The Conferences of John Cassian

The Conferences of John Cassian (365-435) were intended to record conversations with desert hermits, but they read like theological essays presented by and to a more educated Western audience of clergy — which in fact was the readership of the Conferences.

The tracts, ascribed to conversations with desert hermits, record talks on the beliefs and values of the hermits as reconstructed by John Cassian’s pen. He was attempting to justify the eremitic model to a monastic and ecclesiastical system that was fast centralizing but was still flexible in structure and authority, especially with regards to eremitism versus coenobitism. The desert hermits would represent a challenge to the West in their exotic behavior and their theological sparsity. But John Cassian recognized the indispensible core of the hermits’ spirituality, prayer, asceticism and moral virtues, and preserved it with an aura of intelletual acumen.

Compared to the original Sayings, the Conferences lose the biting air of the desert, the heat of the Egyptian sun, the directness of the anecdotes. On the other hand, the Conferences become invaluable when we realize that Westerners at the time would have had no other translation or acquaintance with the desert fathers had it not been for John Cassian.

Despite the difference in style from the Sayings, there are many brilliant moments of pathos among the theological tracts of the Conferences. Here is one example.

Chaeremon, a withered old man over 100, when asked for some teaching, sighed deeply.

What teaching could I give you? The frailty of age has compelled me to relax my former austerity and has taken away any confidence in what I might have to say. How could I presume to teach what I do not practice? How could I instruct someone else in what, as I know, I do very little or lukewarmly? That is why I have allowed none of my juniors to live with me when I am this age. My example might weaken the austerity of someone else. The authority of a teacher will never be effective unless the fruit of deeds is impressed upon the heart of whoever is listening to him.