Use and Application of the Institutes of Saint John Cassian
by V. Rev. Timothy Wilkinson
The Institutes of Saint John Cassian describes eight deadly vices and the appropriate remedy for each one. While emphasizing that our salvation is absolutely dependent upon the grace and mercy of God (p. 259 IX), the author explains how each of the vices (or passions) are related to one another as well as the relationship between the body and the spirit. Cassian addresses monks, but his analysis can also be applied (ever so carefully) to people living in the world.
The first vice described, gluttony, results in lasciviousness. Too much food makes the mind “stagger and sway” and robs it of purity and integrity (p. 120 VI). It leads to lust, anger, pride, avarice, and other sins (p. 123 XI.2) because “integrity of mind is closely connected with an empty stomach” (p. 122 IX). By fasting, a person can gain self-control and freedom from the subjection of the flesh (p. 124 XIII). Cassian sees fasting as the essential, first step in the spiritual life, because “it is impossible for a full stomach to undertake the struggles of the inner man…” (p. 124 XIII). Thus, fasting is not an end in itself, but a tool to be used to achieve self-control; a means of destroying the “impulses of the fleshly desires” (p. 126 XVI.1). Fasting consists of a reduction in both the quantity and quality of food. While no uniform rule of fasting can be easily kept (p. 119V.1), simple foods are preferred and satiety is to be avoided (p. 131 XXIII.1). Food is to be consumed quickly, at specified times, in the company of other people (never alone), and without particular enjoyment. The monk is to pursue the spiritual life if he were an athlete, using the “boxing gloves of fasting” to subdue his flesh (p. 128 XVIII).
The second passion is fornication which, because it is more difficult to overcome than other passions, is conquered only through strenuous effort. Bodily fasting, in and of itself, is inadequate to the task, and must be accompanied by persevering prayer, spiritual knowledge, a contrite spirit, toilsome manual labor (p. 153 I), and the guarding of one’s heart (p. 152 II). Based on Mathew 5:28 (“Whoever looks on a woman…”) Cassian explains how the passion of fornication operates. First, Satan puts a thought before us. We then have a choice, to either entertain and play with the thought, or to move it out of our minds. If we are “heedless” we assent to the evil thought and let into our being (p. 158-159 XIII1). At this point, according to the words of the Lord, the sin of fornication has occurred, whether or not it takes place in the physical plane. The only way to defeat fornication is through an athletic-like struggle for the grace of chastity (p. 156 VII.1).
Unlike the other passions, avarice, also called covetousness (p. 174 XI) – the love of money – is external to human nature. For example, while both anger and sadness can be expressed either properly or improperly, avarice has no positive manifestation (p. 169-170 I-IV). Shaped by a “corrupt and evil will,” it is the root of all evils (p. 171 V). While avarice starts with a small and seemingly innocent need for money, a monk who is “lax and lukewarm” of mind, will gradually fall into its snares (p. 171 VII). The person taken over by avarice justifies himself by claiming that he is saving money for his old age, or that he will give it away after enough has been accumulated (p. 172 VII.4; p. 177 XVI). However, he is never satisfied with his wealth and always desires more (p. 181 XXIV). One who has renounced the world (monks) must follow the example of the early Christians who placed all of their possessions at the feet of the apostles (177 XVII.1). The cure for avarice is to be “satisfied with the food and clothing that we have” and to “beware of acquiring anything that we had not possessed previously” (p. 183 XXIX, XXX). The prerequisites for both of these are patience and humility (184 XXXI).
The fourth passion is anger, which a monk must expunge if he is to attain wisdom, avoid dishonor, and attain perfection (p. 193 I, II; 195 V). Anger is not the fault of others (p. 193, II), and cannot be eliminated by the absence of people because “any vices [that we bring] into the desert that we have not attended to, they will not be abolished but will lie hidden in us” (p. 200 XVIII). Blaming others for our anger (200-201 XVI) obstructs the development of patience and makes perfection elusive. Attempts to justify anger on the basis of the “angry” God of the Old Testament demonstrate a “carnal and crass” understanding (p. 194 III). The verse, “Whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to judgment,” is invalid because, according to Cassian, the words “without cause” were later additions to the text (p. 203 XXI). Therefore, the only permissible form of anger is the anger one has for one’s owns sins and failings (p. 196 VII). The cure is that we not permit ourselves to become angry for any reason (p. 203 XXII), never pray when angry (204 XXII), practice watchfulness over our hearts (p. 196 V), and keep the remembrance of death always before us (p. 204 XXII).
