Cassian and the Desert Fathers,  illum. MS., Conlationes, Paris, 1498

Adapted from: Psalmody and Prayer in the Wrintings of Evagrius Ponticus, L. Dysinger, (Oxf.U.Pr., 2005), 53-61.

AUDIO LECTURE: Cassian on Psalmody

ONE OF the most important witnesses to the practice and spirituality of psalmody in the late fourth century is John Cassian. While other monastic legislators and desert fathers, Evagrius included, mention only in passing such details as bodily posture and the duration of different intervals associated with psalmody, it is Cassian who provides a more detailed picture. Writing in Gaul around the year 420 he was concerned to correct both imprudent excess in the quantity of psalmody offered at the public offices as well as laxity in the performance of psalmody. Thus he offers in the Institutes his recollections of what he had experienced twenty years previously during what was already coming to be wistfully regarded as the ‘golden age’ of Egyptian monasticism.[1] Gabriel Bunge has summarized Cassian’s description of psalmody at the two monastic offices of Vigils and Vespers as follows:

During the performance of the psalms - in community this would be by one or at most three singers who remained standing while the others sat listening (Institutes 2.5.5) - all would arise to pray, cast themselves praying to the ground, then arise again to pray, standing in silence and with hands uplifted. (Institutes 2.7.2. and 2.8) [2]

             The three texts from Cassian’s institutes to which Bunge refers are among the very few which describe in detail the alternating rhythm of psalmody and prayer which characterized early monastic liturgy. In these passages from the Institutes Cassian explains the practices of the monastic communities in which Evagrius was formed as a monk, and which therefore underlie Evagrius’ own experience of psalmody. It will therefore be useful to consider these and other related texts from the Institutes in some detail.







In Book II of the Institutes Cassian justifies the practice of singing only TWELVE PSALMS at each of the principal offices of Vespers and Vigils. He invokes not only venerable tradition but also divine endorsement of this practice; this story may be related to a Pachomian legend claiming angelic authority for monastic usages.[3] In Cassian’s version a group of monastic superiors have gathered to discuss the proper number of psalms to be sung at the common offices, but can reach no agreement. They decide to celebrate Vespers together:

And while all were sitting (as is still customary throughout the land Egypt), having fixed the whole focus of their hearts on the words of the one chanting the psalms, he sang eleven Psalms separated by prayers introduced between them: singing each succeeding verse with equal modulation,[5] he completed the twelfth with the ‘alleluia’ response, and by suddenly withdrawing from the eyes of all, put an end to both their controversy and their ceremony.

Cumque sedentibus cunctis, ut est moris nunc usque in Aegypti partibus, et in psallentis uerba omni cordis intentione defixis undecim psalmos orationum interiectione distinctos contiguis uersibus parili pronuntiatione cantasset, duodecimum sub alleluiae responsione consummans ab uniuersorum oculis repente subtractus quaestioni pariter et caerimoniis finem inposuit. [4]

           Cassian’s intentions in this passage are several. He wishes to establish, first, that psalmody may be listened to while sitting: such was, he says, and is the custom ‘throughout the land of Egypt’. Second, individual psalms are to be sung with prayers, not alleluia-responses, after each one. Third (a point he makes at length elsewhere) the psalmody is to be sung clearly and distinctly with the kind of ‘modulation’ that encourages all to fix the whole focus or attention of their heart, their intentio cordis, on the verses being sung. And finally, as the humorous conclusion to the story makes clear, twelve psalms will suffice.

          This text also illustrates that in the liturgical assembly psalms were ordinarily sung by one or more cantors while the rest of the community sat and listened. This point is described in greater detail later in the Institutes:

The twelve Psalms mentioned above are divided as follows: if there are two brothers, each sings sing six; if there are three, [each sings] four; and if four, [each sings] three. Less than this number is never sung in community; and so whatever the size of the gathering, not more than four sing at the synaxis.

Praedictum uero duodenarium psalmorum numerum ita diuidunt, ut, si duo fuerint fratres, senos psallant, si tres, quaternos, si quattuor, ternos. Quo numero numquam minus in congregatione decantant, ac perinde, quantalibet multitudo conuenerit, numquam amplius psallunt in synaxi quam quattuor fratres.[6]

          These texts indicate that unlike the ‘antiphonal ‘[7] form of singing according to which alternating choirs answer each other, the early monastic experience of Vigils and Vespers would largely have been one of listening, rather than of singing.[8] It was the cantor who chanted, not, for the most part, the community.[9] In order to help the monks listen as attentively as possible, they were allowed to sit during the psalmody:

The aforementioned canonical number of twelve Psalms is rendered easier by a kind of bodily rest: all of those who gather to celebrate according to their custom (except the one who stands up in the center to recite the psalms) sit upon low benches and follow closely the voice of the one chanting the psalms with the whole focus of their hearts. For their fasting and labors by day and night are so exhausting that unless refreshed by some such assistance, they would not be able to complete even this number [of psalms] while standing.

