Christopher Kelly’s slender volume, Cassian’s Conferences began in response to questions Kelly considered during graduate school at the University of Iowa concerning interpretations of Job (xiii). As he examined the work of John Cassian he was surprised that the fifth century monk’s interpretation of Job had nothing to do with theodicy. Thus the origin of Kelly’s work on Cassian’s monastic biblical exegesis in his Conferences began to take shape. The purpose of Kelly’s book is “to provide an example of how a fifth-century monk named John Cassian used texts considered sacred in the Christian tradition to propose an ideal for living the monastic life” (ix). In the view of this present reader, Kelly has successfully accomplished his task.
Kelly’s work provides readers not only with a terrific example of early Christian monastic exegesis, but it also opens a window into the ascetical life of these early Christian monks. Monasticism was not simply a perpetual commitment to a way of life, but was an essential preparation for eternity. Kelly underscores how these monks withdrew from the world in order to live Christian life to its fullest, in contemplation, and how central Scriptural reading and prayer was for this vocation (x, 2-4, 56-58, 61-64, 68, 96, 101-102). As Kelly explains, “Sacred scripture oriented the lives of the first monks, and, what is more, the content of the interaction between monk and narrative was not theological speculation but practical application. Scripture was not something one read, but something one did” (6). The monk’s very life became “the hermeneutical medium for understanding the text” (3). Within the monastic endeavor, Cassian placed purity of heart in a central place because it made contemplation of God possible (x, 21-22, 29-32, 83-84, 91). The monk’s cell becomes the site of the ascetical struggle, the arduous task of cooperating with God’s grace in the monk’s sanctification (56-57). As Kelly writes, “the cell acted as an anchoring environment in which the drama of the monastic endeavor unfolded” (57).
In the first chapter, “Cassian and the Conferences” (1-16), Kelly introduces us to Cassian the monk, situating him within his early monastic context (4-9), and also to Cassian’s Conferences (9-16). Kelly does a good job showing how the purpose of monastic exegesis such as that found in the Conferences attempted to inspire the reader (monk) to encounter Scripture in such a way that their life was transformed from such prayerful lectio and from the effort put into following the example of the biblical models who exemplified the virtues necessary to live monastic life well (ix, 2-4, 6, 14).
The second chapter, “Martha and Mary: Distraction and Discretion” (17-42), examines how Cassian read the story of Martha and Mary as two examples of the “royal road” of monastic life (x, 18, 24, 26). In the exegetical literature, Martha is viewed as an example of the active life whereas Mary is understood as representing the contemplative life. Cassian, however, views both as examples of the contemplative vocation embodied in monasticism; Mary simply has travelled farther along this path (x, 18, 23-26). Mary becomes the exemplar of focus, of a soul freed from the dangers of distraction (27-35). The virtue of discretion is another important lesson the monk learns from this passage (27, 36-42). Cassian’s readers are thus encouraged to join Mary in Bethany in contemplating Jesus without distraction by the very devotion of prayerfully reading Scripture (37).
In his third chapter, “Job: The Ambidextrous Hero” (43-59), Kelly tackles the thorny issue of suffering, but not from the point of view of theodicy, but rather from the vantage point of the monastic ascetical struggle for sanctification. As Kelly explains, from Cassian’s perspective, “Any anguish or adversity experienced on earth serves only to improve one’s condition in preparation for fulfillment in the life to come” (48-49). Job’s experience, prior to his immense suffering, during his trial, and afterwards, all point to the centrality of turning to God in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving regardless of earthly success or trials and sufferings (54). As Kelly summarizes Cassian, “The religious life, the monastic quest, then, is characterized by struggle, whether it be against the strong currents of a river or against Job’s Adversary and his minions” (56).
The fourth chapter, “Abraham and Moses: Withdrawal and Obedience” (61-85), uses the example of both Abraham and Moses as models for imitation. Abraham especially becomes a model of renouncing the world and clinging to God, in the way Abraham left his homeland and followed God, continually striving to respond obediently to the Lord’s demanding requests (70-76). Moses leading Israel through the desert wilderness likewise becomes a model of the “ideal abba,” guiding the monk through the desert of monastic life to the Beatific Vision (76-85).
The fifth chapter, “Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs: The Continuity of Experience” (87-100), focuses on the various ways the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Psalms and Proverbs function to make the past of Scripture the present of the monk-reader. The words of the Psalms, for example, become the monk’s own words. Kelly’s book concludes with a brief afterword (101-104) and an appendix (105-126) which consists of an excerpt from the beginning of Cassian’s Conferences.
By using the example of the biblical exegesis in Cassian’s Conferences concerning Martha and Mary, Job, Abraham and Moses, as well as the Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs, Kelly’s work is an excellent introduction to early Christian monasticism as well as to monastic exegesis. It would be a useful text to adopt in courses on monasticism or early Christian exegesis, and is written in a very accessible style. There were a few scholarly sources I was surprised had been omitted, especially Kannengieser’s Handbook of Patristic Exegesis (2004), which includes a subsection on Cassian (1272-1277), but overall Kelly’s book is a marvelous introductory text.