Today we remember a quiet man in an unquiet world, born to wealthy parents in Scythia Minor, present-day Dobrogea, Romania, c. 360 AD. Like many Desert Ascetics of his time, he pursued a three-step path to holiness: Purgatio, Illuminatio, and Unitio.
Purgatio – in Greek, catharsis, a young monk’s struggle with “the flesh,” recognizable sins such as gluttony, lust, and desire for possessions. Through this process, often taking many years, the monks discovered that their strength to resist came through prayer and grace.
Illuminatio – in Greek, theoria, the second step, monks practiced the paths of holiness as described in the Gospel. They concentrated on the Christ found in Matthew Chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. Many monks died still striving to achieve the Lord’s commission.
Unitio – Greek word theosis. In this final stage, the soul of the monk bonded with the Spirit of God and achieved a mystical level of peace. It is at this stage that many elderly monks fled deep into the desert or remote forests to find solitude.
These three steps comprised the life-form of Saint John Cassian, ascetic, monk, theologian, writer and abbot. Even so, he saw all of life as a means to an end as described in the following quote:
Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.
– Saint John Cassian