Hunc sane canonicum quem praediximus duodenarium psalmorum numerum tali corporis quiete releuant, ut has easdem congregationum sollemnitates ex more celebrantes absque eo, qui dicturus in medium psalmos surrexerit, cuncti sedilibus humillimis insidentes a uoce psallentis omni cordis intentione dependeant. Ita namque ieiuniis et operatione totius diei noctisque lassescunt, ut, nisi huiuscemodi refectione adiuuentur, ne hunc quidem numerum stantes explere praeualeant.[10]

According to Cassian this ostensible indulgence in regard to posture helped the monks maintain intentio cordis during the chanting. Their attentive listening was further facilitated by regularly interrupting the chanting with a period of ‘refreshment’ (refectio), an interval of silent prayer which concluded with a collect sung by the cantor. This permitted a redirecting of the intentio from receptive listening to a more active self-offering in prayer. Following the period of prayer the attention of the heart, now refreshed, could be redirected towards the next psalm sung by cantor(s):

And thus they do not even try by an unbroken recitation to finish those Psalms they sing in community: rather, depending on the number of verses, they divide them into two or three sections, completing them separately, section by section, interspersing prayers between them. For it is not in an abundance of verses, but rather in the mind’s knowledge that they delight, seeking this will all their powers: I will sing with the spirit: I will sing also with the mind. (1Cor 14:15)

Et idcirco ne psalmos quidem ipsos, quos in congregatione decantant, continuata student pronuntiatione concludere, sed eos pro numero uersuum duabus uel tribus intercisionibus cum orationum interiectione diuisos distinctim particulatimque consummant. Non enim multitudine uersuum, sed mentis intellegentia delectantur, illud tota uirtute sectantes: Psallam spiritu, psallam et mente. [11]

James McKinnon believes that the phrase distinctim particulatimque (‘separately, section by section ‘) implies a slow pace of chanting on the cantor’s part, intended to facilitate understanding of the text being sung.[12] An additional opportunity to appropriate the spiritual meaning of the psalm would have been provided during the pauses for prayer which regularly interrupted the psalmody. These intervals of prayer consist of three successive acts, each involving a change in posture. First, the monks arise to stand for a time in prayer; this is followed by a brief prostration. Finally, all stand again for prayer, this time with outstretched hands, and the cantor concludes with a collect ‘gathering’ the prayers of the whole community. Cassian warns that although the interval of prayer must be substantial and not rushed, the prostration should not be prolonged. Again Cassian describes and interprets the Egyptian practice he remembers:

 […] before they bend their knees they pray for a little while, standing to spend the greater part of the time in supplication. And after this, for the briefest moment, they prostrate themselves on the ground as if adoring the divine compassion, and then arise as quickly as possible, standing upright with outstretched hands - just as they had previously prayed (oraverant) standing - [now] to linger in [supplicating] prayers (preces). […] antequam flectant genua, paulisper orant et stantes in supplicatione maiorem temporis partem expendunt. Itaque post haec puncto breuissimo procidentes humi, uelut adorantes tantum diuinam clementiam, summa uelocitate consurgunt ac rursus erecti expansis manibus eodem modo, quo prius stantes orauerant, suis precibus inmorantur.

For remaining prostrate on the ground for any length of time renders you open, they say, not only to the assault of [tempting] thoughts, but of sleep […] But when he who is to ‘collect’ the prayers rises from the ground they all stand up together: for no one would presume to bend the knee before he bows down, nor to delay when he has risen from the ground […]

Humi namque diutius procumbentem non solum cogitationibus aiunt uerum etiam somno grauius inpugnari […] Cum autem is, qui orationem collecturus est, e terra surrexerit, omnes pariter eriguntur, ita ut nullus nec antequam inclinetur ille genu flectere nec cum e terra surrexerit remorari praesumat […] [13]

This passage suggests a distinction between the kind of prayer offered during the intervals when the monks arise from psalmody. The first precedes the prostration and is referred to by Cassian as oratio. During the second, which follows the prostration, the monks stand with outstretched hands (a symbol of supplication) and offer preces, which conclude with a collect chanted by the cantor on behalf of the whole assembly.[14]






          In addition to describing in detail the monastic practice of psalmody, Cassian also describes the inner, spiritual goal of the psalmody and scripture-meditation which monks were expected to practice during manual labor. In the Tenth Conference (the Second Conference of Abba Isaac) Cassian describes and recommends a form of monologistic prayer consisting of continuous recitation of the verse, ‘Deus in adiutorium meum intende, Domine ad adiuvandum me festina’. He explains that through ‘restricting itself to the poverty of this verse’ and meditating as well on the Lord’s passion, the mind casts off ‘the richness and multiplicity of thoughts’[15] to ascend like the stag of Psalm 103:18 into ‘even more exalted and sacred mysteries’[16] At first this rejection of multiplicity in favor of inward ‘poverty’ appears similar to Evagrius’ ‘pure prayer’ beyond all images and concepts. Cassian, however, develops this image further, describing the ‘spiritual stag’ ascending into ‘manifold knowledge of God (“multiformem scientiam dei “) through divine illumination’.[17] Thus the goal of this spiritual ascent is not so much freedom from words or images, but rather the ability to perceive the ‘manifold wisdom of God’ (cf. Eph. 3:10);[18] that is, to better understand and inwardly appropriate the rich variety of images and words found in the psalter:

[…] receiving into himself all the inward states [contained] in the psalms, he will begin to sing them not as if composed by the prophets; but as if spoken by him as his own prayers, drawn forth from deepest compunction of heart:

[…] omnes quoque psalmorum adfectus in se recipiens ita incipiet decantare, ut eos non tamquam a propheta conpositos, sed uelut a se editos quasi orationem propriam profunda cordis conpunctione depromat

and he will certainly interpret them as directed at himself, understanding that their verses were not only formerly fulfilled by or in the prophet; but that they are fulfilled and acted out daily in him. uel certe ad suam personam aestimet eos fuisse directos, eorumque sententias non tunc tantummodo per prophetam aut in propheta fuisse conpletas, sed in se cotidie geri inplerique cognoscat. [19]

It is clear from this text that for Cassian psalmody is not merely a preparation for the prayers which are offered between the psalms; rather, the psalms can and should be sung as one’s own personal prayer (‘quasi orationem propriam’). Indeed the chanting of psalms seems here to accompany, or perhaps to induce, that very highly-prized occasion of repentance and renewed consecration to God called by the desert fatherscompunctio cordis’  (κατάνυξις) .[20]

          In Cassian’s view psalmody is not so much an exercise in recalling events from Israel’s past as it is an opportunity to practice sharpened spiritual vision, here principally a vision directed inward, for the purpose of understanding the deeper meaning of one’s own ascetical striving. Psalmody is thus not an escape from the ‘real world’ into another state of consciousness, nor is it an opportunity to meditate piously on events safely distant in time and culture from one’s own experience. On the contrary: Cassian recommends that the monk receive into himself the affectus cordis of the psalm’s original author and make the psalm his own, becoming as it were a new author of the psalm.[21] Through familiarity with the text the monk learns to anticipate the deeper meaning of the words he is about to sing and then to allow this to illuminate his own lived experience. During psalmody he will recall vividly his own daily strivings and failings:

[…] we remember our own circumstances and what daily happens when we are assailed by thoughts, and while singing [the psalms] we recall all that our negligence has caused, or our diligence has attained, or divine providence has granted, or the instigation of the enemy has cheated us of, or slippery and subtle forget­fulness has taken away, or human frailty has brought about, or how careless ignorance has deceived.

[…] quid in nobis gestum sit uel cotidianis geratur incursibus superueniente eorum meditatione quodammodo recordemur, et quid nobis uel neglegentia nostra pepererit uel diligentia conquisierit uel prouidentia diuina contulerit uel instigatio fraudauerit inimici uel subtraxerit lubrica ac subtilis obliuio uel intulerit humana fragilitas seu inprouida fefellerit ignoratio, decantantes reminiscamur.[22]

Chanting the psalms, the monk peers into a ‘mirror of the soul’ where his own spiritual struggles are seen against the background of salvation history and in the light of God’s compassion:

