Around 380, John Cassian migrated from Romania to Bethlehem, where he embraced the monastic life. After 385 he wandered the Egyptian desert, the heart of eastern monasticism. He visited abbots at monasteries and hermits in their caves, absorbing their teachings about the Christian life.
The year 400 found him on the staff of St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople. When Chrysostom was unfairly deposed and exiled, Cassian was among his defenders who traveled to Rome to plead his case before the pope. At that time he was ordained a priest.
John Cassian never returned to the East. In 415 he founded two monasteries at Marseilles, one for men and another for women. To instruct his monks and nuns, Cassian wrote two significant books. The Institutes described the eastern pattern of monastic life and the virtues required of monks. The Conferences presented the wisdom of the Egyptian desert in the form of discourses by famous abbots. In the following sample we hear “Abbot Isaac” on the practice of the presence of God:
“To keep the thought of God always in your mind you must cling totally to this formula for piety: ‘Come to my help, O God. Lord, hurry to my rescue’ (see Psalm 70:2). “With good reason this verse has been chosen from the whole of Scripture as a device. It bears all the feelings that human nature can experience. It can be adapted to every condition and deployed against every temptation. It carries a cry to God in the face of every danger. It piously confesses humility. It conveys our sense of frailty, our assurance of being heard, our confidence in help that is always and everywhere present. Someone forever calling out to his protector is very sure of his nearness. This short verse is an indomitable wall for all those struggling against the onslaught of demons. Whatever the disgust, the anguish, or the gloom in our thoughts, it keeps us from despairing of our salvation since it reveals to us the One to whom we call, the One who sees our struggles and who is never far from those who pray to him. If things go well for us in spirit, this verse is a warning. We must not get puffed up at being in a good condition that we cannot retain without the protection of God for whose continuous and speedy help it prays. This little verse, I am saying, proves to be necessary and useful to each one of us in all circumstances.”
Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences interpreted Egyptian monasticism for the western church. Benedict advocated that monks read Cassian second only to the Bible, and Augustine and Gregory the Great also recommended his works. Through their influence Cassian shaped the practice of monasticism in the West through the Middle Ages and even into the present.
The eastern church recognizes Cassian as a saint. But the western church did not canonize him, probably because he was regarded as the leading proponent of a teaching called Semi-Pelagianism. In a controversy over salvation, he challenged Augustine’s view of predestination and minimized the role of grace in the first steps of the Christian life. But historians now say that Cassian had adopted an “anti-Augustine” position rather than a heretical one. The saint died at Marseilles around 433.
Today laypeople cannot practice the presence of God with the constancy that Cassian demanded. But we can frequently remind ourselves of God’s nearness and draw on his grace by praying “Come to my help, O God. Lord, hurry to my rescue.”