The Spirituality of John Cassian was written by Ron Samuel Dart, an Anglican layman from Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. Dart’s 2006 book is a published rework of his Master’s thesis, earned from Regent College in 1981. (After his first M.A. Dart earned a second from the University of British Columbia, completing then a thesis on “Origen and Anthony,” two men who played a key role in Cassian’s life and ministry.) Dart is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at University of the Fraser Valley in BC. He is a prolific writer and teacher who regularly engages the “politics” of church and society in a refreshing but classical manner. In his personal life Dart commonly exerts his Anglo-Catholic belief and commitment through his mentoring and ecumenical efforts as well as his contemplative practices. He is also a Thomas Merton scholar, a poet and a mountaineering expert and instructor. He says clearly in the Preface that he wrote his book out of a commitment to the Church Fathers’ “…more mystical, contemplative and existential way of doing theology in opposition to a more rationalist, confessional and scholastic way of doing theology that dominated much of the Western Tradition” (1). He was also drawn to Cassian’s “…wise, sane and ecumenical…” thought and theology that brought together the best and wisest of the patristic East and West “…in a transformative way” (2-3).
In chapter three Dart explores Cassian’s work, The Institutes. He goes through each of these, summarising key aspects of their content so as to establish the range of Cassian’s thought for the reader. The Institutes was written from Marseilles at the request of Bishop Castor who wanted “…a rule for persons desiring to live a communal life in their quest for perfection;” perfection meaning a life with fulfillment and optimal potential (39-40). Dart explains, “Cassian constantly insists he is digging to the roots of existence, for man’s identity needs to be reworked at root level” (42). For Cassian, the means to a fulfilled life is spiritual training, the discipline of dying to one’s false identity and inordinate/chaotic desires, through obedience and humility and the guidance of a personal spiritual elder/director. In this chapter Dart also summarises the symptoms of the false self as explained by Cassian, these being gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, accidie, vainglory and pride. He concludes, “Pride and vainglory are the roots of this weed of the false self” (44).
Chapter four is Dart’s discussion of Cassian’s Conferences, which he says is “…like hiking from lowland scenery to peaks of splendour” (57). (Note: this type of metaphorical word-smithing is quintessential Dart and is found throughout this book and most of his writings.) Dart adds, “Probably no better work on spirituality was written in late antiquity than the Conferences” (57). They are twenty-four of Cassian’s personal dialogues with holy Egyptian desert monks on topics of Christian spirituality. Dart’s approach is to map out what he claims are the three main motifs of the Conferences: prayer; love, epistemology and Scripture; and demonism. He praises the brilliance of Cassian’s thesis concluding, “[W]e see how prayer stands at the apex of relational love, for it leads back to reality, guiding man to God, Who is love. Love is the hermeneutical key to knowing the meaning of a godly life….Demonism seeks to destroy love, because love leads to God….To live in the love of God is to live out the joy of our new person” (79).
In chapter five of The Spirituality of John Cassian, Dart explains how Cassian’s treatise on The Incarnation concludes that the combination of Scripture, Reason, Authority and Mystery are the foundation stones of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. To Cassian, “Scripture is authoritative for spirituality and theology” (85). Reason, which includes both inductive and deductive logic, “…fulfils itself in faith…” (86). Authority appears to be what we commonly call today the Great Tradition of the Christian Church. Cassian argues that the application of these three helps one to effectively confront heresies in both experience and thought. But he concludes that accepting the reality of the Mystery of God is the fourth and final truth that must be understood and weaved in to and with the other three. Neither the human mind nor experience is really capable of grasping all that God is. The specific context of The Incarnation is Cassian’s affront of the teachings of Nestorius. Dart states that Nestorius’s main error was that he attempted to understand God, which is an impossible deception.
In the first five chapters of his book Dart applies Cassian’s teachings in more implicit than explicit ways. (Eg. “Men and women sought to cleanse their hearts (puritas cordis), for only doing so would they see God, and receive the gift of their eternal self” (14). Or, “Cassian feels “The Lord’s Prayer” is the perfect model for prayer.” (64).) However, Dart’s final chapter is devoted entirely and explicitly to his application of Cassian’s works to contemporary situations – notably western society and Church’s propensity to be superficial, individualistic and narcissistic. He argues the Church in particular lacks understanding of what true liberty and leadership is and has become authoritarian, creedal, dogmatic, abstract, ahistorical and presentist.
Dart suggests specific ways in which he believes the ancient works of Cassian meet these contemporary challenges of today. Spring-boarding from quotes by Richard Foster and Aelred Graham he argues that Cassian can assist us to become deep people in both society and Church. He states Cassian helps us understand that “…experience and personal investigation [is not] antithetical to authority, creeds, and dogmas” (96). Cassian also shows us how “…tradition informs the present, offering hope for the future” (97). And people become truly free when they cease “…to be dominated by desires creating restlessness, and inadequate gratification” (98). Cassian also helps us understand how oft-perceived contraries can become harmonised in catholic faith and practice (98).
