St John Cassian: Do Your Souls Shine and Bear Christ the King?

Feast of St Euphrosynos the Cook

Cassian_Square.jpgTHE HISTORY of the Old Testament relates that the most wise Solomon—after he had received from God “exceedingly great wisdom and prudence and a breadth of heart like the countless sands of the sea” (1 Kgs. 5.9), such that by the Lord’s testimony it is said that no one was like him in times past and that no one like him would ever arise in the future (cf. 1 Kgs. 3.12)—wished to build that magnificent temple for the Lord and that he requested the help of the king of Tyre, a foreigner. When Hiram, the son of a widow had been sent to him (1 Kgs. 7.13-14), he undertook whatever splendid thing the divine wisdom suggested to him with respect to the Lord’s temple and the sacred vessels, and thanks to his assistance and oversight he brought it to completion.

If, therefore, the princedom that was loftier than all the kingdoms of the earth, and the noble and excellent scion of the Israelite race, and the divinely inspired wisdom that surpassed the skills and institutes of all the people of the East and all the Egyptians (cf. 1 Kgs. 5.10) by no means disdained the advice of a poor foreigner, rightly also do you, most blessed Pope Castor, instructed by these examples, deign to summon me in my utter want and poverty to collaborate in your great work. You are setting out to construct a true and spiritual temple for God not out of unfeeling stones but out of a community of holy men (cf. 1 Pet. 2.5), one that is not temporal and corruptible but eternal and impregnable; and you also desire to consecrate very precious vessels to the Lord, not forged out of the dumb metal of gold or silver and afterwards captured by the Babylonian king and set apart for the pleasure of his concubines and princes (cf. Dan. 5.2) but out of holy souls that shine in the fullness of innocence, righteousness, and chastity and that bear within themselves the indwelling Christ the king. Since your wish is to establish in your own province, which lacks such things, the institutes of the Eastern and especially of the Egyptian cenobia, inasmuch as you yourself are accomplished in every virtue and in knowledge and are so laden with all spiritual riches that not only your speech but your very life is a sufficient and abundant example to those who seek perfection, you request and demand that I too, rude and wanting in word and knowledge, contribute something from my poor intelligence to the accomplishment of your desire and lay out in order, however inexpertly, the institutes of the monasteries that we have seen observed throughout Egypt and Palestine, such as they were handed down to us there by our fathers. In this you are not looking for a pleasing style, with which you yourself are particularly gifted; rather, you are concerned that the simple life of holy men be explained in simple language to the brothers in your new monastery. 

Even though the devout ardor of your desire spurs me on to cooperate in this undertaking, there are still numerous difficulties and obstacles that hinder me from complying, however willing I may be. First, my native talents are not such as to make me confident that I could, in spirit and mind, grasp as befits them matters that are at once so complex, so obscure and so holy. [. . .] You may add to this the fact that men of outstanding character, endowed with speech and knowledge, have already produced many works on this topic; I refer to the holy Basil, to Jerome, and to several others. The former of these, when asked by the brothers about different institutes and questions, responded with testimony from Holy Scripture in language not only eloquent but abundant, whereas the latter not only wrote books springing from his own genius but even made translations from Greek into Latin. Coming after these men’s overflowing rivers of eloquence, I would not unjustifiably be considered presumptuous for trying to produce a few drops of water were I not spurred on by my confidence in your holiness and by the assurance that these trifles, such as they are, will be acceptable to you and that you will forward them to the community of brothers who live in your new monastery. If perchance we have said something carelessly, let them reread it attentively and put up with it indulgently, being on the lookout rather for the truth of my words than for attractive language. 

Hence, most blessed pope, unparalleled model of devotion and humility, having been encouraged by your prayers, I shall undertake to the best of my ability the work that you enjoin.

—St John Cassian, The Institutes


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