Three of the four Gospels tell us that right after John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for forty days of testing by Satan. It seems a far cry from what one might expect from a hand-clapping, alleluia-shouting inspirer like the Holy Spirit: upon the heels of a joyous event comes desert dryness and diabolical trials. Yet that aspect of Jesus’ earthly life reflects the experience of every human, who finds that just when things seem to be going so well, proof returns that every silver lining has a grey cloud.
Starting in the third century, numerous Christians went into the desert, primarily in Egypt, to live a severe and daunting form of life. Those austere men and women, known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, were the first Christian monks and nuns, and they saw themselves as living year-round within the pattern set by Jesus and his forty days in the desert. Those forty days Jesus spent in the desert find a yearly metaphor in the forty days of Lent.
Around the year 380, a wealthy and highly-educated young man named John Cassian, joined by a good friend named Germanus, visited monks in the Egyptian desert. Some forty years after their travels, Cassian (c. 360-c. 435) wrote about them in two books, the Conferences and the Institutes. The Conferences purports to record the conversations Cassian and Germanus had with various desert monks, and the Institutes sets out guidelines for monastic communities.
Both books influenced Saint Benedict, who said monastic life ought to be like a perpetual Lent, and in Chapter 73 of his Holy Rule he told his monks to read the Conferences and Institutes. Notably in Book 5 of the Conferences Cassian provides material useful for self-examination, especially during Lent.
Book 5 of Cassian’s Conferences claims to relate what an old Desert Father named Serapion taught the two young friends. Scholars have questioned whether the teachings in the Conferences are really by those Desert Fathers, or whether Cassian turned those historical monks into literary characters, using them as ways to present his own ideas. At this late date it seems a moot point, although, for the sake of convenience, we can refer to everything in Cassian’s books as his own.
In 1997 Paulist Press published Boniface Ramsey’s translation of Cassian’s Conferences and Institutes from their original Latin into English, the first complete English translation of those two important Christian classics. In what follows, I will use Ramsey’s translation.
In Book 5 of the Conferences Cassian discusses the Eight Principal Vices. Later theologians streamlined those Eight Vices into the Seven Deadly Sins, seven sins lining up alongside the Seven Virtues of courage, justice, prudence, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. Those eight vices are: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory, pride. As with breaking the Ten Commandments, odds are good most people avoid committing all eight, and for a lot of people, gluttony can be seasonal, over-indulgence at the holidays.
Lest anyone become self-congratulatory, Cassian breaks down each vice into its tell-tale manifestations. So, for example, acedia, later called sloth, includes “curiosity;” not intellectual curiosity, but being a busybody. Wasting time worrying about other people’s perceived failings is a kind of laziness and distracts from the hard work of facing and fixing one’s own flaws. Likewise, vainglory includes “putting one’s trust in novelties,” meaning smugness deriving from being the only one in the know, whether it be, for instance, how to import the best artisanal wines or where to find the most expert tailor to craft the finest vestments.
What stands out most from Cassian’s discussion is his linking the vice of fornication with “immodest speech, buffoonery, silliness, and foolish talk.” Here is the context for strict injunctions in Chapters 6 and 7 of Benedict’s Rule, where he forbids laughter and joking. Benedict’s concern comes not from being some kind of proto-Puritan killjoy, or some early Asperger’s case devoid of a sense of humor. Rather, Benedict saw such behavior as symptoms of a literally vicious pattern.
What worried Cassian and Benedict was not only off-color jokes, but also the sort of person who breakfast, lunch, and dinner needs to make people laugh. Notice: needs to make people; along with an infantile need for attention, what is at stake is needing to control and to use others for one’s own gratification. This use, and really abuse, of people, a verbal form of what our Victorian ancestors called self-abuse, is different from the role of a professional comedian, whose calling is to be a public clown and help people forget themselves and relax and laugh. After all, every 25th of August the Church commemorates an early fourth-century funny man, Saint Genesius, martyr and patron of actors, comics, and mimes.
When reflecting on Cassian’s catalogue of vices, his outlook seems negative, even for Lenten penance. More than fifty years ago, Owen Chadwick, in his book John Cassian (1968), noted that Cassian’s approach to a Christian’s pilgrimage through this life involved fighting against vices, not working to attain virtue. “Sometimes the reader feels,” Chadwick wrote, “that the result is to surround the pilgrim’s journey with too black a valley of death upon either hand.”
However, as Chadwick then pointed out, Cassian saw the conflict in cosmic terms. Cassian believed Christians were caught up in a vast unseen war waged between hosts of angels and demons. In Books 7 and 8 of the Conferences, Cassian wrote extensively about angels and demons, but in Book 7 he added a human connection, the centurion featured in Luke 7. “His virtue and steadfastness,” said Cassian, “did not let him be led astray by the thoughts that assailed him, but in accordance with his judgment, he admitted the good ones and drove away the opposing ones without any difficulty.”
In his spiritual battle what kept the centurion virtuous and steadfast was the gift of faith, and so a well-armed Christian is steeped in prayer and needs gift upon gift from God. As Columba Stewart, in Cassian the Monk (1998), explained Cassian’s larger point, “The human condition is fragile, prone to sin, and dependent on the power of grace to rise above (fallen) nature.” Cassian’s message is essentially positive: In what seems like solitary Lenten desert combat, we do not fight alone. As a prophet said long ago, “God is with us.”