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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


John Cassian is Made Accessible in Two Major Studies:

THE CONFERENCES by John Cassian, edited and translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey ($39.95, hardcover, 912 pages,  Ancient Christian Writers, No 57, Paulist Press, ISBN: 0809104849) is the first complete English translation of the twenty-four dialogues between Cassian and the desert fathers of Egypt. A native of Dacia, Cassian (c. 360-430) joined a monastery in Bethlehem as a young adult. From Palestine, Cassian and Germanus, an older companion, traveled several years in Egypt where they learned about monastic life and tradition from the great desert masters or abbas. Cassian's writings THE CONFERENCES, written many years later as a guide to the developing monasticism of Gaul, records twenty-four dialogues with fifteen abbas.

Although these conversations took place at different times and places, Cassian arranges them to work together as a primer on the fundamentals of monastic practice in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. These dialogues provide a unique and helpful overview of the significant aspects of ancient monastic life and spirituality. The cultivation of holiness and purity of heart which bring one to the kingdom of God provides the guiding vision for the entire work. Each conference offers a window onto a wide range of subjects including fasting, celibacy, friendship, the interpretation of scripture and prayer. The work offers a sustained account of Egyptian monasticism and also the nature of religious experience.

THE CONFERENCES have long been a key work in monastic circles and among scholars of spirituality. His Institutes and THE CONFERENCES are a remarkable synthesis of earlier monastic traditions, especially those of fourth-century Egypt, informed throughout by Cassian's awareness of the particular needs of the Latin monastic movement he was helping to shape. Sometimes portrayed as simply an advocate of the sophisticated spiritual theology of Evagrius of Ponticus (360-435), Cassian was actually a theologian of keen insight, realism, and creativity. His teaching on sexuality is unique in early monastic literature in both its breadth and its depth, and his integration of biblical interpretation with the ways of prayer and teaching on ecstatic prayer are of fundamental importance for the western monastic tradition. Cassian was more psychologically than theologically oriented. His accounts deal with the very human nature of prayer. Though in many ways his work invokes a time quiet remote from our in value and worldview, for any who are concerned with authentic guidence in the life of prayer his writings still commend themselves. The only Latin writer included in the classic Greek collections of monastic sayings, Cassian was the major spiritual influence on both the Rule of the Master and the Rule of Saint Benedict, as well as the source for Gregory the Great's teaching on capital sins and compunction.

Ramsey's helpful introductions and annotations make them accessible to any. Careful attention to references, notes and appendices demonstrate the outstanding research and writing which helped produce this monumental volume.

A List and Explanation of Some Terms Used Throughout The Conferences
First Conference: On the goal and the end of the monk
Second Conference: On discretion
Third Conference: On the three renunciations
Fourth Conference: On the desire of the flesh and of the spirit
Fifth Conference: On the eight principal vices
Sixth Conference: On the slaughter of some holy persons
Seventh Conference: On the changeableness of the soul and on evil spirits
Eighth Conference: On the principalities
Ninth Conference: On prayer, part one
Tenth Conference: On prayer, part two
Eleventh Conference: On perfection
Twelfth Conference: On chastity
Thirteenth Conference: On God's protection
Fourteenth Conference: On spiritual knowledge
Fifteenth Conference: On divine gifts
Sixteenth Conference: On friendship
Seventeenth Conference: On making promises
Eighteenth Conference: On the three kinds of monks
Nineteenth Conference: The end of the cenobite and of the hermit
Twentieth Conference: On the end of repentance and on the mark of reparation
Twenty-First Conference: On the relaxation at pentecost
Twenty-Second Conference: On nocturnal illusions
Twenty-Third Conference: On sinlessness
Twenty-Fourth Conference: On mortification

Boniface Ramsey, O.P., who holds an S.T.D. degree from the Institut Catholique in Paris, is currently serving as pastor of St.Vincent Ferrer Church in Manhattan, New York. He taught patristic studies for many years at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall University. His other works include a translation of The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 50, Paulist). His study of Ambrose (Early Church Fathers, Routledge) has received high praise for its throughness of covering the principle themes in the Saint's life and career.