Dart concludes by pointing out ten main features of Cassian’s spirituality that can help bring an ever-increasing depth into one’s life. These include understanding that: 1. Both God’s grace and humanity’s free will blend in moving one toward purification; 2. A gifted and loving spiritual director is vital to growth; 3. Charismatic gifts “…are vital to the full expression of the Christian life” (101); 4. Scripture is the word of God written; 5. Prayer must be central to the Christian life; 6. Community is vital to the spiritual pilgrimage; 7. It is important to employ various levels of scriptural exegesis (historical, topological, allegorical and analogical – cp p. 71); 8. A deep understanding of demonology is vital to keeping from being seduced by the evil one; 9. We must never separate theology from spirituality and; 10. Love is the glue of reality.
But Ron Dart is not a preacher. And this is not a “self-help” book. As a result, the applications of Cassian are made in a more academic and classically political way (e.g. in the “city”). As to how Cassian might be applied to one’s personal life and piety s/he has to determine the specifics of this for him/herself. For example, I might agree that in order to develop a deeper spiritual life in Christ it would be optimal to have a gifted and loving spiritual director. But Dart does not answer what that might specifically look like for me today. Do I need a spiritual director or will a mentor do? Or if I now have a spiritual director, how can I determine if s/he is gifted and loving? Is my interaction with him/her leading to true spiritual growth? Another example might be, how might I apply the charismatic gifts in my life and/or parish today? With that said, however, to the Christian seeking greater depth in her/his spiritual pilgrimage, Dart successfully argues that a more thorough study of Cassian would prove profitable.
One important application that Dart notes is that Cassian bridged East and West and did theology “…in a disciplined and contemplative…” as well as transformative way (2-3). Cassian was therefore a true catholic. Dart adds that Cassian differentiates between means and ends, heart and behaviour and root level issues (compared with symptoms) in the spiritual life. Dart draws out Cassian’s apophatic and kataphatic spirituality as well as his emphasis on union with God (66-7). Especially for the Anglican/Episcopal reader, such a perspective and approach is something we desperately need today in the foreboding heresies, apostasies, schisms and divisions that threaten the Communion.
John Cassian is, as Dart says, “…alive and well…” (3). The Spirituality of John Cassian serves as an excellent primer for and summary of Cassian’s works. Dart’s text is logically put together, with appropriately brief but excellent introductions, bridges and concluding comments. Reading flows easily, being sufficiently academic for the scholar and sufficiently colloquial for the layperson. Like a good historical theologian Dart sets Cassian’s context well and suggests applications for today. His choice of a thematic approach to Cassian’s works is helpful for the reader who wishes to sample each portion of the full entree that is available. Dart also appropriately references his work with footnotes and bibliography, giving the reader options for further reading if so desired.
To whom might I recommend Dart’s book? First, the book would be helpful for anyone wanting to learn more about John Cassian. However, The Spirituality of John Cassian can serve more than this. I agree with the author of the Foreword, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of All Saints of North America Orthodox monastery, wherein he states, “I recommend this short work as a basis for entering into the study of the desert fathers, monasticism in general…and the works of the Holy and God-bearing fathers of the Church” (vi). Even more specifically, Dart’s book would be a help for the individual who is frustrated with a thin, self-seeking, rootless spirituality and is seeking to know where s/he might learn more about how to enter into a deeper and stronger walk with God. I also recommend the book to anyone, or any group of people, desiring to develop or continue a rule of life or live a monastic experience, whether alone or in community.
I will conclude by stating that in the past five years Ron Dart has become a personal mentor to me and one in whom I have seen the spirituality of John Cassian lived out. In reading his book I have been inspired to explore Cassian further for the same reasons Dart stated to me in a recent email, “I was drawn to Cassian in my late 20s for 3 reasons: 1) he succinctly summarized and articulated the best of ascetic and desert spirituality in the Conferences, 2) he was a definite bridge between east and west, 3) he was a moderate theological Pelagian in the heated Augustine-Pelagian wars of the 5th century. He was, also, a dear friend of the much maligned and persecuted Chrysostom (one of my favourite saints). In fact, it was Chrysostom’s support of the Desert Origenists (of which Cassian was one) that was a nail in Chrysostom’s emerging coffin. The irony is this: it was the eastern bishops that turned on Chrysostom, but it was the bishop of Rome that protected John. Even Jerome aligned himself with the anti-Chrysostom tribe.” In this is much to learn from as I seek to live the catholic faith.