Before St. Benedict there was John Cassian.
Though St. Benedict’s Rule would have a much greater impact on the development of Western monasticism, Cassian’s Conferences influenced not only the development of monasticism, but also provide readers today, especially those who desire to lead a life of contemplation, guidance and wisdom on the path to more perfectly loving and serving God.
The goal of the monk (and anyone for that matter) was not, for Cassian, to bring about his own salvation or to bring about the reign of God. Those are great, but a monk can do neither of those things. The real goal of the monk is purity of heart because it requires lifelong constancy and without purity nothing in the spiritual life and the pursuit of perfection is even remotely possible. (cf. Conference 1)
Purity is extremely difficult even in a religious convent. The desire to live a life of purity is not enough as we can still, without even recognizing it, fall into the trap of lust, greed, or envy.
How then are we to go about this work?
The seminal conferences in Conferences (IX and X) are those on prayer. In keeping with the Egyptian school, Cassian discusses the importance of removing from the mind and soul the longings of the body.
We must abandon not only our excesses but we must in every way try to rid ourselves of sin and passion. The results are clear: “With fornication vanquished, chastity rules; with anger overcome, peace is king; with pride under foot; humility is sovereign” (cf. Conference 9.19).
The only way, according to Cassian, that the passions can be overcome by the virtues is to pray as St. Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1) through supplication, prayers, pleas, and thanksgiving.
Each of these prayers can be done individually, but one prayer, one utterance, for Cassian, brings all four together and enhances the process of purification that, in turn, enables contemplation.
Deus in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina. (God come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.)
With these words, (which are the first lines of Psalm 70) the Church begins her communal and eternal prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. For Cassian, who is responsible for popularizing the practice, these words represent so much more than an invocation to prayer.
This prayer serves as the model which we set before our eyes and toward which we always long. It should be the first thing that we think in the morning and the last thing which we grasp in the evening.
In times of distress, Deus in adiutorium… Under the duress of lust, Deus in adiutorium… Struggling to overcome pride, Deus in adiutorium… Seeking the silence of contemplation, Deus in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina.
With God’s love and presence alone firmly entrenched in our mind, we can now move away from this world and all its burdens and focus simply and lovingly on He Who Is and pray without ceasing.