The passion of sadness is a malady that harms prayer, stupefies the intellect, disrupts the brotherhood, and totally severs the vision of the divine. It devours the soul, which Cassian compares to a priestly vestment eaten by moths (p. 211 1, III). It also leads to despair and bitterness (p. 211 1; 212 IV). Sadness is related to the other passions, sometimes as a cause, and sometimes as an effect (p. 212 V). Its one beneficial form is when it results “from repentance for our sins” (p. 213 X). Sadness is to be cast out with the same fervor that expels fornication, avarice, and anger (p. 214 XII). Thoughts focused on the “promised blessedness” of God, rather than the injuries of life that might be inflicted, will help us avoid this “deadly despair” (p. 214 XII).
Acedia, the sixth passion, refers to “a wearied or anxious heart” (p. 219 I), with the effect of creating disdain, contempt, sloth, and immobility. It is the “demon of noonday,” that leads to listlessness, and the irrational confusion of mind (p. 220 II.3). Acedia is falsely relieved by eating and sleeping, but can only be truly cured through physical labor (p. 223 VII.I. 5; p. 228 XIV), as evidenced by the exhortations and example of the Apostle Paul (p. 222-227). Unlike the other passions, Cassian seems to define acedia one way and then describe it as something else. He characterizes it as having to do with weariness and anxiety, but portrays something akin to laziness or a lack of self-discipline coupled with depression.
Vainglory is “vain or empty glory” that strikes the monk at levels both carnal and spiritual (p. 241). Where other vices are known, uniform and simple (p. 241 III), and can be guarded against or overcome by their corresponding virtues, vainglory assails a person from every angle (p. 241 III). Prosperity, dignities, riches, and great works done for the Lord (or fantasies thereof), easily entrap the heedless (p. 245 XI; 246-247 XVI.I). Even worse, vainglory not only ensnares the unthinking and incautious (214 IX), but its threat grows in tandem with spiritual progress. Every good effort is challenged; fasting or not fasting, praying opening or praying secretly, humility, obedience, and toil. All are at risk because the devil so aggressively uses vainglory to tempt those on the narrow path of holiness (p. 242 VV-VI). The cure for vainglory is to be careful and exercise foresight (p. 241 III). Nothing should be done for the sake of vanity and whatever we might do that results in our receiving individual praise should be avoided.
Pride, the final vice described, is the initiator of the others and is the worst of all. It comes in two forms. The first attacks those who are already spiritual [which are so few in number that Cassian barely discusses them], while the second strikes beginners and those who are still fleshly (p. 255 I). Whereas the other passions are limited in scope and can be defended against with the opposing virtue, pride can only be beaten back with God’s help (p. 256 III,2; p. 257 VI.1). This is because pride, as the “source of our maladies” (p. 258 VIII) originated and is manifested as an attack against God Himself (p. 256 IV.1; p. 258 VIII). The consequences of pride are innumerably bad, including glibness, loud talking, rancor, lack of patience and love, abuse, and an unwillingness to forgive others (p. 271, XXIX.2). While humility, confession, and the involvement of a spiritual elder are necessary, (p. 258 VIII.1; 262 XV.1) they are not sufficient to defeat this bitter foe. One must “prayerfully [implore] the Lord’s help” begging for His mercy and asking for His grace (p. 259, IX; 262 XV, 2), through “fasting, vigils, prayer, and contrition of heart and body” (p. 262, XVI).Through the “fear of God and humility” (p. 272 XXXI) we can hope that God will defeat the savage beast of pride, which so “devours all the virtues” (p. 273, XXXII.1).
Cassian’s list of vices can be useful in pastoral care today by helping us see sin as an illness, the priest as a physician, the Church as a hospital, and the monastery as a medical school. In order to be cured, people need to realize that they are “ill” with sin. The simple and abstract knowledge that one is a sinner saved by Grace is inadequate. In American religious practice the severity of sin is often acknowledged, but its cure is viewed as an afterthought. For example, in his book Basic Baptist Beliefs, Harold Rawlings provides a four page chapter on sanctification which has only two, one-paragraph-long suggestions (i.e. “The Holy Spirit is our helper,” and The Word of God is our guide”). Other common solutions – read the bible and pray, be baptized by the Holy Spirit, vocally witness for Christ, etc. – appear to be equally inadequate remedies for humanity’s diseased condition. In contrast, Cassian identifies the vices with insightful diagnoses and cures based on experience and down-to-earth realism.
Good pastoral care identifies the underlying vice or thought and then administers the corresponding virtue (p. 244 IX). Hezekiah reversed the consequences of pride through humility (p. 244 X2), while Paul used the example of his own labors to correct the laziness of the Thessalonians (p. 221-222 VII.1). In speaking of pride and humility, Cassian states that “contraries [will] be healed by contraries” and then lists 12 scripture verses that compare the former to the later (p. 258 VIII.I). To this day the method Cassian describes is the standard means of being purified of the passions.