The Institutes by John Cassian. Translated and Annotated by Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Ancient Christian Writers no. 58). ($34.95, cloth, xii, 287 pages; Paulist Press, 0-8091-0522-5)

 Cassian's The Institutes, or, more properly, The Institutes of the Cenobia and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Vices, is a classic of the monastic life, one of the works cited by Benedict of Nursia in his sixth century Rule for Monks as worthy of special attention. Born about 360 in Dacia (now Romania), Cassian spent time in Egypt studying the monks of the desert, and ended his life in Marseilles, where he founded two monasteries, wrote his treatises, and died in the early 430s.

 The Institutes is the first of his works, and is comprised of two distinct parts. In the first part he describes the regimen of the Egyptian monks, beginning with their dress, then proceeding to a discussion of their method of prayer, and finally the rules by which they governed themselves. The second part concerns the eight principal vices and how the monks handled them.

The key image that pervades the text is that of the monk as athlete, as one who has gone into the desert to do battle with the devil, generally in the form of one's personal demons. Cassian himself says that the book is meant "for the instruction of him who renounces this world, whereby he may be led to true humility and perfect obedience and be able to mount the heights of the other virtues as well (p. 90)." Throughout, Cassian shows great psychological insight into human nature. His emphasis on moderation will be echoed by Augustine and Benedict in their monastic rules.  His discussion of the monastic way to read scripture--not "toiling over the works of the commentators" but rather "direct[ing] the full effort of his mind and the attentiveness of his heart toward the cleansing of his fleshly vices" so that the obscurities of scripture may be revealed to the pure of heart--could certainly be a guide to non-monks as well. Indeed, all of Cassian's work, while directed to monks, would be of profit to any who are seeking a deeper way of spirituality.

Ramsey's translation is clear, and his broad knowledge of the monastic tradition shows itself in the helpful notes that accompany each chapter.

Cassian's later work, The Conferences, is a fuller exposition of the themes treated in the Institutes, and is also available in an edition translated by Boniface Ramsey and published in the Ancient Christian Writers series.


A List and Explanation of Some Terms Used Throughout The Institutes
Cassian's Preface to The Institutes
First Book: The Garb of the Monks
Second Book: The Canonical Method of the Nighttime Prayers and Psalms
Third Book: The Canonical Method of the Daytime Prayers and Psalms
Fourth Book: The Institutes of the Renunciants
Fifth Book: The Spirit of Gluttony
Sixth Book: The Spirit of Fornication
Seventh Book: The Spirit of Avarice
Eight Book: The Spirit of Anger
Ninth Book: The Spirit of Sadness
Tenth Book: The Spirit of Acedia
Eleventh Book: The Spirit of Vainglory
Twelfth Book: The Spirit of Pride
Index of Scriptural Citations and Allusions   

Complimenting this fine translation and study of Cassian is CASSIAN THE MONK by Columba Stewart. Cassian the Monk ($55.00, hardcover, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 0195113667) It is a study of the life, monastic writings, and spiritual theology of John Cassian. The first major study to appear in over twenty years. It begins by establishing Cassian's credibility as a teacher on the basis of his own experience as a monk and his familiarity with the fundamental literary sources. Stewart then turns to Cassian's spiritual theology, paying particular attention to Cassian's view of the monastic journey in eschatological perspective, his teaching on continence and chastity, the Christological basis of biblical interpretation and prayer, his method of unceasing prayer, and his integration of ecstatic experience with an Evagrian theology of prayer.

CASSIAN THE MONK will undoubtedly become the standard work on Cassian's life and teaching, and should be of great interest to students and scholars of early Christianity and any who are fascenated with life devoted to prayer.

Columba Stewart is a Benedictine monk of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and Associate Professor of Theology at Saint John's University. He is the author of "Working the Earth of the Heart": The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to A.D. 431.

For those of a devotional cast who find the finely wrought reasonings of scholarship something of a distraction there is the small anthology MAKING LIFE A PRAYER: Selected Writings of John Cassian by John Cassian, edited by Keith Beasley-Topliffe ($4.95, paperback, 72 pages, Christian Spiritual Classics. Series I, Upper Room, ISBN: 0835808319). It provides focus for devotional reading. Also a recent devotional study by Mary Margaret Funk, THOUGHT MATTERS: The Practice of the Spiritual Life ($14.95, Hardcover, 144 pages, Continuum Publishing Group, ISBN: 0826410634) draws heavily upon Cassian's views of abstinence and renunciation and central to the devout life.

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