Observe, admire and obey may be given as the novice’s watchwords. The ideal must not remain an ideal, but has to be realized at whatever the cost. The cost is heroism.
–St. John Cassian
I found this observation from St. John Cassian in Celtic Daily Prayer. It spoke to me for a number of reasons. Today, I will leave for Louisiana for a meeting of my house within the Anglican Order of Preachers (the Dominicans). Most folks consider Cassian the father of monasticism in the West. So, in a broad sense, as my brothers and sisters gather, we meet in imitation of Abba Cassian.
In this little passage, St. Cassian gives advice to those who are novices in a religious order. In most religious orders today, one begins the process of discerning whether one has a vocation as a postulant. After some period of study, reflection, prayer and a goodly amount of questioning, one can request to become a novice. Novices have been admitted to a specific religious order as “beginners” and will generally remain novices for at least a year or two.
Cassian suggests that novices are called to: (1) observe; (2) admire; and (3) obey. In other words, they are learning how to follow and imitate their brothers and sisters. In an even broader sense, all monastics and all Christians are called into the imitation of our rabbi, Jesus Christ. While we all seek to imitate our Lord, we should not be surprised that others along the same path may arrive at a different place. As Thomas a Kempis (wrote The Imitation of Christ) observed, “A book has but one voice, but it does not instruct everyone alike.”
Cassian warns that our ideals must not remain ideals; we must bring them to fruition. It will not suffice to say we follow Christ; we must become Christ-like (a process our Orthodox brothers and sisters call theosis). As I’ve observed before, the Christian life is not a spectator sport.
Cassian also warns us that this effort carries a significant price: “The cost is heroism.” Jesus calls us to set aside our insecurities, our self-doubts, and even our inadequacies. We must be prepared to face epic failure as we stumble, struggle and stutter our way into our new life in Christ. Jesus called those who are willing to pay that price his friends; He called them disciples.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis