Holy Ravishing: Ecstasy and Discipline in the Monastic Teaching of John Cassian
The writings of John Cassian greatly influenced the development of Western monasticism. The Institutes and Conferences brought the teaching of monks in the desert wildernesses of Egypt to an eager audience in the Western Roman province of Gaul early in the fifth century. Cassian’s monastic texts teach that ascetic disciplines, such as fasting, sexual abstinence, poverty, liturgical prayer and submission to superiors, are essential for the cultivation of holiness and salvation. However, scattered within these texts are brief descriptions of sudden moments of ecstasy that Cassian calls excessus mentis (ecstasy of the mind). These depictions of spontaneous, ravishing encounters with God appear to contradict the austere ascetic programme of control and constraint advocated in the Institutes and Conferences.
This thesis argues that Cassian’s descriptions of excessus mentis do not contradict the writer’s monastic teaching but instead are key elements of his pedagogy. It shows how Cassian uses the literary technique of imitatio in his descriptions of excessus mentis to convey an experience of such ecstasy to his audience in Gaul. By prompting his audience to undergo an experience of excessus mentis, when they engage with his texts, Cassian hopes to encourage the monks in Gaul to increase their dedication to ascetic disciplines and the pursuit of holiness. The thesis reveals Cassian to be an accomplished literary practitioner as well as an astute teacher of monasticism. Furthermore, it shows that Cassian’s confidence in God’s constant desire for union with humankind, which underpins the presentation of excessus mentis in his texts, is at odds with the writer’s reputation as a proponent of heterodox Pelagianism. Moreover, it contends that political and social forces within the fifth-century Gallic Church most likely deterred Cassian from overtly encouraging monks in the region to seek ecstatic encounters with God.
The research in this thesis advances recent scholarship that examines how texts from Late Antiquity function to communicate knowledge. It also adds to a growing body of research that explores the theology expressed in Cassian’s texts and seeks to identify how the writer’s social and political contexts influenced the composition of these writings.