Cassian (continued), Book IV

ibid. chap.31) After a little while the desire for lowliness arose in him once more, and in the silence of the night he fled not just to a neighbouring province but to lands completely unknown to him. He took ship intending to settle here in Palestine, believing that he would be more securely hidden if he went to places where even his name had never been heard of. When he got here he came to our monastery, quite near the cave in which our Lord was born of the Virgin. He was able to conceal himself here for a while, but like 'a city set on a hill', in the Lord's words (Matthew 5.14), he could not stay hidden for long, for there were always brothers coming from Egypt to pray at the holy places. He was recognised, and with many prayers they brought him back unwillingly to his own coenobium again.

Chapter 31 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.4, chap.32)
A valuable exhortation to a novice monk

Mindful of the friendly association we had had with this man in our own monastery we sought him out in Egypt later on. It so happened that while we were there he received a brother into the monastery, and we heard him give a marvellous exhortation, which I have a mind to include in this little work. This is what he said:
You know, my son, how many days you lay outside before being received inside today. First of all you must understand why you have been put to all that difficulty. For it may teach you a great deal about this life that you wish to enter upon, if, knowing the reason for it, you give yourself to the service of Christ as you ought.
Now just as there is an inestimable glory in the future promised to the servants of God who follow together the requirements of this rule, so also there is terrible punishment prepared for those who observe it but tepidly or negligently. By failing to bring forth the fruits of holiness they have not lived up to what they have promised, or to what people believed them to be. 'Better never to have vowed at all than vow and not fulfil it' (
Ecclesiastes 5.5), and ' Cursed be he who carries out the work of God carelessly' (Jeremiah 48.10). This is why we refused you for such a long time. It is not that we do not desire your salvation, and that of all people, to be embraced with a whole heart. But we would not wish to receive you without due consideration, lest we should be found guilty of levity in God's eyes. And you would be liable to an even greater condemnation, if having been once accepted without being made aware of the great responsibility of your profession, you subsequently were to abandon it, or even just live it half-heartedly.
ibid. chap.34) Know then as from today, you are dead to the world and all its deeds. As the Apostle says, 'you are crucified to the world, and the world is crucified to you (Galatians 6.14). How can a living person be crucified? Take this brief explanation to heart.
(ibid. chap.35) Our cross is the fear of God. Anyone on the cross is unable by an act of will to move or turn his limbs; we also ought to govern our own wills and desires in such a way that they are bound by the precepts of the Lord, and not by what takes our fancy in the present moment. Someone fixed to the gibbet of the cross is no longer concerned with the present, nor does he worry about what he might like or not like. He is no longer agitated by worry about material possessions, for even though there is still breath in his body he knows himself to be dead to all earthly things. Likewise, in the fear of the Lord we should be crucified to all the vices of the flesh and keep the eyes of our mind firmly fixed on the destination whither we expect to travel at any moment.
ibid. chap.36) We must always beware lest we take back for ourselves anything which we have formerly renounced. It is not in the beginning of anything that salvation lies, but in the persevering right to the end.
ibid. chap.37) The wily devil is forever observing our footsteps, hoping to worm his way into our dying moments - another reason for a good beginning being of no value unless it is carried through to the end.
ibid. chap.38) So then, in accordance with Scripture, once you have begun to serve the Lord, stand in the fear of the Lord, and prepare your soul not for rest, nor for delights, but for temptations and narrow ways (Ecclesiasticus 2.1). It is through great tribulations that we must enter into the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14.22), for narrow is the way and strait the gate that leads to life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7.14)
ibid. chap.39) The beginning of our salvation is the fear of the Lord, by means of which from the outset of our conversion we begin to cultivate the virtues. Once the fear of the Lord has penetrated the human mind it gives birth to contempt for all things, and generates revulsion from the world. By being deprived of all possessions and holding them as worthless, true humility is acquired. Humility is recognised as being present by the following signs:
Firstly, if a monk has put to death all his own self-will.
Secondly, if he does not conceal his deeds or thoughts from his senior.
Thirdly, if he puts his trust not in his own discretion, but in the judgment of his superior.
Fourthly, if he accepts every command with untroubled obedience and unwearying patience.
Fifthly, if he does no harm to anyone but patiently bears all injuries to himself.
Sixthly, if he never does anything contrary to the provisions of the rule.
Seventhly, if in all the tasks he is given he judges himself as a bad and unprofitable servant.
Eighthly, if he reckons himself to be inferior to all.
Ninthly, if he guards his tongue, and does not speak loudly.
Tenthly, if he is not easily moved to laughter.
By these signs, true humility may be discerned.
ibid. chap.41) Another thing which must be observed in the congregation is that as the Psalmist said, you must 'be deaf and do not hear, be dumb and open not your mouth' (Psalms 38.13), and do not quibble or be judgmental about anything you are told to do.
ibid.chap.42) Don't think you have acquired the virtue of patience because other people are virtuous, imagining that you have gained it simply because nobody irritates you.
ibid. chap.43) The beginning of salvation is the fear of the Lord (as we have said). From the fear of the Lord is born a saving compunction, from compunction of heart proceeds nakedness and contempt for possessions, from nakedness proceeds humility, from humility comes mortification of the will, by mortification of the will all vices are eradicated, when vices are expelled virtues bear fruit and increase, in the growth of virtue purity of heart is acquired, in purity of heart the perfection of apostolic charity may be possessed.

