Saint John Cassian (ca. 360 – 435) (Latin: Jo(h)annes Eremita Cassianus, Joannus Cassianus, or Joannes Massiliensis), John the Ascetic, or John Cassian the Roman, is a Christian theologian celebrated in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings. He is known both as one of the "Scythian monks" and as one of the "Desert Fathers."
John Cassian was born around 360 probably in the region of Scythia Minor (now Dobruja in modern-day Romania), although some scholars assume a Gallic origin 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 Egypt, which was rent by Christian struggles, and visited a number of monastic foundations. Approximately fifteen years later, in c.399, Cassian and Germanus fled the Anthropomorphic controversy provoked by Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, with about 300 other Origenist monks. John Cassian and Germanus went to Constantinople, where they appealed to Saint John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, for protection. John 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 John Cassian was sent to Rome to plead his cause before Pope Innocent I.
While he was in Rome John Cassian accepted the invitation to found an Egyptian style monastery in southern Gaul, near Marseille. He also may have spent time as a priest in Antioch between 404 and 415. Whatever the case, he arrived in Marseille around 415. His foundation, the Abbey of St Victor, a complex of monasteries for both men and women, was one of the first such institutes in the west, and served as a model for later monastic development. Cassian's abbey and writings influenced St. Benedict, who incorporated many of the same principles into his monastic rule (Regula Benedicti), and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict's rule is still used by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks, the thought of John Cassian still guides the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Western Church.
John Cassian died in the year 435. He is a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. His feast day is traditionally celebrated on February 29. Because this day occurs only once every four years on leap years, official Church calendars often transfer his feast to another date (usually the day before February 28).
In the Roman Catholic Church, his feast is no longer commemorated on the universal calendar (see the Roman Catholic calendar of saints), but the Archdiocese of Marseilles and some monastic orders continue to observe his memorial on July 23.
His books were written in Latin, in a simple, direct style. They were swiftly translated into Greek, for the use of Eastern monks, an unusual honor.
At this point the "Illuminatio" commenced. During this period the monk learned the paths to holiness revealed in the Gospel. During the "Illuminatio" many monks took in visitors and students, and tended the poor as much as their meager resources allowed. They identified strongly with Christ when he taught the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. The monk continued his life of humility in the Spirit of God; his stoic acceptance of suffering often made him the only man capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local Christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.
The final stage was the "Unitio," a period when the soul of the monk and the Spirit of God bonded together in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called the "Song of Songs," or the "Canticle of Canticles"). Elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests to find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded. In this, the monk identified with the transfigured Christ, who after his resurrection was often hidden from his disciples.
The views expressed by John Cassian to which critics have pointed as examples of his alleged semi-Pelagianism are found in his Conferences, in book 3, the Conference of Abbot Paphnutius; book 5, the Conference of Abbot Serapion; and most especially in book 13, the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon.
Even modern thinkers are beholden to John Cassian's thinking, although perhaps in ways the saint would not have expected. Michel Foucault was fascinated by the rigorous way Cassian defined and struggled against the "flesh." Perhaps because of investigations like these, Cassian's thought and writings are enjoying a recent popularity even in non-religious circles.