Saints Hilary and Cassian

A brief mention of two saints, both of whose commemorations fall on February 29th – the day of their deaths. Hence, on non-leap years they are moved to today, the 28th. I suppose the same happens to people with birthdays on that propitious leap day, when, as custom has it, women may propose to men, at least if they’re Irish, and standing on cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland.

The first is Saint Hilary – not the more famous bishop of Poitiers. This one was chosen pope as successor to Saint Leo the Great, hence had large leonine shoes to fill. But fill them he did, and fulfilled that exalted role well, from 461 to his death in 468, shoring up the rights of the papacy and the Church, codifying the law, and fighting heresies and heretics (from Arians and Macedonians – also called pneumomachians, denying the divinity of the Holy Spirit, all the way to Origenists).

The second is Saint John Cassian (360 – 435), who brought the practices of Eastern monasticism to the West. He went off into the ‘desert’ as a young man, spending 25 years in prayer and manual labour, fighting his evil tendencies, before being ordained a deacon by the then-patriarch of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom, where Cassian had gone to dispute a Origenist heresy held by their own patriarch in Alexandria.

When Chrysostom himself was exiled for his preaching against vice and heresy, Cassian was sent to Rome to defend his cause, and ended up staying in the West, invited to found a monastery in southern Gaul, the Abbey of Saint Victor, not far from Marseilles, which sounds rather pleasant, writing from the snowy, icy climes of Canada. Here, late in life, Cassian penned two famous works: The Institutes, describing the monastic life, and how to fight the eight deadly vices (which tradition reduced to seven deadly sins). As well, he wrote the Collataiones, or Conferences, describing principles of the spiritual life, analyzing especially the role of the will, which must be tempered, even crushed, to attain perfection, in the spirit of obedience, to defeat the foundational sin of pride. He is often seen as a foe of the contemporaneous Pelagians. (Ironically, Cassian has been accused of semi-Pelagianism, which seems untrue, but the interplay between grace and free-will was still being worked out amongst these early Fathers, and it’s still a mystery).

Both of these masterpieces influenced the thought of later would-be monk from Nurcia, Benedict, who adopted much of Cassian’s principles in his own Rule.

Cassian died at his monastery in Marseilles on February 29th, 468.

Saints Hilary and John Cassian, orate pro nobis! +