The Community of St. John Cassian is an apostolic religious community of the Episcopal Church committed to fully and authentically living the Gospel life through the ancient Christian traditions of contemplation, solitude in community, liturgical prayer, and pastoral ministry—with particular emphasis on the Eastern and early Celtic roots of catholic Christian spirituality, as embodied in the works of St. John Cassian, the Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian desert, and the writings and folklore of the Celtic saints.
Our community’s original foundation was Benedictine, and though we in time discerned that our unfolding charism was in several important ways distinct from the Benedictine model of life—particularly in our call to be a dispersed community, rather than a residential one—the Benedictine Rule and its spirituality nonetheless remain strong influences that inform our life and work. The Benedictine Rule, and St. Benedict himself, were highly influenced by the witness and teaching of St. John Cassian, our Patron. St. John Cassian, whose Feast is celebrated on February 28th, was a European by birth, who in the 4th century travelled to the Palestinian and Egyptian deserts to study with the religious solitaries dwelling there, and brought witness of their wisdom back to Europe, founding one of the first Western monastic communities in Gaul, a community for both men and women. This Gaulish foundation of Alexandrian spirituality and monastic practice may well have been the primary stream of teaching by which a very Egyptian-shaped Christianity reached and took root in the British Isles, and particularly in Scotland and Ireland.
We are an active religious community with a contemplative focus, living in dispersion and working in a variety of apostolates. Each vowed member of our community strives for a balanced and holy life, with focus on a daily and annual rhythm that privileges solitude and retreat. In our various ministries in the world we aim to “relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead…help the troubled, and console the sorrowing,” as St. Benedict instructed in his Rule, and to provide education and formation in contemplative Christian practice and mystical theology, both in the Church and the broader world.
We have a special devotion to Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), and embrace an Alexandrian mode of Wisdom Christology. We strive to immerse ourselves, both experientially and theoretically, in the profound mystical witness of the orthodox Christian faith. Our members also tend strongly toward a creation-centered or Incarnational theology, rejecting the Augustinian and Protestant concepts of total depravity and original sin, looking instead to the Celtic and Eastern Orthodox understandings of the goodness and sanctity of God’s holy Creation—and, by extension, of the foundations of human nature.
Our community consists of men and women, lay and ordained, who are fully initiated members of the Episcopal Church (or another valid jurisdiction of the Anglican Communion) and are called by God to an uncompromising pursuit of theosis, which we understand to be the supernal aim of human existence: the fulfillment of the universal vocation of atonement or sanctification, which is restoration to the Divine Image. Our members, referred to as Cassianites, are women and men who strive for true holiness and authenticity of life, and who are drawn to taking up the one most needful pursuit of divine union, with the aid and support of the spiritual tools particular to our charism.
Vowed members of The Community of St. John Cassian typically live alone in some contemporary equivalent of a hermitage, prioritizing a delicate balance of solitude and contemplative prayer with community, fruitful relationship, and service. Brothers and Sisters of the Community take formal religious vows of Simplicity, Obedience, and Conversion of Life (a detailed account of the nature of these vows can be found below), and commit to a strict Rule of daily prayer, contemplative practice, Sacrament, self-sacrificing service, and metanoia (ongoing conversion, transformation of heart, or repentance).
Associates of our community are those who wish to pray for and support our work and ministry, and to informally pattern their lives after our religious charism (in consultation with our Prior or Prioress), but who are not called to the intensive commitment of religious life. Associates are supported in creating their own individual Rule of Life, and are encouraged to worship and spend time in fellowship with us, to join us at retreats and other regular gatherings, as often as they are able.
As a religious community of solitaries, we strive to integrate in relevant and timely ways the wisdom of ancient Christian monasticism with the realities of contemporary North American society: not watering down the Tradition to fit our context, but rather living honestly and deeply into how the Tradition might authentically transform our context through God’s grace, and through our devotion to the Way of Christ. We seek to lovingly address the social, spiritual, and psychological crises of our own time and place by integrating ancient contemplative Christian practice—and the boundless wisdom of our Christian mystical Tradition—into lives of immersive prayer and ministry serving those in need.
The heart of our life is prayer: the liturgical prayer of the Divine Office, which St. Benedict calls the Work of God (Opus Dei); the Holy Eucharist; and the interior, individual practices of meditation, contemplative prayer or ‘stillness’ (hesychia). These practices, both corporate and individual, constitute the very fabric of our lives as vowed religious—and they form the foundation of every work we do in the world. It is continual immersion in prayer, and a fervent striving toward unceasing prayer (1Thes. 5:17), that sanctifies and forms us in the mind of Christ—and we affirm that it is only the sanctified life in union with God that can truly transform and save us, both as individuals and as a human family.
To authentically live the contemplative Christian life—a life of deep prayer and interior searching—while at the same time living a life of active service in a world that is filled with immeasurable distraction, is truly to walk the Narrow Way (Matt. 7:14). In the words of Somerset Maugham, it is to “walk the razor’s edge,” a feat which can only be accomplished by the grace of God and the solidarity of a community of fellow seekers who are continually supporting one another in walking the same perilous and holy path. This is what we intend our religious community to be, through the grace of God’s Holy Wisdom and the prayers and intercessions of our most holy Fathers and Mothers gone before us in the Way.
