Abbot; father of the church. Like St. ANTHONY, who preceded him in the same century, John Cassian was a significant early author on the nature and characteristics of Demons and the remedies against them. However, the church ultimately rejected his work as apocryphal.
Cassian probably was born around the year 360; the place is uncertain. Among the possibilities suggested are Gaul, Syria, Palestine, and Scythia. Nothing is known about him until 380, when he, at age 20, and his friend Germanus became monks at Bethlehem, in a monastery near the place of the nativity.
They stayed there until about 385, then left for Egypt, spending about 15 years traveling throughout Lower Egypt and the Nile delta, staying with the most famous monks and anchorites. Cassian kept a journal, recording everything he saw with a vivid style and minute accuracy, a sense of humor, and an eye for the picturesque. They left Egypt for Constantinople, where Bishop St. John Chrysostom ordained Germanus a priest and Cassian a deacon. In 405, after Chrysostom was deposed, they went to Rome, carrying a letter to Pope St. Innocent I (r. 401–17) from the clergy of Constantinople protesting this act. In Rome, Cassian was ordained a priest. Ten years later, he was in Marseilles (Germanus disappeared in the interim), where he founded and served as abbot of the monastery of St. Victor for men and the convent St. Savior for women.
Asked by a neighboring bishop, Castor of Apt, to compile a sumMary of all he had observed and learned during his travels, Cassian composed a 12-volume work, Remedies for the Eight Deadly Sins, which describes the rules and organization of communities in Egypt and Palestine, and of the means used by the monks in their spiritual combat against the eight chief obstacles to a monk’s perfection. (See Seven Deadly Sins.) He was not unduly impressed by extreme asceticism and did not recommend it for the monasteries of the West. Instead, he held that perfection was to be achieved through the charity and love that make humans most like God.
Cassian’s next work was Conferences on the Egyptian Monks, in which he relates discussions he and Germanus had with the monks. The doctrine he expressed was unorthodox, giving too much importance to free will and not enough to divine grace. Conferences was publicly criticized but was still highly popular and influential. Even St. Benedict prescribed it as one of the books to be read aloud by his monks after their evening meal.
About 430, Cassian was commissioned by the future pope St. Leo to write the seven-volume On the Incarnation of the Lord, a critique of the Nestorian heresy, which put forth the idea that Christ had existed as two separate beings, one divine and one human. This hastily written book assisted in the condemnation of Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Cassian died in Marseilles, France, on July 23, about the year 433. After his death, Conferences was declared apocryphal by a decree attributed to Pope St. Gelasius I (r. 492–96). In 529, Cassian himself was condemned by a church council.
Cassian’s Views on Demons and the Devil
Cassian said that there are three origins of all of human thoughts: God, the Devil, and ourselves. Thoughts from God lift us up to a higher state of spiritual progress. Thoughts from the Devil try to destroy people with the pleasures of sin and secret attacks and deceitful guises such as purporting to be from “angels of light” who try to show that evil is good.
Cassian’s Demons, as do those of Anthony, resemble the Greek DaimonES, who inhabit the air and have supernatural powers. The very air is thick with them, and it is fortunate that they are invisible to people, for the dread of seeing them would drive men to insanity. The Demons are similar to humans, with similar thoughts and perceptions, and detect a person’s inner weaknesses and vulnerabilities by observing his or her external behavior.
Books 7 and 8 of Conferences concern conversations with Abbot Serenus, and there is much discussion of Demons. Serenus, through his faith, fasting, and prayer, suppressed his sexual desires and could resist Demonic seduction. According to Serenus, Demons cannot take over and unite with the inner spirit of humans, but they can seize upon the natural inclinations that reside within and use those to incite impure thoughts. For example, if Demons see a natural tendency toward gluttony, they will use that to their advantage. First, Demons must take over the mind and thoughts before they can take over a body.
Not every Demon can incite every sin within a person, Cassian said. Demons have their specialties and find opportunities to use them. Likewise, the Demons cannot incite many sins at the same time but rather focus on one or two in any particular time. Demons also vary in their individual strength and capability. Weaker Demons start first and are replaced by stronger Demons the more a person is able to resist.
Demons cannot afflict anyone of his or her own free will but only with the permission of God, Cassian said. They are not invincible. They have their own anxieties and uncertainties in their battles against people. When defeated, they retreat in confusion and despair. Cassian said that even by his time, the power of Demons had diminished from the time of the first monks in the desert. Those monks could not dare to sleep all at the same time at night, lest Demons descend upon them. There are many terms and names for Demons, he said, too many to list:
But it would take too long to search through the whole of Scripture and run through the different kinds of them, as they are termed by the prophets onocentaurs, satyrs, sirens, witches, howlers, ostriches, urchins; and asps and basilisks in the Psalms; and are called lions, dragons, scorpions in the gospel, and are named by the Apostle the prince of this world, rulers of this darkness, and spirits of wickedness.
Importance of Cassian’s Views
Cassian reinforced the beliefs that Demons are everywhere striving to attack people, that they have the ability to influence people’s thoughts and desires, and that they can be thwarted by prayer, fasting, the sign of the cross, and the invocation of the name of Christ.
Cassian added a great deal of force to the connection between Demons and Magic. The magical arts, taught by the Watchers to the “daughters of Cain,” were subverted under the influence of Demons to profane uses. The “curious arts of wizards and enchantments and magical superstitions” were used to teach people to “forsake the holy worship of the Divinity and to honor and worship either the elements or fire or the Demons of the air.” Magic survived the flood because of Ham, the son of Noah, who learned the magical arts from the daughters of Cain. Ham knew that Noah would never allow magical books aboard the ark, so Ham inscribed the secrets on metal plates and rocks that could not be destroyed by the flood waters. Cassian said, “And when the flood was over he hunted for them with the same inquisitiveness with which he had concealed them, and so transmitted to his descendants a seed-bed of profanity and perpetual sin.”
– Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark, gen. eds. The Athalone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone Press, 1999.
– Cassian, John. The Conferences of John Cassian. Translated and annotated by Edgar C. S. Gibson. Available online. URL: https://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/conf/book1/conf7.html\#7.0. Downloaded February 3, 2008.