St John Cassian: Does Your Clothing Nurture the Seeds of Vanity or Pride?

Feast of St Eutyches the Hieromartyr & Disciple of St John the Theologian

Cassian_square_3.jpegAS WE START to speak of the institutes and rules of monasteries, where could we better begin, with God’s help, than with the very garb of the monks? After having exposed their outward appearance to view we shall then be able to discuss, in logical sequence, their inner worship. And so, it is proper for a monk always to dress like a soldier of Christ, ever ready for battle, his loins girded.

For the authority of Holy Scripture makes it clear that those who in the Old Testament were responsible for the beginning of this profession—namely, Elijah and Elisha—went about dressed in this way. And we know that thereafter the leaders and authors of the New Testament—namely, John, Peter, and Paul and other men of the same caliber—behaved likewise. When the first of these, who already in the Old Testament manifested the flower of virginity and examples of chastity and continence, was sent by the Lord to remonstrate with the messengers of Ahaziah, the sacrilegious king of Israel, because when he was sick he sent them to consult Baal-Zebub, god of Ekron, about the state of his health, and the prophet met them and said that he would never get out of the bed in which he was wasting away, the smitten king realized who he was as soon as he learned how he was dressed. For when the messengers returned to him and informed him of the prophet’s words, he asked them about the appearance and clothing of the man who had met them and spoken like that, and they replied: “He was a hairy man, and his loins were girt with a leather belt.” From his clothing the king at once pictured the man of God, and he said: “It was Elijah the Tishbite.” He clearly recognized the man of God by his belt and by the hairy and unkempt aspect of his body because, among so many thousands of Israelites, this particular style was always associated with him; it was as it were a kind of trademark of his.

The evangelist also says as follows about John, who served as a sort of sacred boundary between the Old and New Testaments and who was an end and a beginning: “This John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt around his loins.” Likewise, when Peter was thrust into prison by Herod and was going to be put to death the following day, he was ordered by an angel who stood by: “Put on your belt and sandals.” The angel of the Lord would certainly not have admonished him to do this if he had not seen that he had freed his weary members for a short while of the accustomed constraint of his belt in order to get a night’s rest. […]

In addition, the monk’s garment should only be such that it covers the body, countering the shame of nakedness, and prevents the cold from doing harm, not such that it nurtures seeds of vanity or pride. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “Having food and covering, let them be satisfied with these.” He says “covering” and not “vesture,” which some Latin editions say incorrectly. This means only what may cover the body, not what may flatter it by its splendid style. Thus it should be commonplace, so as to be indistinguishable in terms of novelty of color and cut from what is worn by other men of this chosen orientation; in no respect should it be self-consciously meticulous, but neither, on the other hand, should it be grimy with filth accumulated by neglect; finally, it should be different from the apparel of this world in that it is kept completely in common for the use of the servants of God. For whatever is owned by one or a few within the household of God and is not owned universally by the whole body of the brotherhood is superfluous and overweening and hence must be judged harmful and a token of vanity rather than a display of virtue. Therefore, examples that we see have been handed down neither by the holy ones of old, who laid the foundations of this profession, nor by the fathers of our own time, who are in their turn maintaining their institutes even to the present, it behooves us also to cut off as superfluous and valueless. Hence they utterly rejected sackcloth as showy and conspicuous to everyone and for that very reason as not only being unable to confer any benefits on the spirit but even as containing the possibility of begetting a vain pride, besides being unsuited for and inappropriate to the exercise of the necessary work for which a monk must be ever ready and unhindered.

Still, even if we have heard that some upright persons have dressed in this piece of clothing, it is not for us to establish a rule for the monasteries or to overturn the ancient decrees of the holy fathers because a few persons, presuming on the privilege of other virtues, are held to be blameless even when they have acted arbitrarily and not in keeping with the Catholic rule. For the opinion of a few must not be preferred to nor must it prejudice the common practice of all. For we ought in every respect to bestow an unshakable faith and an unquestioning obedience not on those institutes and rules that were introduced at the wish of a few but on those that were long ago passed on to later ages by innumerable holy fathers acting in accord.

—St John Cassian, The Institutes

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