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The Synaxarion calls him Our Father Cassian, chosen by God to bring the illumination of Eastern monasticism to the West.

He was born in Scythia of noble parents, and was well educated in secular things. But, thirsting for perfection, he left all behind and travelled with his friend Germanus to the Holy Land, where he became a monk in Bethlehem. After becoming established in the monastic life for several years, St John felt a desire for greater perfection, and sought out the Fathers of the Egyptian Desert.

He spent seven years in the Desert, learning from such Fathers as Moses, Serapion, Theonas, Isaac and Paphnutius. Through long struggles in his cell, St John developed from personal experience a divinely-inspired doctrine of spiritual combat. Many say that it was he who first listed the eight basic passions: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory and pride.

In time, struggles in the Alexandrian Church made life so difficult for the Egyptian monks that St John (still accompanied by his friend Germanus), sought refuge in Constantinople, where they came under the care and protection of St John Chrysostom. When the holy Archbishop was exiled, St John once again fled, this time to Rome, where he came under the protection of Pope Innocent I. This proved to be providential for the Western Church, for it was St John who brought the treasures of Desert spirituality to the monasteries of the West.

He founded the monastery of St Victor in Marseilles, then, at the request of his bishop, wrote the Cenobitic Institutions, in which he adapted the austere practices of the Egyptian Fathers to the conditions of life in Gaul.

He went on to write his famous Conferences, which became the main channel by which the wisdom of the desert East was passed to the monastics of the West. Saint Benedict developed much of his Rule (which at one time governed most monasteries in the Latin world) from St John's Institutions and ordered that the Conferences be read in all monasteries.

Saint John reposed in peace in 435, and has been venerated by the monks of the West as their Father and one of their wisest teachers. His relics are still venerated at the Abbey of St Victor in Marseilles.

St John's writings were soon attacked by extreme Augustinians and, as Augustinianism became the official doctrine of the Latin Church, his veneration fell out of favour in the West. Outside the Orthodox Church, his commemoration is now limited to the diocese of Marseilles.

..Returning to the contemporary British Church, we find that in the province of Valentia, which comprised that portion of North Britain situated between the walls of Antonine and Hadrian, there was born about the year 360, one whose personality, amid much that is vague and legendary, seems to stand out clear and distinct before the modern historic vision. This is Nynias or Ninian, who was the son of a Christian Celtic prince or chief. S. Ninian was baptized and educated a Christian. Filled with religious zeal, he resolved to visit the great city whose ancient glory was still the pride of the world's dominant empire, and, circumstances being favourable to the accomplishment of his wish, he set out from his home and reached Rome in due course. Here he studied for some time, and in 397 he was consecrated as Bishop, and sent back to his native country. On his way he passed through Gaul, and turned aside for some time to the city of Tours on the Loire, where S. Martin, commonly known as "the soldier saint" and now in his eightieth year, presided over a monastery which he had founded on the Eastern model, the fame of which was known to S. Ninian. As the latter's sojourn with the aged S. Martin, to whom he is said to have been related, was destined to bear much fruit, and to have far-reaching consequences later in the Celtic Church, it will be well that we should pause here for a little, and endeavour to examine briefly the nature and general characteristics of the Church of ancient Gaul, many features of which were afterwards to be incorporated into that of the Celt......<snip>....

..........of this monasticism [the type obtaining in Gaul], S. Anthony, the Coptic Saint, was the founder. Anthony was an Egyptian of noble birth, who was born in Corma, situated near the boundary between Lower and Upper Egypt, in 251 AD. He early became imbued with zeal for the ascetic life. At first he was a solitary or eremite, but later he advocated the coenobitic life. Later, this idea was merged in that of the monastery in which the brethren dwelt under one roof.

Pachomius, the successor to S. Anthony, brought the monks together under a prescribed rule and founded a monastery on the island of Tabennae in the Upper Nile, which had latterly no fewer than 7,000 members. The head of the monastery was the Abbas, a Syriac word which means father, and the community was regarded as his family. The fame and reputation for piety of this early establishment rapidly spread, and many similar communities sprang up in neighbouring countries.

