The Conferences of John Cassian

An invaluable resource on the Desert Tradition is John Cassian’s “Conferences”: or or or
“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.”
cassian conferences
“Conferences of John Cassian offer the modern Christian a glimpse into the lives of second and third century Christian monastics. It documents the thoughts of Christians who took Jesus’ instructions to take up our own cross, leave our family, and renounce our possessions literally. The Conferences of John Cassian is an early archetype of the monastic way of life where the theology of denying self is implemented in daily living. Cassian’s work was highly respected by his contemporaries, as well as those who went on to have enormous influence on the monastic movement. St. Benedict referenced Cassian’s work while writing The Rule of St. Benedict, which went on to be the rule of life for countless Benedictine monks.”
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“Saint John Cassian (c. 360 – 435), John the Ascetic, or John Cassian the Roman, was a Christian monk and theologian celebrated in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings. Cassian is noted for bringing the ideas and practices of Egyptian monasticism to the early medieval West. John Cassian was born around 360, most likely in the region of Scythia Minor (now Dobruja in modern-day Romania and Bulgaria), although some scholars assume a Gallic origin. The son of wealthy parents, he received a good education: his writings show the influence of Cicero and Persius. He was bilingual in Latin and Greek.

As a young adult he and an older friend, Germanus, traveled to Palestine, where they entered a hermitage near Bethlehem. After remaining in that community for about three years, they journeyed to the desert of Scete in Egypt, which was rent by Christian struggles. There they visited a number of monastic foundations.
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Approximately fifteen years later, about 399, Cassian and Germanus fled the Anthropomorphic controversy provoked by Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, with about 300 other Origenist monks. Cassian and Germanus went to Constantinople, where they appealed to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom, for protection.
cassian chrysostom
Cassian was ordained a deacon and was made a member of the clergy attached to the Patriarch while the struggles with the imperial family ensued. When the Patriarch was forced into exile from Constantinople in 404, the Latin-speaking Cassian was sent to Rome to plead his cause before Pope Innocent I.
While he was in Rome, Cassian accepted the invitation to found an Egyptian-style monastery in southern Gaul, near Marseilles. He may also have spent time as a priest in Antioch between 404 and 415. In any case, he arrived in Marseilles around 415. His foundation, the Abbey of St Victor, was a complex of monasteries for both men and women, one of the first such institutes in the West, and served as a model for later monastic development.
Cassian’s achievements and writings influenced St Benedict, who incorporated many of the principles into his monastic rule, and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict’s rule is still followed by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks, John Cassian’s thought still exercises influence over the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Latin Church.

Cassian died in the year 435 in Marseille.
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Around 420, at the request of Bishop Castor of Aptia Julia in Gallia Narbonensis, Cassian wrote two major spiritual works, the “De institutis coenobiorum” (Institutes) and the “Collationes patrum in scetica eremo” (Conferences). In these, he codified and transmitted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. The Institutions deal with the external organization of monastic communities, while the Conferences deal with “the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart.”

For more on Cassian and The Conferences, see:

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