Cassian: What’s in a Name?
There’s a tradition in monastic life that when a man enters the novitiate that as he takes the habit he may also take on a new name, his monastic name, his name in religion. Our friend James has chosen to exercise this option and so from here on out he will be known as Brother Cassian. For those of you who don’t know, John Cassian was the great chronicler of the desert monastic tradition. He was probably born in present day Rumania, but moved to Palestine and joined a monastic community there. But then, lured by stories of these great abbas of the desert, he and his friend Germanus traveled down into Egypt and spent many years living among the monks there, the absolute solitaries, as well as the hermits who lived in groups and the monks who lived a communal life, and so familiarize themselves with the tradition of Saint Antony of the Desert, Evagrius of Pontus and Pachomius. After that Cassian relocated again to an area near modern Marseilles in Gaul and founded his own monastic communities, and wrote two famous books called the Institutes and the Conferences, which recount for them the lessons learned from the cenobites and hermits respectively. From there his teaching passed on into Western monasticism via Saint Benedict of Nursia, who is considered the Father of Western monasticism and whose who rule we ourselves follow having been left under it by our founder Saint Romuald.
It is significant for any monk to take this name, but especially for a Camaldolese monk, for several reasons. First of all, Cassian is a bridge between East and West, especially between Eastern and Western Christianity. Not only does he come from a time before the divided church, like our own Saint Romuald, but he also makes this journey from Rumania into Palestine into the desert of Egypt and then back into Europe bringing with him the treasures of each place. In him it’s as if East and West are not two. But also, especially poignant for a Camaldolese monk, he writes about both the solitary and the communal life, the first two goods of our own charism, and supports them both. One of the things we speak of here is what we call the “both/and”; we’re always trying to dwell in that place where there is not a polemic between one aspect or another, as Romuald left it to us; the solitary life and fraternal communion flow into each other and they both have their gifts to offer––and Cassian is a fine example of that. We also have as a part of our charism this Third Good, which originally was known as evangelium paganorum–the evangelization of unbelievers as personified by the saint, Bruno Boniface, who we celebrate today, the apostolate of martyrdom. Now John Cassian admittedly did not go into hostile lands to preach the gospel, but I would say that he had some of that energy that is behind the Third Good. It began in him as a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to travel to far distant lands in order to quench that thirst. And that led to an availability to the Spirit, and that’s what the third good really is, the gift of total self-donation that should mark the Camaldolese monk.
To take on a name is a kind of aspiration. I even warn people at Halloween that they should be careful what they dress up as: you want to be a devil, a witch, or clown; do you want to be a football player, a ballerina, a saint? So, James, to put on this habit and to take this name means you want to be a monk like John Cassian. We pray that in this life you will benefit from the treasures of fraternal communion, that you will cultivate your own personal prayer life. But especially we pray that you will be totally available to the Spirit who has already led you here, through the voice of this community, through the Church, but most of all in the still small voice in the cave of your heart.