Thoughts from the Early Church

Commentary by John Cassian

The person who does not renounce
his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The tradition of the Fathers and the authority of holy scripture both affirm that there are three renunciations which every one of us must strive to practice. To these let us turn our attention.

First, on the material level, we have to despise all worldly wealth and possessions; secondly, we must reject our former way of life with its vices and attachments, both physical and spiritual; and thirdly, we should withdraw our mind from all that is transitory and visible to contemplate solely what lies in the future and to desire what is unseen.

We read that the Lord commanded Abraham to make all three renunciations at once when he said to him: “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house. First he said your country,” meaning worldly wealth and possessions; secondly your kindred, that is our former way of living, with its habits and vices which have grown up with us and are as familiar to us as kith and kin; thirdly your father s house, in other words every secular memory aroused by what we see.

This forgetfulness will be achieved when, dead with Christ to the elemental spirits of this world, we contemplate as the apostle says, “not the things that are seen but those that are unseen, for what is seen is temporal but what is unseen is eternal.”

It will be achieved when in our hearts we leave this temporal and visible house and turn the eyes of our mind toward that in which we shall live for ever; when, though living in the world, we cease to follow the spirit of the world in order to fight for the Lord, proclaiming by our holy way of life that, as the apostle says, “our homeland is in heaven.”

It avails little to undertake the first of these renunciations, even with wholehearted devotion inspired by faith, unless we carry out the second with the same zeal and fervor.

Then having accomplished this as well we shall be able to go on to the third, whereby we leave the house of our former father, of him who fathered us as members of a fallen race, “children of wrath like everyone else,” and turn our inward gaze solely toward heavenly things.

We shall attain to the perfection of this third renunciation when our mind, no longer dulled by contact with a pampered body, has been cleansed by the most searching refinement from every worldly sentiment and attitude, and raised by constant meditation on divine things and spiritual contemplation to the realm of the invisible.

It will then lose all awareness of the frail body enclosing it or of the place it occupies, so absorbed will it be by things divine and spiritual.

(Conference 3, 6-7: SC 42, 145-147)
ed. Edith Barnecut

John Cassian (c. 360-433) is renowned for having introduced knowledge of Eastern monasticism into the West, thus influencing the development of ascetic spirituality.

After his initiation into monastic life at Bethlehem, he spent fourteen years in the Egyptian desert imbibing the wisdom of the Fathers. He was ordained deacon at Constantinople by Saint John Chrysostorn, was sent on an embassy to Rome, and finally settled at Marseilles, where he founded two monasteries. His outstanding works on the monastic life are the Institutes and Conferences.

He entered into controversy with Saint Augustine on the subject of grace and freewill, but the exchange was marked by mutual respect.

Cassian laid great stress on the need for effort in the ascetical life, but that grace is always presupposed is shown by the enormous importance he attached to prayer. The label of semi-pelagian later attached to his name is therefore undeserved.


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson