The Communion of Saints: St. John Cassian

St_John_Cassian_the_Roman_ca_1800Finally! After a ton of crazy Egyptian monk names, we finally have someone who’s name we can pronounce with St. John Cassian! However, St. John isn’t just important because of his pronounceable name – he serves as the link between the East and the West. All these monks had been in Egypt, and maybe a few in Palestine or Syria, but St. John Cassian was the first to bring these practices to Europe in a concrete way.

St. John Cassian was born around 360 in the area now shared by Bulgaria and Romania. His parents were very wealthy, and they used this wealth to give him a top-notch education. St. John grew up learning the works of Cicero, and spoke both Latin and Greek.

While he was still a young man, he and his friends took a road trip of sorts to Palestine. While most teens and young adults would spend their road trip doing…other things…St. John and his friends stayed in a monastery near Bethlehem to study and pray. The monastery where they stayed was set up by one of the desert monks, and St. John Cassian loved the experience so much that he wanted to learn from the horse’s mouth. He and his friends travelled to Egypt and spent fifteen years learning from the monks.

Struggles in the Church in Egypt drove St. John Cassian and his brothers to flee to Constantinople, where they sought the protection and support of the famous Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom. And of course, as soon as they got there, St. John Chrysostom himself was exiled as well! Cassian chose to go to Rome, where he met with Pope Innocent I.

While he was in Rome, he received an invitation to begin a monastic community following the style of our old pal St. Pachomius in what is now Marseilles, France. He founded the Abbey of St. Victor in 415 to hold communities of both men and women who spent their lives following the style of prayer and simplicity that St. John Cassian had learned from the Egyptian monks. Today, we wouldn’t really think too much of that – there are thousands and thousands of monasteries throughout Europe and around the world, and some even in St. Louis! At the time, however, the ideas of a monastery and following a life of simplicity were brand new concepts to the Western World!

St. John Cassian died around 435, and was buried in his community. The Abbey of St. Victor was still active as a monastery until the 1700’s, and can be visited today in Marseilles as a museum.

Well, there you go! The ideas of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers finally made it to Europe. But it was all just the beginning!

The Communion of Saints: St. Pachomius the Great

Cretan Icon of St. Pachomius the Great from the 16th Century
Cretan Icon of St. Pachomius the Great from the 16th Century

For a while now, we’ve been learning about individual monks and their way of life, and it’s easy to compare it to things that we already know today.  Usually today, we think of monks as being members of religious orders like Benedictines, Franciscans, Precious Blood Sisters, or otherwise.  But in the time of the Desert Fathers, things were still very much in their infancy.

There were monasteries built in those times, but not as we would think of them now.  Mostly, the monks lived solitary lives as hermits, but they would gather together once in a while to seek counsel or to pray.  Some of the older monks or those who were physically unable to live the extreme lifestyle in the desert would stay at the monastery and live in the rooms there.

One great Desert Father changed all of this – St. Pachomius the Great.  He was born in Thebes in Egypt around 292 to a pagan family.  In his teens, Pachomius was forced into service in the Roman army, and was put on a ship to be sent down the Nile for training.  It was there that he first experienced Christians.  They reached out to the troops, giving them food, water, comfort and prayers.  This had a lasting impression on him, and when he was able to leave the army, he immediately sought out the Church to be baptized.

As a new Christian, Pachomius came into contact with the hermits of the desert, and sought to pursue that path for his own life.  He studied and imitated the life of Christ the best he could, and also the life of St. Anthony of the Desert.  But after living as a hermit for a few years, he felt called to something different.

St. Pachomius liked the idea of having monasteries as St. Macarius had set them up, but he added a different spin to them.  He is credited with founding cenobitic monasticism, which is similar to our approach to religious life today.  Rather than living by themselves, the monks lived in community, sharing their resources and property, praying together, and promising obedience to their abbot or abbess.  (“Abbot” sounds a lot like “abba”, am I right?)  These monks didn’t train to become priests, despite some encouragement by others to do so, but they lived in communal religious life together.

St. Pachomius served as the abbot of his community for 40 years before dying around 348.  By the time of his death, there were eight monasteries under his care, each holding hundreds of monks.  His life and leadership attracted a lot of attention from other influential figures of the time.  St. Athanasius and St. Basil, two Doctors of the Church, took St. Pachomius’ model and brought it back with them to their own homes.  Eventually, cenobitic monasticism spread to Palestine, Syria, and eventually, Western Europe.

We’ll soon see what an impact this had on the world!  St. Pachomius the Great, pray for us!