- Cassian the Monk by Columba Stewart, and: The Monastic Institutes by Jerome Bertram, and: John Cassian: The Conferences by Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (review)
- The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review
- The Catholic University of America Press
- Volume 64, Number 1, January 2000
- pp. 154-159
- View Citation
- Additional Information
154 BOOK REVIEWS Cassian the Monk. By COLUMBASTEWART. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xv + 286. $60.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-19-511366-7. The Monastic Institutes. Translated by JEROME BERTRAM. London: The Saint Austin Press, 1999. Pp. xiv+ 193. $26.95 (cloth)~ ISBN 1-901157-04-0. John Cassian: The Conferences. Translated by BONIFACE RAMSEY, O.P. New York: Paulist Press, 1997. Pp. xv + 886. $39.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8091-0484-9. John Cassian is the fifth-century monk who is credited with bringing the monastic wisdom of the Egyptian desert to the West. His writings were first translated into English at the end of the last century, but the Victorian translators, distressed by Cassian's explicit discussions of sexuality, omitted three books. No complete English edition of Cassian was ever done-an omission which now is being rectified by efforts on both side of the Atlantic. The Saint Austin Press plans a new translation of Cassian's entire corpus: the monastic writings first and then his less influential De Incarnatione. Paulist Press plansannotatedtranslations ofthe monastictexts. SaintAustin'sInstitutes and Paulist's Conferences have already appeared In a happy coincidence, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology recently issued a new monograph on Cassian's monastic theology. Nothing in English offers a fuller appreciation of Cassian than Cassian the Monk. Writing both for those drawn to monastic spirituality and for students ofthe early Christian period, Columba Stewart focuses on what he judges "the most central and distinctive aspects of Cassian'smonastictheology," namely his teaching on sexuality and on prayer. Stewart's treatment of these follows three introductory chapters on Cassian the monk, the writer, and the theologian. Stewart begins with an overview of Cassian's life and work. Outside sources tell us little about Cassian, and his writings reveal only what his objectives require. Stewart discusses various hypotheses regarding Cassian's origins and follows his sojourns though Egypt, Constantinople, and Rome to Gaul, where he founded two monasteries, was an esteemed a monastic teacher, enjoyed an extensive network of ecclesial contacts, and took active part in the semi-Pelagian and Nestorian controversies. Stewart finds more biographical information in Cassian's writings than others, handles data carefully, and argues persuasively. The elusive Cassian emerges an impressive man. Chapter 2 discusses the monastic corpus, relationships among volumes and books, and Cassian's language, style, sources, and pedagogy. Noteworthy is Stewart's proposal that the fourfold schema of literal and spiritual meanings provides a way to understand Cassian's literary intentions and characters: historically, Cassian described his experiences as a young monk in Egypt; he used historical monks allegorically to lead his readers "to true doctrine and traditional monasticism"; tropologically, he desired to teach Gallic monks how to live monastic life; and anagogy drives the whole, for the goal of monastic life is the eschatological vison of God. Stewart also maintainsthat Cassian intended certain terms allegorically. "Anchorite" designates not the literal hermit, but BOOK REVIEWS 155 the contemplative a cenobite hopes to become. This creatively, and probably correctly, explains a problem that has long vexed scholars: Cassian claims that the Institutes describe cenobitic life and the Conferences anchoritic life, but the texts raise serious questions about his assertion. Chapter 3 presents the Conferences as a collection of maps charting the pilgrim monk's way across the vast expanse of earthly life to his ultimate destination, heaven, and exploresthree successive pathsthat Cassian repeatedly charts: the quest for purity of heart, dedication to contemplation, and anticipation of heavenly beatitude. Important aspects of this chapter are Stewart's demonstration that Cassian's monastic theology is Christ-centered and eschatologically oriented. Particularly helpful for students of the history of spirituality are sections on the philosophical and theological sources of Cassian's teaching on ascesis and contemplation. Chapter 4 is a comprehensive examination of Cassian's instruction on sexual matters and his theology of grace-for Cassian always discusses the two together. Stewart's exposition is excellent not only for its precision and depth, but because he situates Cassian's sexual teaching in the larger context of his monastic theology and its methodology. The centerpiece of Cassian's ascetical theology is the pursuit of perfect chastity, though he...