We find all these inward states expressed in the psalms, so that seeing whatever occurs as in the clearest mirror, we more effectively understand it; and so with our inward states for teachers, we are educated not [merely] by hearing, but through actual examination […] Omnes namque hoc adfectus in Psalmis inuenimus expressos, ut ea quae incurrerint uelut in speculo purissimo peruidentes efficacius agnoscamus et ita magistris adfectibus eruditi non ut audita, sed tamquam perspecta palpemus […] [23]

Thus for Cassian psalmody is a school where the monk learns about his relationship with God by means of his own memories. The ‘inward states’ experienced as the psalms are chanted are ‘teachers’, clarifying the deeper meaning of ongoing spiritual progress or failure. The monk’s experiences unfold before him during psalmody, and by listening to what he feels within himself and to what he hears being sung, he begins to understand the deeper meaning of both. Psalmody thus becomes a sort of spiritual training-ground in which the virtue of discernment is learned: one’s thoughts, memories, and aspirations are tested and interpreted in the light of God’s word while that word is chanted. This approach presupposes an exegetical method whereby the images and stories encountered during psalmody can be understood as symbols which interpret the monk’s ascetical journey. As will be described, this intensely personal hermeneutic method had been taught in detail by Evagrius, whose exegetical works can be read as spiritual ‘dictionaries’ or workbooks intended to aid the monk in this very practice.

          Cassian’s discussion of psalmody and monologistic prayer culminates in a description of the soul caught up into an experience of prayer beyond words or images: Cassian calls it the ‘prayer of fire’. It is not a state that can be achieved through any technique, even the monologistic practice Cassian recommends in Conference 10. It is purely a grace from God and seems to occur unexpectedly at intervals, especially (but not exclusively) during psalmody:

(1) […] For it can occasionally happen that any verse at all from the psalms may set our prayer ablaze while we are chanting. Or sometimes the musical phrasing by the brother chanting will arouse dull minds to focused supplication. (2) We also know that the enunciation and reverence of the one chanting the psalms can very much increase the fervor of those who stand by [listening].

(1) […] Nonnumquam etenim psalmi cuiuscumque uersiculus occasionem orationis ignitae decantantibus nobis praebuit. Interdum canora fraternae uocis modulatio ad intentam supplicationem stupentium animos excitauit. (2) Nouimus quoque distinctionem grauitatemque psallentis etiam adstantibus plurimum contulisse feruoris.[24]

Like the imageless ‘pure prayer’ which Evagrius extols, Cassian’s ‘prayer of fire’ lifts the one who prays, ‘beyond the need for words or voice’:

And so our mind will attain that incorruptible prayer […] which does not consist solely in averting our inner gaze from images, but rather is characterized by the absence of any need for voice or word: for the focus of our minds is set ablaze through some indescribable eagerness of spirit, which our mind, beyond the senses or the effects of matter, then pours forth to God with inexpressible groans and sighs.

Atque ita ad illam orationis incorruptionem mens nostra perueniet […] quae non solum nullius imaginis occupatur intuitu, sed etiam nulla uocis, nulla uerborum prosecutione distinguitur, ignita uero mentis intentione per ineffabilem cordis excessum inexplebili spiritus alacritate profertur, quamque mens extra omnes sensus ac uisibiles effecta materies gemitibus inenarrabilibus atque suspiriis profundit ad deum.[25]

Although this ‘prayer of fire’ occupies a place in Cassian’s model of the spiritual life similar to that of Evagrius’ ‘pure prayer’, Cassian does not emphasize it to the extent that Evagrius does.[26] Although for Cassian this elevation into a state beyond words is in some sense the crown of the spiritual life, it is not so much a goal to be achieved as it is a gift from God which recurs at intervals throughout one’s spiritual practice.



[1] ‘[After the devastation of Nitria in 399] The freshness of the first generation was fading from Scetis also. And the older monks knew it,’ Chitty, The Desert a City, p. 60; cf. also pp. 65-68.

[2] Bunge, Geistgebet, p. 13.

[3] Owen Chadwick admits that Cassian’s story is similar to the Pachomian tradition of a ‘Rule of the Angel’; but he also describes in detail the principal differences. He doubts whether this represents evidence of a direct relation between Cassian and Pachomius: Chadwick, John Cassian, pp. 60-62.

[4] Cassian, Institutes 2.5.5, SC 109, p. 68.

[5] i.e. a tone or ‘mode’ for each pair of verses

[6] Cassian, Institutes 2.11.3, SC 109, p. 78.

