The Conferences – John Cassian
Book Review by Robert J. Hesse, Ph.D.
BACKGROUND – The Conferences was written by John Cassian over 25 years after he was in 3 Egyptian desert locations with his companion Germanus, both ordained priests. Written in 426-429 AD in Latin when he was in his 60’s it was translated into English surprisingly only in 1997. At over 800 pages it is the longest work of Christian antiquity. It chronicles conversations, or interviews, he had with 15 historical figures called “desert fathers” or “abbas” of the church who went with their communities into the desert to give up everything and pray continuously. Together with its lesser sister work by Cassian, The Institutes, it forms the basis of the Christian monastic tradition.
INFLUENCE – The Egyptian fathers and mothers were the first monastics of Christianity. And because Cassian was the main chronicler of that movement, this work became the basis of monastic tradition. Though he was influenced by Origen (c.185-c.253) most influence was by Cassian on later writers. As contemporaries, St. Augustine (354-430) and Cassian (c.360-430) were familiar with each other; without mentioning him by name Cassian alluded to Augustine’s teachings on grace (Cf. 13) and lying (Cf. 17). St. Benedict (480-c.547) prescribed the reading of the Conferences to his monks; it formed the basis of The Rule of Benedict which became the road map for all subsequent monastic communities even up until today. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) cites the work more than a dozen times in his Summa Theologiae. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing (c.1300’s) and John of the Cross (1542-1591) were familiar with the work.
THEME – The fundamental theme is “obtaining purity of heart through the exercise of discretion [conscience], all for the sake of preparing oneself for the kingdom of heaven.” Since Cassian was more of a psychologist than a theologian he develops the theme by examining the inner workings of the human mind.
ORGANIZATION – The work consists of 24 conferences divided into 3 parts containing 10, 7, and 7 conferences respectively. The 1st takes place in Skete, the 2nd near Thennesus, and the 3rd near Diolcos; all 3 locations were near Alexandria. The 2nd and 3rd parts were written first and the 1st part last. Conferences of odd numbers deal with purity of heart, the goal of a monk, while those of even numbers deal with discretion, the choosing between opposing vices. Numerous scriptural references are contained throughout. In brief summary the more important conferences deal with: Cf.1 the monk’s end, the Kingdom of Heaven, Cf.2 daily moderation, Cf.3 three forms of conversion, Cf.4 three sources of human thought, Cf.7 mental wonderings, Cf. & Cf.10 prayer, Cf.13 human freedom and divine grace, Cf.16 friendship, Cf.17 lying.
CONSCIOUSNESS – The most psychologically interesting are Cf.9 & Cf.10 on prayer, which give the best insight into Christian consciousness. Cassian used the term “discretion” for conscience to determine right from wrong. He also discusses discursive prayer. But his most interesting treatment is on silent prayer and how to deal with thoughts. He recommends a “formula” of continually repeating a short phrase or an inward gaze to express our desire to be with God until the mind “renounces and rejects the whole wealth and abundance of thoughts.” He says “the soul then pours out to God wordless prayers of the purest vigor. . . . that they . . . cannot pass through the mouth . . . are unable even to be remembered by the mind later on.” Then the mind can be “called forth in an unspeakable ecstasy of heart . . . having transcended all feelings and visible matter . . .” The word ecstasy comes from the Greek ”ekstasis” meaning transcendent or out of body experience. He says this experience is “known by very few” and is such that the mind is aware of it but not by words “producing more in that very brief moment than the self conscious mind is able to articulate easily or to reflect upon.” He interprets Mat. 6:5-8 “we withdraw our hearts completely from the clatter of every thought and concern and disclose our prayers to the Lord in secret . . . we pray in total silence . . . to the searcher not of voices but of hearts.”