The Christian theologian John the Ascetic, or John Cassian the Roman, was born in Scythia Minor (Dobruja in modern-day Romania) ca. 360 AD and passed from this world in 435 AD. He was honored as a saint in both the Western and Eastern Churches, primarily for his mystical writings. Born to wealthy parents, John was provided with a good and well-rounded education. He was bilingual in Latin and Greek, and his writings indicate the influence of two great men of Rome, Cicero and Persius, orators, poets, and writers of philosophy.
John is quoted as follows: The bond between friends cannot be broken by chance; no interval of time or space can destroy it. Not even death itself can part true friends. Perhaps these are strange words from an ascetic and a man of the desert. But there is a record of a friendship between John and an older man named Germanus, with whom he traveled to Palestine as a young adult. Together for the next twenty-five years, they pursued a deeper faith and understanding of monasticism. They entered a hermitage near Bethlehem, residing there for three years. Next, their spiritual journey sent them to the desert of Scete in Egypt and a number of other monastic foundations in the area.
Beleaguered by heresies and controversies in the church, the two men eventually sought refuge in Constantinople and petitioned John Chrysostom for protection. There Cassion was ordained a deacon, priest, and finally, invited to found an Egyptian-style monastery in southern France, near Marseilles. The Abbey of St. Victor was one of the first complexes in the West that included monasteries for men and women. It served as a model for further monastic development.
Saint John Cassion is responsible for two important spiritual works, Conferences of the Desert Fathers and Institutes of the Coenobia (or colony of monastic cells.)
In Conferences, Cassion defines and summarizes the wisdom and spiritual principles of the ascetic life, that is, “the training of the inner man and perfection of the heart.” Institutes deals with the practical “living out”, the external organization of monastic communities. Cassion’s desire was to bring order to a movement he found chaotic. Manual labor stood alongside the pursuit of wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.
Saint John Cassion was a man of common sense. His life of rigorous asceticism was bordered by practicality: a realization of his own frailty, and a genuine love and generosity toward all.