This Egyptian system of monasticism in due course took firm root in Gaul, although not in Rome. S. Martin became impressed with it. In 360 he returned to Poitiers and was again with Hilary. He founded in the neighbourhood the Monastery of Liguge. In 371 he was appointed Bishop of Tours. As he was devoted to the life of a recluse he established the Monastery of Marmoutier-les-Tours on the banks of the Loire. It should be pointed out, however, that it was not entirely die to the name and fame of S. Anthony that S. Martin felt the desire to be associated with the ascetic life. Combined with this primary cause was another, resulting from his absorbing interest in the Montanist Colony which, years before his time, had fled from Asia to establish itself and its doctrines in Gaul. In him therefore two streams of Eastern asceticism converged; one from Egypt and the other from Asia Minor. .....<snip>.......

From the above evidence it is clear that S. Martin received his inspiration from Lyons [also strongly influenced by Asia Minor], through Hilary and Symphorian, and from Egypt, rather than from Rome.

S. Martin was not alone in his enthusiasm for Egyptian monasticism. John Cassian - who had visited the Nile and its most celebrated monasteries, and who returned with glowing accounts of the success of the movement in Egypt; of the 5,00 monks on the mountains where S. Anthony had lived in his cell; of the 50,00 in the desert of Nitria; of the 50,000 who would assemble together to celebrate the Easter Communion; of the meagre diet, of the maceration of the flesh, of the devout piety - founded a monastery as Marseilles after the Egyptian model, and published two books: De Institutione Coenobiorum and Collationes Patrum, which greatly influenced the religious beliefs and practices in Gaul. The doctrine taught in this monastery was a semi-Pelagianism, as opposed to the orthodox Augustinianism of the Church of Rome. There were many others, like Cassian, who felt impelled, after visiting Egypt, to found similar retreats. There Egyptian customs and habits of thought were introduced on the islands which range themselves along the western coasts of the Mediterranean. The sea was to these retreats, as the late Professor Story describes, what the Nile or the desert was to their Egyptian prototypes; and the Egyptian model of the monastic life was faithfully reproduced in them.

Just as Ephesus, Antioch, and Alexandria found their way to Gaul without making Rome a stage on the journey, so intercourse between Egypt and Gaul which, indeed, had been established for ages before the Christian era, although hitherto purely social, commercial, and intellectual, now became also religious. When Jerome's eulogies of monasticism were so angrily resented by Roman society that he saw it was best for him to retire to Bethlehem with Paula and Eustochium, the asceticism of the Nile was already winning its way among hundreds of devotees in Liguria [extreme south-western part of Northern Italy} and Gallia Narbonensis [southeastern coast of modern day France].

Another of the notable communities in Gaul was that of the island of Lerins, founded by S. Honorat. This became a centre from which emanated monastic forces which quickly spread throughout the whole of the west of Europe. It was S. Vincent, the great and leaned doctor in this monastery, who gave the well known definition of the true creed - Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditumi sit.

The seven chapels of this monastery may still be traced among the ruins, and forcibly remind us of the seven churches at Glendalough in Ireland, both groups being symbolic of the historic seven of Asia in the Apocalypse.

To this monastery came S. Patrick of Ireland, after escaping from the chieftain, on the Antrim coast, who had held him in bondage. he here studied the culture and asceticism which had been transplanted from the East. In his "Confession" he does not speak of having received his authority from Rome, and his whole life and teaching prove the reverse. Like S. Ninian, he also visited S. Martin, who was his uncle, at Tours, and there he gathered further insight into the work of the monastery.

Here then we have reached a highly interesting stage in our historical progression. These two Christian leaders - S. Ninian, carrying from S. Martin at Tours the enthusiasm for monasticism and culture of the East, and later, S. Patrick, likewise imbued with monastic zeal which he had acquired both at Lerins and Tours - returned to their respective countries, Scotland and Ireland, and founded religious settlements which, before many years should elapse, were calculated to wield an influence universally felt not only in the British Isles but on the Continent of Europe .....<snip>....