Chapter 32 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.24)
The monk who offered refreshment to pilgrims
before the proper hour

(cf. V.xiii.2) When we came out of the land of Syria into the province of Egypt, there was a trustworthy old monk who welcomed us gladly and prepared food for us before the time of fasting was completed.
"Why are you offering us food before the canonical meal time?" we asked.
"I can always fast, brothers," he replied, "but I am about to see you on your way, and I can't keep you with me until the canonical mealtime. If I am welcoming Christ in you, then I must offer you refreshment. And when I have seen you on your way I can make up for it by a stricter fast. 'The children of the bridegroom cannot fast while the bridegroom is still with them' (
Luke 5.34). 'When he is gone, then you may fast' (Matthew 9.15).

Chapter 33 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.26)
A monk whose custom was never to eat alone

We saw another solitary who never ate when alone. Even if none of the brothers came to his cell for up to five days he put off eating, preferring to fast until the offering of the congregation in church on the Saturday and Sunday, when he would find some stranger and take him back to his cell, and together they would take food. 

Chapter 34 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.29)
The monk Machetes

We saw another solitary, Machetes by name, who had been given this gift from the Lord: that he never dozed off during a spiritual conference, even if it went on all night and all day. But if anyone began to speak spitefully or frivolously, then he would go to sleep.
Ibid. chap.32) This same man once had a big bundle of letters delivered to him, some from his father and mother, others from his many friends in the province of Pontus. He pondered about them for some time.
"What thoughts," he said at last, "will go through my mind in reading these? They will either send me into transports of joy, or fruitless sadness. How much longer will these letter writers try to draw my heart away from the contemplation which I have set myself to achieve?"
And turning these thoughts over in his heart he decided not to break the seal of the letters, not even to open the bundle, lest he should be distracted from what he had set his heart on by bringing to mind the names of those who had written to him or imagining what they looked like. So with the packaging unbroken just as he had received it he threw it into the fire.
"Get you gone!" he cried. "Burn in the fire, all you thoughts of my native land, lest you try to call me back to what it is that I have fled from!"

Chapter 35 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.33)
Abba Theodore

We also saw abba Theodore, famous for his sanctity and his learning, not only in respect of his actual way of life but also for his knowledge of Scripture, which he had gained not so much by studious reading as simply from his purity of heart. For when he was seeking the answer to some obscure question he persisted seven days and nights in untiring prayer, until he was assured that the Lord had revealed to him the solution to the problem he was addressing.
ibid. chap.35) This same Theodore once came unexpectedly and privately to my cell at the dead of night, seeking out with paternal curiosity how I might be getting on, new to the hermit life as I then was. I had just finished saying vespers, and was preparing to refresh my weary body by taking it to bed, when he fetched a sigh from the bottom of his heart and addressed me by name.
"John," he said, "How many people are conversing with God and enfolding him into themselves, and you are depriving yourself of this chance of illumination, wrapped in senseless sleep?"
Thus encouraged, I was inspired from that time on to give myself to vigils for the salvation of my soul.

Chapter 36 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.36)
The anchorites living in the empty spaces
of the desert

After leaving the monasteries of Palestine we visited a town in Egypt called Diolcos, where we saw a great number of men subject to the discipline of the coenobium, and also another group, the anchorites, who are held to be of a higher degree. Everybody spoke so highly of them that our hearts were burning in our haste to visit them. They had all been trained first of all under the discipline of a rule in the monasteries, before going out to the secret depths of the desert to join the most severe sort of battle with the demons. We found that those who were living this sort of life had the river Nile on one side, and the vast expanses of ocean on the other, making a sort of island. No other people except monks seeking hiddenness would want to go there, as the land is most unsuitable for cultivation because the soil is so salty and the sands are sterile. We eagerly hurried towards them, and were astonished above measure at the hard work they put up with in these solitudes. Their water supplies are so restricted that the effort they put into obtaining it could not be equalled even by someone making the most precious of wines. For they have to carry it from the river Nile three miles away for all their needs. And that is doubly difficult because of the mountains in between.

