Saturday, March 3, 2012

Liturgical Notes from John Cassian.

Monastic literature always provides some meaty theology to chew on. John Cassian's Conferences gives us a model worth considering in our own time. A close reading gives us some idea of how, ideally, Scripture should function in a liturgical context.
            One must first approach Scripture with the desire to attain purity of heart.[1] Purity of heart, then, is the goal of any engagement with Scripture. If one wishes for one’s reading of Scripture to facilitate the acquisition of purity of heart, one must complement one’s reading of Scripture by mastery of one’s ethical discipline.[2] This returns us to the Cassian’s first stages of praxis, that is, the expulsion of vice. At this point in the Conferences, Cassian supplies a little more instruction to his steps of expelling vice from the soul. Cassian affirms the necessity of fulfilling the first steps before one can proceed to the higher steps on the way to theoria/contemplation, “For without this the theoretical purity what we have spoken of cannot be acquired.”[3] The interaction between the expulsion of vice and frequent reading of Scripture transforms the human heart into a “sacred tabernacle of spiritual knowledge.”[4] When Scripture becomes internalized and, eventually, facilitates theoria (in Cassian's thought: contemplation or the vision of God), it creates an indwelling of divine presence similar to the liturgical anaphora. Cassian then describes the mind as becoming the ark of the covenant and a priestly kingdom, at which point Cassain evokes the promise to dwell in the midst of Zion.[5] This sacramental assimilation of Scripture that leads to God’s dwelling in the human heart requires memorization and “ceaseless review.”[6] Reviewing Scripture provides the mind with a new cognitive base, a storehouse of images, stories, ethics, designed to displace previously held secular parallels. In a rare allusion to his own life, Cassian complains of himself having struggled with displacing pagan poems and legends from his conscience when at praying the psalter.[7] Aside from ejecting profane exemplars from the human mind, the establishment of a base of Scriptural knowledge in the human mind reveals new meanings to previously read words. Scripture, in Cassian’s thought, continually renews itself to the individual, through progressive revelation of the four senses of Scripture, coimaxing with the revelation of spiritual mysteries.[8] Only when one’s heart has been converted to virtue can one progress to contemplative knowledge, θεωρητικη, which, for Cassian, is identifiable with the proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture. One cannot, then, begin to read scripture until the conversion to virtue as a natural expression of self has been accomplished. Indeed, Cassian writes of the attainment of contemplative knowledge/ θεωρητικη,

“The only people who attain it, possessing it as a reward after the expenditure of much toil and labor, are those who have found perfection not in the words of other teachers but in the virtuousness of their own acts. Obtaining this understanding not from meditating on the law but as a result of their toil, they sing with the psalmist ‘from your commandments I have understood.’…For the one who is singing the psalm, who is moving forward in the undefiled way with the stride of a pure heart, will understand what is sung.”[1]
            The above quotation supplies us with a bridge between practical and contemplative knowledge. Cassian makes allusion to the singing of the psalter in the monastic discipline. The conversion to virtue as a natural expression of self leads to the proper understanding of the psalms as sung in the monastic community, the action of liturgical worship. Although only alluded to in passing, the above quotation expresses a notion of liturgy as the bridge between the full conversion to virtue and contemplative knowledge; understanding liturgical praxis is the first indication that practical knowledge is complete and that one may begin to acquire contemplative knowledge, the proper understanding of Scripture. Indeed, the succeeding passage continues to explore Cassian’s liturgical allusions,
“Therefore, if you wish to prepare a sacred tabernacle of spiritual knowledge in your heart, cleanse yourselves from the contagion of every vice and strip yourselves of the cares of the present world. For it is impossible for the soul which is even slightly taken up with worldly distractions to deserve the gift of knowledge or to beget spiritual understanding or to remember sacred readings.”[2]
            Once again, Cassian emphasis the necessity to complete the acquisition of practical knowledge before the Scriptures can be properly understood, however, Cassian also alludes to the liturgical parallel established in the prior section. The human person in himself must become a liturgical vessel.

[1] Con. XIV. IX.2
[2] Con. XIV. IX.3

[1] Con. XIV. IX.1
[2] Con. XIV. IX.2
[3] Con. XIV. IX.2
[4] Con. XIV. IX.3
[5] Con. XIV. X.3
[6] Con. XIV. X.3
[7] Con. XIV. XII.1
[8] Con. XIV. XI.1

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