We this see that the influence of Asia Minor and of Egypt came to the early Celtic Church in Britain from Gaul in two streams which eventually met and merged into one; the first came from S. Martin through S. Ninian to Whithorn, in Galloway, whence, through S. Finian it passed to Moville in Ireland and from Moville through S. Columba to Iona and the Celts of Scotland in 563 AD. the second originated in Lerins and through S. Martin at Tours and S. Patrick it passed to Ireland, where it joined the other.

extracts above from:
The Celtic Church and the Influence of the East
Rev.John Stirton, B.D., F.S.A. (Scot.), Crathie

The Dysert Tradition
Jay Cooper Rochelle

When Christian beginnings were made in the far west of the Roman Empire, Ireland was a land of small settlements. Monasticism made inroads because the style of living and the form of building resembled closely what already existed. Cities were not built until the Danish period. Wexford and Dublin were the first of the larger settlements to come during that time. Prior to that, roads were poor and settlements were small. The Romans never crossed the Irish Sea hence no good roads were laid across the island.

Travel was difficult, which helps to explain the centrality of the local traditions and communities to a thriving Christian life. Tribal or clan organisation centred around a chieftain. A monastery was organised around an abbot. These models were not distant from one another. One rendered the other sensible and sane.

Tradition has it that monasticism, the earliest form of Christian community in Ireland, [actually monasticism did not come to dominance in Ireland until around 550] came along the North coast from Egypt. The history supports this tradition. The desert fathers of Egypt, who antedate the full development of the Coptic Church, led in turn to the work of Martin of Tours (ca. 316-397), who is revered in many Celtic-background churches. Martin founded the first Gallican monastery at Liguge near Poitiers in 360. He subsequently founded a second monastery at Tours, when he was elected bishop for that region.

Two generations later, John Cassian (ca. 365-ca. 433) founded two monasteries at Marseilles (ca. 415) for which he wrote his Institutes and Conferences as rule and guide. Cassian's work rests on his own sojourn with the Egyptian monks and provides the ground upon which Celtic monasticism was built in the next generation.

From Gaul, monasticism spread westward through the Celtic regions to the end of the known world, which is to say to Ireland. By the sixth century, monasticism was the defining force in the Christian life of the society as a whole. Columbanus (543-615), the Irish-born "reverse missionary" to Gaul in the late 6th century, wrote a Rule, which is second only to the Rule of St Benedict in importance in the western church.

The ascetic tradition of the East, which influenced the Celtic regions, is more austere than that of the West. Cassian's Dialogues, e.g., speak in detail about renunciation, mortification of the flesh, and the life of constant repentance. This note foreshadows the Irish penitential tradition as it developed in the eighth and ninth centuries. Furthermore, Cassian enjoins monks to find spiritual directors, and hence the anamchara or "soul friend" which some have connected to the pre-Christian past of Celtic lands. Cassian, in Conference 13, expresses the relationship between will and grace in salvation in semi-Pelagian terms, a note that would find echoes in the Celtic tradition. Conference 10 calls the monk to develop a style of repetitive prayer which has its future consummation in two forms, the Jesus-prayer of the hesychast tradition in the East, and the tradition of "constant prayer" that was recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the western Islands, and which has become so well-known in recent years as part of the Celtic distinctives in Christian faith.

Monasticism is a form of martyrdom. When the edge between secular and spiritual culture was no longer drawn in the blood of the martyrs, the monks took up the cause of drawing a line to maintain Christianity as an alternative culture "in but not of the world."

By the time the Celtic churches developed, however, the age of persecution was over. Furthermore, the places of persecution were distant in miles from the centre of the Celtic world. The forms faith took in Celtic regions were the monastic communities common in Ireland and on Iona and Lindisfarne.

About Jay Cooper Rochelle


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