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February 29 Saint of the Day – John Cassian

John CassianOn February 29, 1908, Dutch scientists produced solid helium. This would eventually enable hep cats to say “that’s solid” and “it’s a gas” and “cool, baby” about the same things without embarrassment.

I was not able to find a Catholic saint for February 29. Only one source has a saint at all for today, Albinus of Angers, whom every other source places on March 1. And that one source (wild horses won’t drag the name out of me, although if you mailed me a chocolate bar that might do it) has led me wrong before. So I apologize, but all we get today is an eastern saint. To make matters worse, the Catholic Church has declared some of his teachings heretical. One might think it foolhardy to tell his story in an east-and-west sort of setting like this. But you know me. On we go!

Our eastern leapsaint, then, is John Cassian (ca. 360 – 435). Hailing either from Gaul or Scythia (somewhere between Bulgaria and Romania), Cassian traveled with a buddy named Germanus to the Holy Land, where they entered an eremitic community near Bethlehem. Unsatisfied with the life there (or the food?), they traveled to Scetis in Egypt to learn a deeper monkosity. Cassian’s experiences there led to his two greatest works, the Institutes, and the Conferences. The former had a direct influence on Benedict and his great Rule, the famous set of foundational guidelines that became the foundation for all western monasticism. The latter got him in trouble with the Augustinians in Rome for semi-pelagianism, but more on that anon. From Egypt Cassian and Romanus legged it to Constantinople, where they fell in with John Chrysostom, who deaconified Cassian. At this point Chrysostom was exiled, Cassian went to Rome to try to get the Pope to come to Golden Mouth’s aid, and Romanus completely disappeared from the narrative. Cassian was tapped to start a monastery in Gaul, where he started two just to be safe; or to be more precise, a double monastery for men and women. He died in Marseilles, but that can be said for a lot of people who were otherwise good, upstanding Christians, so we mustn’t hold that against him.

Theologically-wise-speaking, Cassian argued against Augustine’s “irresistible grace” soteriology, arguing instead that salvation, although wholly dependent upon God’s grace, also requires the cooperation of human free will. Both/and, not either/or, if you will — kind of analogous to the Incarnation, in which Christ is both fully God and fully man. For this he is considered fully orthodox in the Orthodox world, but was in the west deemed guilty of semi-pelagianism, which was declared heretical by the Council of Orange. The Orthodox position on this is relegated to the footnotes in the Wikipedia article, giving you some idea of the hardship we Orthodox toil under. (cue: “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”) The Council however declared that as a guy, he was holy enough, and most of my western sources list him as a saint and assign his feast to July 23.

As to why his day falls only once every four years, the Russians tell this story: Once St. Nicholas and St. John Cassian were walking across Russia on their way to a conference with God. (I know; I know.) Along the way they come upon a man whose cart is stuck in the mud. He begs for their help, so Nicholas rolls up his sleeves and helps push the cart out of the mud, but Cassian stands apart. After Nicholas rejoins him, Cassian excoriates him, saying there isn’t enough time to go to the dry cleaners, and he will have to stand before God in muddy robes. When they come before the Throne, God asks Cassian why his robes are so clean, and upbraids him for not helping the man in the mud. In punishment, his feast day is set to February 29, where it will only come once every four years (although in non-leap years it is usually observed on February 28, at least nowadays). Some say this tale is apocryphal. You decide.

This Day in History for 29th February
John Cassian (Wikipedia) – main source
The Prologue of Ohrid (book on paper)
Omer Englebert, Lives of the Saints (book on paper)
John Cassian (Catholic Encyclopedia).
Dobruja (Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.


About Your Intrepid Blogger

I live in the Tacoma area. When not writing things some people think are funny, I teach technology to 7th and 8th graders at a local middle school.

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