John Cassian, born in 4th century Romania, traveled throughout Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Italy and eventually settled in France, where he founded several monasteries. Along the way he learned much from the teachings and examples of the Desert Fathers. While he regarded with humility his debt to these spiritual giants, he was ever seeking to interpret their high ideals into a practical way of life that could be followed successfully. As a western Christian with long experience in the East, he became a primary communicator of the new Monastic movement (which started in the African Desert) to the Christian communities of Europe. He is an ethical guide of rare quality, guarding against excesses and ever pointing us back to the original message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his book Conferences, he records some teachings of an African man named Chaeremon, who was over 100 years old. Here is a selection from those instructions.
“There is a great difference between the one who extinguishes the fires of sin out of fear of hell or hope of future reward and the one who, moved by the love of God, turns in horror from evil and uncleanliness. He holds Purity as good because he loves and longs for chastity. He does not look to the reward promised for the future. Rather, he has the pleasurable sense of a present good and all his activities spring not from a consideration of punishment but out of his delight in virtue…. There will be forever the Love which never fails…. And anyone whose charity makes him to be an image and likeness of God will delight in the good because of the pleasure he takes in what is good and with equal love he will embrace patience and gentleness.”
“The failures of sinners will no longer enrage him. Rather, he will beg pardon for their weaknesses and out of sympathy he will plead for them. He remembers how long he too was besieged by the promptings of similar passions until the day when he was saved by the Lord’s pity. It was not by his own efforts but rather by God’s protectiveness that he was saved from the temptation of the flesh, and so he understands that it is mercy, not anger, which must be shown to those gone astray. And in all peace of heart he sings to the Lord the little verses ‘You have broken my chains and I will offer you a sacrifice of praise’ (Ps. 115:16-17), and ‘Had it not been for the Lord’s help my soul would soon have been dwelling in hell’ (Ps. 93:17).”
“A very clear proof of the fact that a soul has not yet cut loose from the corruption of sin, is when it feels no sympathizing pity for the wrongdoing of others, but holds instead to the strict censoriousness of a judge. For how could someone attain perfection of heart if he does not possess what the apostle described as the Law’s consummation when he said, ‘Carry one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2)? How can he do so if he does not possess that virtue of charity ‘which is not annoyed, is not boastful, which does not think evil, which endures everything and is a support for everything’ (I Cor. 13:4-7).”
We western Christians owe much to our African brothers in early Church history. Let us remember to honor their memory also on this “All Saints Day” along with the other saints of God that we are more familiar with.
May the peace of Christ be with you,