[7] The term ‘antiphonal’ is used here in the narrow sense of alternating choirs. Cassian uses antiphona to describe very different practices, sometimes refering to responsorial chanting of a verse or a whole psalm (Institutes 2.2.1, SC 109, p. 58), at other times apparently using it to mean the whole psalmody of the office (Institutes 2.8, SC 109, p. 72). A third use of the term seems to mean unison singing of a psalm or refrain by the whole community. (Institutes 3.8.4, SC 109, p. 112).

[8] Bunge emphasizes this point in Geistgebet pp. 13-14; however, he inexplicably maintains that the psalmody would have been sung by at most three cantors (‘höchstens drei Sängern’), despite Cassian’s description of four cantors.

[9] This was the case in the more primitive Egyptian office described by Cassian throughout most of Book 2 of the Institutes. In Cassian’s own community in Gaul, however, things were otherwise. In Institutes 3.3.1 he refers to Palestinan and Mesopotamian practices as precedents for his community’s usages, where, in addition to the newer hours of Terce Sext and None (replacing the more ancient Egyptian practice of ‘continual prayer’ during work) there was also greater variety in the performance of psalmody. He uses the term antiphona tria (Institutes 3.8.4, SC 109, p. 112) to refer to one of these variations, perhaps a form of responsorial singing; but certainly a form of psalmody in which the whole community, rather than just the cantor, sang.

[10] Cassian, Institutes 2.12.1, SC 109, pp. 78-80.

[11] Cassian, Institutes 2.11.1, SC 109, p. 76.

[12] James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, p. 148.

[13] Cassian, Institutes 2.7.2-3, SC 109, p. 70.

[14] That ‘he who is to “collect” the prayers’ is in fact the cantor is made clear in a passage where Cassian opposes the practice (destined to become the norm in the West) of singing the Gloria Patri after each psalm. Cassian maintains that the Gloria should be intoned only after all the psalms have been sung: ’And that which we have seen in this country, namely that after one has sung to the end of the Psalm, all stand up and together loudly sing: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” - this we have never heard throughout the whole East. There, rather, while silence is maintained by all, the cantor offers the concluding prayer. This [hymn] glorifying the Trinity generally concludes the whole psalmody (antiphona),’ (Illud etiam quod in hac prouincia uidimus, ut uno cantante in clausula psalmi omnes adstantes concinant cum clamore ‘gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui sancto’, nusquam per omnem Orientem audiuimus, sed cum omnium silentio ab eo, qui cantat, finito psalmo orationem succedere, hac uero glorificatione Trinitatis tantummodo solere antiphona terminari), Institutes 2.8, SC 109, p. 72.

[15] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.1, CSEL 13, p. 303: ‘cogitationum diuitias amplasque substantias abiciat ac refutet, atque ita versiculi huius paupertate constricta’.

[16] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.2, CSEL 13, p. 303: ‘sublimioribus ac sacratioribus mysteriis’.

[17] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.2, CSEL 13, p. 303.

[18] This significance of Eph. 3:10 as a key to Evagrius’ understanding of the psalter and of Christ as the personification of this ‘manifold wisdom’ is discussed below in Chapter 6.1.2 and 6.2.

[19] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.4, CSEL 13, p. 304.

[20] Cassian writes of compunction as one of the proper fruits of psalmody in Conferences 1.17.2, CSEL 13, p. 26: ‘idcirco decantatio crebra psalmorum, ut adsidua nobis exinde conpunctio ministretur.’ Johannes Quasten has discussed the early monastic emphasis on compunction in relation to the use of music in the early Church in ‘The Doctrine of Katanyxis; Oriental Monasticism as Inimical to Artistic Singing’ in Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, pp. 94-98.

[21] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.5, CSEL 13, p. 305: ‘recipientes cordis affectum, quo quisque decantatus uel conscriptus est psalmus, uelut auctores eius facti.’

[22] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.5, CSEL 13, p. 305.

[23] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.6, CSEL 13, p. 305.

[24] Cassian, Conferences 9.26.1-2, CSEL 13, p. 273.

[25] Cassian, Conferences 10.11.6, CSEL 13, p. 303.

[26] Cassian describes ‘fiery prayer’ only in Conferences 9 and 10. C. Stewart notes that unlike Evagrius, Cassian understands this highest form of prayer to be both ecstatic and affective, perhaps in this respect more akin to Syriac and Pseudo-Macarian sources than to Evagrius (Stewart, Cassian the Monk, pp. 114-130; ‘John Cassian on Unceasing Prayer’, pp. 170-177.).



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