Letter 15: Moral freedom and grace

Cassian, following in the footsteps of Evagrius, emphasizes both moral freedom, personal responsibility, as well as the workings of grace. This is in marked contrast to the view of St Augustine, who considered only grace necessary for salvation. St Augustine was in agreement with Athanasius. He accepted the theological standpoint that there was an unbridgeable gulf between God and creation. This clashed therefore with the more positive view of human nature held by the ‘Origenist’ monks to whom Cassian belonged, namely that God’s creation, including humanity, is essentially good. According to Cassian human beings have been made in God’s “image” and therefore have a free choice to decide to lead a life of practice, purification and prayer resulting in acquiring with the help of grace once more a “likeness” to God.

Augustine’s theory of ‘original sin’ inferred that humanity had no potentiality to choose whether to sin or not to sin, and was in fact incapable of personally achieving salvation. Consequently human beings depended entirely on the grace of God, helped by firm leadership given by the Church. This emphasis on the basic sinfulness of humanity since Adam’s and Eve’s fall causes a permanent sense of unworthiness and guilt, and takes away any sense of personal responsibility for salvation. In this view there is therefore no point in purifying the emotions; all that is needed to achieve salvation is a strong faith and trust in God. St Augustine’s view, as is generally the case, was very much based on his own experiences and perception of reality. His incapacity to control his own basic urges, especially his sexuality, made him draw the conclusion that everyone was equally powerless to control their compulsions.

Cassian was in fact the spokesman for many monks who were upset by Augustine’s denial of the moral validity of the ‘praxis’, in which they were engaged. He stresses the role of choice based on human free will, whilst at the same time confirming the necessity of grace. In his eyes Adam’s and Eve’s behaviour does not cause the whole of humanity to become essentially sinful, but on the contrary their role is seen as a warning not to abuse our free will, our capacity to choose. Cassian even implies that the soul is not helpless and can make the first move; the prodigal son and the thief on the cross are cited by him as examples.

In Conference XIII he says: “Consequently there always remains in the human being a free will that can either neglect or love the grace of Grace.......The grace of God always works together with our will on behalf of the good, helping it in everything and protecting and defending it, so that it sometimes even demands and expects from it certain efforts of a good will, lest it seems to bestow its gifts wholly on one who is asleep or relaxed in lazy sluggishness.”

We have seen, how John Main agreed with the early Church Fathers Clement and Origen that: “The holy Spirit dwells within each of us in such a way that we are all of us, quite literally ‘temples of holiness….We know then that we share in the nature of God” (John Main)

Augustine’s view was therefore totally at variance with both Cassian and John Main. Celtic spirituality also differed from Augustine’s opinion, as an expert on Celtic Spirituality J. Philip Newell says: “Augustine’s doctrine [emphasized] total human depravity along with the belief that creation is basically flawed. The grace of God was seen over and against nature, not as restoring humanity and creation to their God-given natural goodness, [whereas Celtic Christianity] “continued its emphasis on the image of God at the heart of human beings and its conviction of the essential goodness of creation.”

Given John Main’s Celtic family background, his resonance with the ideas of the early Church Fathers and John Cassian – as representative of the Desert teaching - it is not surprising that he regretted the prevalence of Augustine’s view even in our time. The result of this was in his view that: [Modern men and women] “have lost the support of a common faith in their essential goodness, reasonableness and inner integrity [and the awareness] “of the potential of the human spirit rather than the limitations of human life.” He felt strongly that “Meditation is a process of liberation: we must set these truths free in our lives.”

The experience coming from deep contemplative prayer would make us experience the oneness of the Divine, creation and humanity: “Prayer….. is the life of the Spirit of Jesus within our human heart….There is only one prayer, the stream of love between the Spirit of the risen Jesus and His Father, in which we are incorporate.”

Kim Nataraja

Adapted from Kim’s chapter on John Cassian in Journey to the Heart