OUR WAY OF LIFE
Vowed members of our community give themselves freely to a consecrated life—a life ‘set apart’ for the divine work of God’s heavenly Kingdom: an offering and sacrifice to God. Our balance of life is one which is characterized, broadly speaking, by dwelling apart but regularly entering the world to serve its needs, always “going apart to a desert place to find rest,” as Christ instructed (Mark 6:31), and cultivating a deep interior life of contemplative prayer and equanimity, in an environment of profound simplicity. For the Cassianite, his or her hermitage (or cell), as well as the experience of being apart from the human-conceived world, in communion with God in the sanctity of Nature, constitute a true and necessary refuge. If Christ, being fully divine (and fully human), felt the need to continually go apart into the wilderness to pray and rest, to take respite from an active ministry in the world, so must we do all the more. This is, in a practical sense, the backbone of our charism and vocation as Cassianite religious.
We affirm that the ultimate purpose of our lives as human beings is theosis or union with God, to be achieved by means of self-emptying (kenosis) and the cultivation of deep interior stillness (hesychia). These interior states are cultivated through living the virtues of the religious life passed down to us from early monastic luminaries such as our patron, St. John Cassian, Bl. Evagrius of Pontus, and all the Fathers and Mothers of the early Christian monastic Way. Yet more foundationally, the profound stillness of contemplation is achieved through the faithful, unyielding, and integrated pursuit of unceasing interior prayer, self-sacrificing service in ministry, communion with the natural world, poverty of spirit, and simplicity of life. For us, union with God means sanctification and restoration to the fullness of the Divine Image. Ultimately, this is not merely a new state of being for the individual, but one for the whole community of the Church—and for the world.
We strive to embody St. Paul’s teaching that “all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” in order that, through fully surrendering ourselves to living the Way of Holy Wisdom, we might put on the very mind of Christ and “become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Cor. 5:18-21). This means seeking God in all things—and, above all, in our own hearts—while doing the work of God’s Kingdom in the world around us.
Each Brother and Sister of our community embraces the call to cultivate a deep interior life, as solitaries with God, while at once seeking and serving Christ in all people and in all of God’s sacred Creation. They commit themselves to sharing the gifts of contemplative living through teaching and active ministry. As St. Francis of Assisi is famously said to have once remarked, our aim is to “preach the Gospel always—when necessary, using words.”
Vowed religious in The Community of St. John Cassian, living and diligently working out their own salvation in solitude, meet twice annually as a community for Chapter (community governance), retreat, liturgical worship, formation, and fellowship. In between these two annual communal gatherings, individual religious are encouraged to take short, contemplative retreats—both alone and with other members of the Community—as often as their ministries allow.
Vowed religious in The Community of St. John Cassian commit themselves for a period of years, or for life, to the sacred vows of Simplicity, Obedience, and Conversion of Life. Below are some reflections on how we understand and live each of these vows.
The vow of Simplicity is a commitment to two simultaneous levels of practice and transformation: an outward and an inward. Each informs and is dependent on the other. At the outward level, the Cassianite commits to living a life with few material possessions, as few worldly entanglements and financial obligations as possible, and a focus on cultivating in all aspects of life an aesthetic and ethos of holy simplicity. At the interior level, the vow of Simplicity is a commitment to a pure and unburdened shape of one’s inner landscape, to a profoundly simplistic style of prayer (i.e. contemplative prayer), to an attitude of continual listening, and a general posture of stillness in all things. In the Rule of Life of our community, the following is written about the Cassianite commitment to Simplicity:
“And they shall commit themselves to a life of true simplicity, submitting to the cross of poverty, acquiring only what is needed to live healthfully and peacefully and to do the work of ministry God has called them to do. Any thing they have care and use of, let them consider that it does not belong to them, but to God alone; and let them hold all things in this earthly existence lightly, with equanimity and healthful detachment. Any thing they might acquire beyond that which is needed to reasonably sustain their life and ministry, let them sell or donate in service to the poor. And let any Brother or Sister who is preparing to enter the order as a Novice be supported by the whole community in liberating themselves from all unnecessary possessions, that they may be free from worldly cares and entrapments, as our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded, and that their hermitages may be established as holy and pure dwelling places of prayer, where they will increase more and more in spiritual freedom and in the love of God” (RCSJC, 14).
The vow of Obedience is, at its core, a commitment to surrendering our own egoic agendas. This process of surrender should create the eventual outcome of our having placed ourselves wholly in the care and service of God Almighty—conforming no longer to our own will, but instead to the will of God as pursued through prayer and deep discernment (individual and communal). The path the Christian religious takes toward this divine conformity may be summarized as kenosis, or ‘self-emptying’. This comes through wholeheartedly striving to embody the Gospel, and committing oneself to the life, needs, and Tradition of the Church, as well as to the life, needs, and Rule of one’s religious community. At the heart of the vow of Obedience dwells humility, and, as the Fathers and Mothers inform us, humility is the most central Christian virtue, without which no real progress in the spiritual life is possible.
In practical terms, Obedience means not only obeying the instructions of our spiritual mentors or superiors, but, more fundamentally, obeying the teachings of the Gospel and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as discerned in our own hearts, through immersion in the wisdom of our Tradition, and by the counsel of our elders and our brethren in community. This implies a continual movement of the individual toward God’s will through surrender. It also implies a profound integrity and authenticity in the way we live: a constant striving for fidelity to the commitments we have made, and to the life God has called us into.
+ Conversion of Life
The vow to Conversion of Life means firstly that we commit to an ongoing process of conversion to the Way of Christ, as expressed in our particular charism. It means creating and maintaining the outward and inward circumstances necessary for authentically living the life of prayer. In The Community of St. John Cassian, we understand this transformation to have ten primary aspects or qualities, and our commitment to ongoing Conversion of Life means, in part, conforming ourselves to these principles and practices:
III. Prayer and Sacrament
VI. Solitude in Community