they avoid the cost of coats and cloaks as well as any showiness. These are called mafortes in both our language and theirs.

The last pieces of their outfit are a goatskin, which is called a melotis or a pera, and a staff. These they carry in imitation of those who already in the Old Testament prefigured the thrust of this profession. Of them the Apostle says: “They went about in melotis and goatskin, needy, in distress, afflicted, the world unworthy of them, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and caverns of the earth” (Heb. 11.37-38). This garment of goatskin signifies that, once all the turbulence of their carnal passions has been put to death, they must abide in the most elevated virtue and no willfulness or wantonness of their youth and of former fickleness must remain in their bodies.

That the same men also carried a staff is taught by Elisha himself, who was one of them, when he spoke to his servant Gehazi and sent him to raise up the woman’s son: “Take my staff; run and go and place it on the boy’s face and he shall live” (2 Kgs. 4.29). The prophet would certainly not have given this to him to take if he were not accustomed to carry it about constantly in his hand. The carrying of it is, in a spiritual sense, a warning that they must never go out unarmed in the midst of the numerous barking dogs of the vices and the invisible beasts of the evil spirits, from which blessed David begs to be freed when he says: “Lord, do not deliver over to the beasts the soul of one who trusts in you” (Ps. 73.19 LXX). Rather, when they rush upon them they must beat them back by the sign of the cross and drive them far away, and when they rage against them they must destroy them by constantly recalling the Lord’s suffering and by imitating his dying.

—St John Cassian, The Institutes

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