Chapter 37 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.37)
The monk Archebius

As we looked at them, filled with a burning desire to imitate them, one of the very experienced hermits, Archebius by name, hospitably invited us to his cell. When he was given to understand that we wished to stay there, he pretended that he was wanting to leave that particular spot and offered us his cell as if he were on the point of going elsewhere anyway. He said that he had been going to do that even if we had not come. So we took possession of his cell and all its contents. He went away for a few days to gather materials for making a new cell. When he returned he laboriously built himself another cell. And not long afterwards with the greatest charity he handed this one over, with everything that was in it, to some other brothers who had arrived. His tireless devotion to the work of charity led to his building a third cell to live in.

Chapter 38 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.5, chap.40)
Two youths who die on a journey to take figs
to a sick man

There was a brother who sent some figs from Mareotis to abba John in the desert of Scete. He promptly asked two of the young men to take them on to a certain old man who was suffering from ill health in the inner desert. This solitary lived eighteen miles from the church. The young men took the fruit, and as they were on the way to the old man they were suddenly enveloped in a thick fog and lost sight of the right path. They wandered about all day and all night in the trackless desert but could not find the sick man 's cell. Wearied by the journey and overcome with hunger and thirst they fell to the ground on their knees, and as they were praying they gave up their spirit to God. Footprints in these sandy places remain visible as if impressed in snow, until such time as even the lightest of breezes covers them over with a thin coating of sand. Nevertheless after a long search following their footprints, they were found kneeling as if in prayer still carrying, untouched, the figs which they had been given. They had chosen to lose their lives rather than betray the faith which had been placed in them, for they would not presume to touch any food without the sanction of the abbot. They preferred to leave this mortal life rather than disobey the superior's orders.

Chapter 39 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.10, chap.22)
The burden of work among the Egyptian monks

Throughout the whole of Egypt the monks are not allowed to be idle, but they earn their bread by manual work. Their labour provides food not only for pilgrims and visiting brothers but also in several places in Libya suffering from famine. They also take substantial supplies to those in prison or in chains in various cities, believing that by such an offering of the fruit of their hands they offer themselves as an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord.
ibid. chap.23) There is a saying that a monk who works is plagued by one demon, but the lazy monk is destroyed by demons without number

Chapter 40 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.10, chap.24)
Abba Paulus

Abba Paulus, one of the most respected fathers, lived in the vast Porphyrium desert, where he lived on dates and the produce of a small garden. There were no opportunities for him to earn a living from any other type of manual work, for he lived more than seven days' journey into the desert from any human habitation. But he did not want the movement of time to slip idly by, so he regularly collected each day the amount of palm leaves he would need if his livelihood depended on it. At the end of a year his cave would be full of the work he had done. But there was no one who would be able to take it away, nor did he wish to be idle, so he made a bonfire of it each year, demonstrating dramatically that without manual work a monk cannot survive anywhere, nor can he come anywhere near to the peak of perfection.

Chapter 41 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.12, chap.20)
The blasphemous brother who burned with an unbearable fire of lust

I knew another brother who went to a most respected old man to confess that he was being gravely tempted to sins of the flesh and was burning with an unbearable fire of lust. The old man, like the spiritual doctor he was, immediately saw the origin and inner cause of this sickness.
"The Lord," he said, sighing deeply, "would by no means have delivered you into the hands of such a wicked spirit unless in some way you had blasphemed against him."
Hearing this, the brother was awe-struck, fell at the old man's feet and confessed that indeed he had wickedly blasphemed in thought against the Son of God. Whence it is clear that anyone who is an habitual blasphemer is insulting the Lord, and is therefore deprived of the possibility of becoming perfect, for he cannot deserve the sanctifying grace to become chaste.

Chapter 42 (Cassian, Conference 2, chap.2)
A number of seniors gather round the holy
Antony for mutual encouragement

On one occasion a number of the seniors went to the blessed Antony in the Thebaid to confer together in the search for perfection. They continued talking from vespers until daylight, the question of discretion taking up the greater part of the night. The question which they discussed at such length among themselves was: Which virtue or monastic observance could keep a monk unharmed from the attacks of the devil, and surely carry him by assured means on the right path to God? Each one gave his own opinion as to what he thought best. Some said the practice of fasting and vigils, others nakedness and contempt of worldly possessions, others a withdrawn life into the hidden parts of the desert, quite a few put the quest for charity first, which they defined as service to humanity consisting of the pious practice of giving hospitality to brothers and strangers. After spending the greater part of the night in devout discussion of this nature, the blessed Antony at last replied to them all.

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