Reading the Scriptures with St. John Cassian

This is the 4th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is Reading the Scriptures with the Early Church: In Christ.  In the preceding blog we learned how the early Christians read the scriptures in a different way than most modern biblical readers do, focusing more on the transcendent meaning of the Old Testament: the meaning which is found in and through Jesus the Christ.  In this blog we will consider how St. John Cassian (d. 435AD)  read the Scriptures and taught others to read them.  His methodology, consistent with the educational methods of his day, is repititive reading of scripture in order to commit it to memory.

“To gain this scriptural undergirding of the life of prayer, Cassian taught that it is good to memorize passages of Scripture.  Then the texts will recur to the mind, again and again.  They will recur at times when the soul can hardly think about them because occupied with business, or under temptation.  And at other times they will recur—most fruitfully perhaps during the silent hours of the night—and then they will be understood and will feel like an illumination. 

Just as Cassian had a view of the holy life as an illimitable depth into which the soul penetrates little by little, so he had a sense of the Bible as a book with obvious meanings, but behind the literal sense a series of deeper truths, which will be more and more understood by the soul as it advances morally.  ‘As we strive with constant repetition to commit these readings to memory, we have not the time to understand them because our minds have been occupied. ’ (Conference 14:10).    But later when we are free from the attractions of all that we do and see and, especially, when we are quietly meditating during the hours of darkness, we think them over and we understand them more clearly.”  (John Cassian, CONFERENCES, pp 14-15)

“Cassian… is also conscious that truth is not won in a moment.  It is given in meditation or digestion or rumination.  You read, for example, a piece of Scripture; you say prayers about it; and then one night a few nights later you wake up and realize that it has a very profound meaning for you, of which you had not been conscious in your waking hours.  It is a sudden realization, as though a heavy sleeper is woken by a light.”  (John Cassian, CONFERENCES, p 3)

In St. John Cassian’s own words:

 “If you wish to achieve true knowledge of Scripture you must hurry to achieve unshakable humility of heart. … Then, having banished all worldly concerns and thoughts, strive in every way to devote yourself constantly to the sacred reading so that continuous meditation will seep into your soul, as it were, will shape it to its image.  Somehow it will form that ‘ark’ of the Scriptures (cf Heb 9:4-5) and will contain the two stone tablets, that is, the perpetual strength of the two testaments.  There will be the golden urn which is a pure and unstained memory and which will preserve firmly within itself that everlasting manna, that is, the eternal, heavenly sweetness of spiritual meanings and of that bread which belongs to the angels. … Therefore the sequences of holy Scripture must be committed to memory and they must be pondered ceaselessly.  Such meditation will profit us in two ways.  First, when the thrust of the mind is occupied by the study and perusal of the readings it will, of necessity, avoid being taken over by the snares of dangerous thoughts.  Second, as we strive with constant repetition to commit these readings to memory, we have not the time to understand them because our minds have been occupied.  But later when we are free from the attractions of all that we do and see and, especially, when we are quietly meditating during the hours of darkness, we think them over and we understand them more closely.  And so it happens that when we are at ease and when, as it were, we are plunged into the dullness of sleep, the hidden meanings, of which we were utterly unaware during our waking hours, and the sense of them are bared to our minds.

As our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, Scripture begins to take on a new face.  A mysteriously deeper sense of it comes to us and somehow the beauty of it stands out more and more as we get farther into it.  Scripture shapes itself to human capacity.  ”    (John Cassian, CONFERENCES, p 164-165)

St. John Cassian’s methodology of unlocking the treasury of Scripture is to make oneself so familiar with the text of the Bible by frequent reading of it in order to commit it to memory.  Once texts were memorized, they would penetrate into one’s heart and mind, and like seeds would begin to grow and bear fruit.  This fruit would come, not necessarily as one read the Scriptures, but at some later time when in prayer or mediation: inspiration and insight would be given by the Holy Spirit because one had made the Scriptures the main preoocupation of one’s mind and heart.

“I treasure Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You.”  (Psalm 119:11)

Like most of the Church Fathers, Cassian does not assume that inspiration comes randomly to just anybody – the heart must be made pure, the ground of the heart must be prepared to accept the Word.  Thus an integral part of reading the Bible is repentance and prayer: struggling against self centeredness, selfish desire and temptation in order to love God and neighbor.  A person cannot hear God if they are always preoccupied with themselves, neither can they love; fasting and repentance are ways to deny the self and take up the Cross in order to hear and obey God (Mark 8:34).

Next: How to Read the Old Testament and How Not to Read It