Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume XI/John Cassian/Preface
The history of the Old Testament tells us that the most wise Solomon received from heaven “wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart even as the sand that is on the seashore that cannot be counted;” so that by the Lord’s testimony we may say that no one either has arisen in time past equal to him or will arise after him: and afterward, when wishing to raise that magnificent temple to the Lord, we are told that he asked the help of a foreigner, the king of Tyre. And when there was sent to him one Hiram, the son of a widow woman, it was by his means and ministration that he executed all the glorious things which he devised by the suggestion of the Divine wisdom either for the temple of the Lord or for the sacred vessels. If, then, that power that was higher than all the kingdoms of the earth, and that noble and illustrious scion of the race of Israel, and that divinely inspired wisdom which excelled the training and customs of all the Easterns and Egyptians, by no means disdained the advice of a poor man and a foreigner, rightly also do you, most blessed Pope Castor, taught by these examples, deign to call in me, a worthless creature though I am, and in every respect as poor as possible, to a share in so great a work. When you are planning to build a true and reasonable temple for God, not with inanimate stones but with a congregation of saints, and no temporal or corruptible building, but one that is eternal and cannot be shaken; and desiring also to consecrate to the Lord most precious vessels not forged of dumb metal, of gold or silver, which a Babylonish monarch may afterwards take and devote to the pleasures of his concubines and princes, but fashioned of holy souls which shine with the uprightness of innocence, righteousness, and purity, and bear about Christ abiding in themselves as King;—since, then, you are anxious that the institutions of the East and especially of Egypt should be established in your province, which is at present without monasteries, although you are yourself perfect in all virtues and knowledge and so filled with all spiritual riches that not only your talk but even your life alone is amply sufficient for an example to those who are seeking perfection,—yet you ask me, not knowing what to say, and feeble in speech and knowledge, to contribute something from the scanty supply of my thoughts toward the satisfaction of your desire; and you charge me to declare, although with inexpert pen, the customs of the monasteries which we have seen observed throughout Egypt and Palestine, as they were there delivered to us by the Fathers; not looking for graceful speech, in which you yourself are especially skilled, but wanting the simple life of holy men to be told in simple language to the brethren in your new monastery. But in proportion as a dutiful desire of granting your request urges me to obey, so do manifold difficulties and embarrassments deter me when wishing to comply. First, because my merits are not so proportioned to my age as for me to trust that I can worthily comprehend with my mind and heart matters so difficult, so obscure, and so sacred. Secondly, because that which we either tried to do or learnt or saw when from our earliest youth we lived among them and were urged on by their daily exhortations and examples,—this we can scarcely retain in its entirety when we have been for so many years withdrawn from intercourse with them and from following their mode of life; especially as the method of these things cannot possibly be taught or understood or kept in the memory by idle meditation and verbal teaching, for it depends entirely upon experience and practice. And, as these things cannot be taught save by one
who has had experience of them, so they cannot even be learnt or understood except by one who has tried with equal care and pains to grasp them; while, unless they are often discussed and well worn in frequent conferences with spiritual men, they quickly fade away through carelessness of mind. Thirdly, because a discourse that is lacking in skill cannot properly expound those things which we can recall to mind, not as the things themselves deserve, but as our condition allows us. To this it must be added that on this very subject men who were noble in life and eminent for speech and knowledge have already put forth several little books, I mean Basil and Jerome, and some others, the former of whom, when the brethren asked about various rules and questions, replied in language that was not only eloquent but rich in testimonies from Holy Scripture; while the latter not only published works that were the offspring of his own genius, but also translated into Latin works that had been written in Greek. And, after such abundant streams of eloquence, I might not unfairly be accused of presumption for trying to produce this feeble rill, were it not that the confidence of your holiness encouraged me, and the assurance that these trifles would be acceptable to you, whatever they were like, and that you would send them to the congregation of the brethren dwelling in your newly founded monastery. And if by chance I have said anything without sufficient care, may they kindly overlook it and endure it with a somewhat indulgent pardon, asking rather for trustworthiness of speech than for grace of style on my part. Wherefore, most blessed Pope, remarkable example of religion and humility, encouraged by your prayers, I will to the best of my ability approach the work which you enjoin; and those masters which were altogether left untouched by those who preceded us, since they endeavoured to describe what they had heard rather than what they had experienced, these things I will tell as to an inexperienced monastery, and to men who are indeed athirst. Nor certainly shall I try to weave a tale of God’s miracles and signs, although we have not only heard of many such among our elders, and those past belief, but have also seen them fulfilled under our very eyes; yet, leaving out all these things which minister to the reader nothing but astonishment and no instruction in the perfect life, I shall try, so far as I can, with the help of God, faithfully to explain only their institutions and the rules of their monasteries, and especially the origin and causes of the principal faults, of which they reckon eight, and the remedies for them according to their traditions,—since my purpose is to say a few words not about God’s miracles, but about the way to improve our character, and the attainment of the perfect life, in accordance with that which we received from our elders. In this, too, I will try to satisfy your directions, so that, if I happen to find that anything has been either withdrawn or added in those countries not in accordance with the example of the elders established by ancient custom, but according to the fancy of any one who has founded a monastery, I will faithfully add it or omit it, in accordance with the rule which I have seen followed in the monasteries anciently founded throughout Egypt and Palestine, as I do not believe that a new establishment in the West, in the parts of Gaul could find anything more reasonable or more perfect than are those customs, in the observance of which the monasteries that have been founded by holy and spiritually minded fathers since the rise of apostolic preaching endure even to our own times. I shall, however, venture to exercise this discretion in my work,—that where I find anything in the rule of the Egyptians which, either because of the severity of the climate, or owing to some difficulty or diversity of habits, is impossible in these countries, or hard and difficult, I shall to some extent balance it by the customs of the monasteries which are found throughout Pontus and Mesopotamia; because, if due regard be paid to what things are possible, there is the same perfection in the observance although the power may be unequal.
- 1 Kings iv. 29.
- Ib. vii. 13.
- Papa. The title was at an early period confined to bishops in the West, but was not limited to the Bishop of Rome till a later date.
- Petschenig’s text reads muto. Another reading is multo.
- Cf. Dan. v. 2.
- Castor, at whose request this work was written, was Bishop of Apta Julia in Gallia Narbonensis.
- The reference is to Basil’s ὅροι κατὰ πλάτος (the greater monastic rules), and ὅροι κατὰ ἐπιτομήν (the lesser rules), written in the form of answers to questions of the monks. Jerome translated the rule of Pachomius, besides writing the lives of the hermits Paul, Malchus, and Hilarion.
- in veritate. Another reading is veritatem.