Another application of the list of vices would be a renewed emphasis on fasting in the Church. Gluttony is discussed first by Cassian because of the connection between food and eating, and various passions. If one is to gain control over anger or lust, he must first gain control over his stomach. Contemporary American Christianity is largely unaware of the connection between the body and the passions. The physical side of spirituality has been lost to emphases on the intellect or/and the emotions. Kallistos Ware states, “one reason for [the] decline in fasting is surely a heretical attitude towards human nature, a false ‘spiritualism’ which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of his reasoning brain. As a result, many contemporary Christians have lost a true vision of man as an integral unity of the visible and the invisible…”. Viewing fasting as a behavioral change tool (which is the way Cassian views it) would help pastors to lead their congregations in the direction of personal holiness.
Fasting for people in the world cannot be as acute as it is for monks, but the same principals are applicable. These consist of limiting the amount and type of food (no meat or dairy), fasting on specific days (the traditional Wednesday and Friday), and following the fasting “rules” during Lent. It is important to note that in contemporary practice, as at the time of Cassian, fasting rules should be relaxed according to legitimate circumstances (p. 120 V.2) that fasting includes an emphasis on purity of heart (p. 141 XLI ), and that no one is to judge another person’s fasting or lack thereof (p. 135-136 XXX.1-4). Following the traditional rules of fasting, appropriately relaxed for non-monastics, is a means of gaining the self-discipline needed to confront not only gluttony, but far more pernicious sins.
Another use of the Institutes for pastoral care could focus on the importance of our thoughts. Cassian describes how the passions begin with thoughts (p. 99 XXXVII) or mental images (p. 57 X). If the mind becomes occupied and possessed by an evil thought the sin is actualized in the sinners’ circumstances (p. 170-171 V-VII). As contemporary Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica puts it, “Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts.” According to St. Gregory of Sinai, sin is committed after evil thoughts enter a person’s mind unless those thoughts are resisted. The result is a mind so occupied and possessed by evil thoughts that it becomes “wretched.” (p. 170 V). At the same time, active warfare against evil thoughts can ultimately result in a mind free of thoughts and passions. Spiritual warfare, in terms of how one can resist evil thoughts, has the potential to provide a central theme in pastoral care.
While Cassian’s list of vices can be used for contemporary settings, it is important to remember that he was addressing monks living in circumstances far different from our own. There is nothing quite so vexing as a Bible study group reading the Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus during Great Lent. People who should focus on smoking less, and reading their Bibles more, are suddenly locked into discussions about the surreal description of the monastic prison of Step Five (On Penitence). Reading monastic literature in ignorance and without an appropriately trained spiritual guide can be ruinous. At the same time, Cassian’s description of the passions could serve as a strong corrective to contemporary approaches to spiritual life in the Church.
 Gonzalez points out that zeal against this sin became so aggressive that the Council of Nicaea ruled that any clergymen who had castrated themselves were to be deposed. [The Story of Christianity. New York: HarperOne. 2010, p. 160.] Even legitimate sexual relations within marriage was questioned; “…it must be said that, by and large, marriage got short shrift in comparison with virginity in the ancient Church.” Source: Bonaface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers. New York: Paulist Press. 1985, 139.
 The “demon of noonday” reference [Psalm 91:6, Septuagint) is heard at the Sixth Hour, which is read at Noon.
 . Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos. Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers. Leavadia-Hellas Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2002.
 Harold Rawlings. Basic Baptist Beliefs. Springfield MO: 21st Century Press. 2005, p. 198.
 Jon E. Braun. Divine Energy: The Orthodox Path to Christian Victory. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press. 1991.
 While it is tempting to suppose that we can simply apply his analysis to contemporary situations, St. Gregory the Great suggests that the identification and application of spiritual medicine is most effectively administered by someone who has already been cured of the illness. Hierotheos adds that the pastor “must previously have been healed as far as possible, he must stand ‘in the middle between praxis and theoria.’[St. Gregory the Great: Pastoral Care. Edited by Henry Davis. New York: Newman Press. 1978. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, p. 60.]
 Contemporary Romanian Elder and theologian Dumitru Staniloae states, “The purification of the passions can’t be attained by realizing a neutral state of the soul, but by replacing the passions with opposing virtues.” [Dumitru Staniloae. Orthodox Spirituality. South Cannan PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002. p. 119.
 Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware. The Lenten Triodion, Introduction. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002, p. 15.
 Elder Thaddeus. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. Platina, CA. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2012.
 Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, p. 218.
 St. Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, Forestville, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, p. 302
 From what I have heard, psychology has recently “discovered” thought therapy.
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