Monday, December 12, 2011

Heart set free: John Cassian gets real.

A trusted friend gave me John Cassian for the Advent season. It's required reading, and I must admit I was a little frightened. Cassian is one the earliest (c. 365-435, A.D.) writers on the monastic life. He lived out in deserts in Egypt, caves in Provence, and swamps around Marseilles. He wrote for monks. I am anything but a monk, and the times I've tried to be monkish have usually ended in frustration.

(See photo. Don't I wish.)

But this was required reading, so in a spirit of obedience in I go. And here is section 6 of his first conference:

"...[A mind which lacks an abiding sense of direction veers hither and yon by the hour, and by the minute is a prey to outside influences and is endlessly the prisoner of whatever strikes it first.]"

Well, that doesn't sound like it's only for monks. I'm a little less apprehensive. In fact, now I'm desperately longing to find out a remedy for this "hither and yon" heart. It's particularly poignant this Advent season: the world is a mass of sensations, feelings, activities--all striking the soul again and again. The busy-ness is overwhelming--spiritually, physically, and emotionally--and the endless entertainments do not set us free, but take us prisoner.

We are slaves to our entertainments, addictions, preferences. John Cassian, I'm right there. Tell me more:

"This is why we see many who, having given up the greatest wealth not only in gold and silver but also in splendid estates, nevertheless become very upset over a knife, a scraper, a needle, or a pan."

Ha! That's the hassled housewife he's describing! I've given up doctorates, careers, substantial incomes, ridiculous little worldly pleasures to be a Good Christian. And I'm still upset by... pans.

"If they had looked unwaveringly to the purity of their hearts they would never have become involved with such trifles and they would have rejected these just as they did great and valuable possessions. There are some who guard a book so jealously that they can barely endure to have someone else read it or touch it."

Ouch. Oh, stop it, John. That hurt the book-nerd in me.

"They have given away all their wealth for Christ and yet they still hold on to their old heart-longings for things that do not matter, things for whose sake they grow angry."

This is such a good reminder in these days: Books and pans Do. Not. Matter. Becoming angry, or driving yourself to anger, over these little things is a sure sign that something is misplaced. Our hearts are not pure, they have become slaves to what is outside because they have lost sight of what is inside--the life of God himself.

Then, in section seven, he goes on:

"This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture... we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love."

"To trap and to hold our hearts free"--the glorious paradox of the divine life in human flesh. We can only be freed from our books and pots and pans if our hearts are captured for something else. The loneliness, fasts, and vigils or the housewife are not the same as those of a monk. But they can serve the same purpose: "to rise step by step to the high point of love."

And what mother (or father) who has spent those long nights in vigil with the newborn can say that she still cares as much for her books and her clothes as she did before the child was born?

Who can say that life together in marriage does not offer countless opportunities to be freed from our attachment to things that do not matter in order to preserve the love that does matter?

John Cassian, I believe we are going to be the best of friends.

(See photo. Is this what your 3 AM looks like?)


Cara said...

It's amazing what insights come to holy souls who, from the world's perspective, have no basis for talking about the particular challenges of a state in life, like those of a housewife (Francis de Sales is one of my favs). I think the saints could diagnose and offer solutions to a slew of modern "psychoses" (i.e. sins)... Thanks for the intro to John Cassian!

Melanie B said...

Oh that hurts the book nerd in me too! Though I think the past five years motherhood have made it a little easier to detach from my books. Maybe a little?

"See photo. Is this what your 3 AM looks like?"

Don't I wish! I tell myself that it would be so much easier to be prayerful at 3 AM in a hushed chapel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. And yet, human nature being what it is, I'm probably just as apt to find God in the quiet with a sleepless child-- or even with a fussy screaming child, come to that-- as I would have been in a quiet chapel. Certainly the quality of my meditation is different, and yet I suspect the monks don't struggle any less than I do to find God's presence. Because no matter where I go... there I am... my own worst stumbling block.

Please do post more Cassian quotes as you find them. What gems! And I doubt I'll be delving in that mine any time soon.