St. John Cassian on Perfection

In his essay On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination St. John Cassian writes:

The blessed Apostle was aware of this and said: “Though I give my body to be burned, and have no love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). From this we learn that perfection does not follow immediately upon renunciation and withdrawal from the world.

It comes after the attainment of love which, as the Apostle said, “is not jealous or puffed up, does not grow angry, bears no grudge, is not arrogant, thinks no evil” (1 Cor. 13:4-5).

All these things establish purity of heart; and it is for this that we should do everything, scorning possessions, enduring fasts and vigils gladly, engaging in spiritual reading and psalmody. (Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 96)

I find this passage interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Cassian uses the word “perfection.” I don’t know about you, but that’s a fairly rare word for me to run into outside of Wesleyan circles, and in a context where the author is clearly talking about some form of holiness/ entire sanctification as we would term it. And this in a work written somewhere around 425 AD.

Second, Cassian clearly grounds his notion of Perfection in two things: Love and Purity of Heart. For Cassian, the essence of the Christian life is the pursuit of love. Once you are transformed into godly love, you receive purity of heart. The more you have purity of heart, the more you become what he terms perfect.

Everything else we do as Christians is simply a means to this end. Prayer, fasting, Scripture reading, meditation. It’s all a means to love and purity of heart which culminates in perfection.

Am I missing something or is this John Wesley in the year 425 AD?


One response to “St. John Cassian on Perfection

  • Corey Thomas

    Hi Lauren,

    I am actually doing my essay on this text (the Philokalia edition). I love this text as I think we believe asceticism is the act of purging our flesh, but, for Abba Moses, this is not what true asceticism is. For St Cassian’s Moses Discrimination is what keeps us Christians on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, a Holy Father of Sketis (the desert we get the word aSCETICism from) turns our notion of perfection on it’s head and says purity of heart through discrimination is what leads us to perfection – in the Orthodox worldview the word we give this is theosis (to become godlike through grace). So, I would say the word perfection here is not necessarily a Wesley in the 5th Century, but, rather, Wesley’s perfection is a protestant take on Orthodox doctrine.

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