|Icon of St. John Cassian the Roman|
A popular Russian legend tells how St. Nicolas and St. Cassian were upon a visit to the earth. On their journey they met a poor peasant who had got his wagon, with a load of hay upon it, stuck in the mud and was making fruitless efforts to get his horses on.
“Let’s go and give the good fellow a hand,” said St. Nicolas.
“Not I; I’m keeping out of it,” replied St. Cassian, “I don’t want to get my coat dirty.”
“Well, wait for me,” said St. Nicolas, “or go on without me if you like,” and plunging without hesitation into the mud he vigorously assisted the peasant in dragging his wagon out of the rut. When he had finished the job and caught his companion up, he was all covered in filth; his coat was torn and soiled and looked like a beggar’s rags. St. Peter was amazed to see him arrive at the gate of Paradise in this condition.
“I say! Who ever got you into that state?” he asked. St. Nicolas told his story.
“And what about you?” asked St. Peter, turning to St. Cassian. “Weren’t you with him in this encounter?”
“Yes, but I don’t meddle in things that are no concern of mine, and I was especially anxious not to get my beautiful clean coat dirty.”
“Very well,” said St. Peter, “you, St. Nicolas, because you were not afraid of getting dirty in helping your neighbor out of a difficulty, shall for the future have two feasts a year, and you shall be reckoned the greatest of saints after me by all the peasants of holy Russia. And you, St. Cassian, must be content with having a nice clean coat; you shall have your feast day in leap-year only, once every four years.”
We may well forgive St. Cassian for his dislike of manual labor and the mud of the highroad. But he would be quite wrong to condemn his companion for having a different idea of the duties of Saints towards mankind. We may like St. Cassian’s clean and spotless clothes, but since our wagon is still deep in the mud, St. Nicolas is the one we really need, the stout-hearted Saint who is always ready to get to work and help us.
The Western Church, faithful to the apostolic mission, has not been afraid to plunge into the mire of history. After having been for centuries the only element of moral order and intellectual culture among the barbarous peoples of Europe, it undertook the task not only of the spiritual education of these peoples of independent spirit and uncivilized instincts but also of their material government.
In devoting itself to this arduous task the Papacy, like St. Nicolas in the legend, thought not so much of the cleanliness of its own appearance as of the urgent needs of mankind. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, with its solitary asceticism and its contemplative mysticism, its withdrawal from political life and from all the social problems which concern mankind as a whole, thought chiefly, like St. Cassian, of reaching Paradise without a single stain on its clothing.
The Western Church aimed at employing all its powers, divine and human, for the attainment of a universal goal; the Eastern Church was only concerned with the preservation of its purity. There is the chief point of difference and the fundamental cause of the schism between the two Churches.
It is a question of a different ideal of the religious life itself. The religious ideal of the separated Christian East is not false; it is incomplete. In Eastern Christendom for the last thousand years religion has been identified with personal piety, and prayer has been regarded as the one and only religious activity.
The Western Church, without disparaging individual piety as the true germ of all religion, seeks the development of this germ and its blossoming into a social activity organized for the glory of God and the universal good of mankind. The Eastern prays, the Western prays and labors. Which of the two is right?
Jesus Christ founded His visible Church not merely to meditate on heaven, but also to labor upon earth and to withstand the gates of hell. He did not send His apostles into the solitude of the desert, but into the world to conquer it and subject it to the Kingdom which is not of this world, and He enjoined upon them not only the innocence of doves but also the wisdom of serpents. If it is merely a question of preserving the purity of the Christian soul, what is the purpose of all the Church’s social organization and of all those sovereign and absolute powers with which Christ has armed her in giving her final authority to bind and to loose on earth as well as in heaven?
The monks of the holy mountain of Athos, true representatives of the isolated Eastern Church, have for centuries spent all their energies in prayer and the contemplation of the uncreated light of Tabor. They are perfectly right; prayer and the contemplation of uncreated things are essential to the Christian life.
But can we allow that this occupation of the soul constitutes the whole Christian life? — or that is what we must do if we try to put the Orthodox East, with its peculiar character and special religious tendencies, in the place of the Universal Church. We have in the East a Church at prayer, but where among us is the Church in action, asserting itself as a spiritual force absolutely independent of the powers of this world?
Where in the East is the Church of the living God, the Church which in every generation legislates for mankind, which establishes and develops the formulation of eternal truth with which to counteract the continually changing formulas of error? Where is the Church which labors to re-mould the whole social life of the nations in accordance with the Christian ideal, and to guide them towards the supreme goal of Creation — free and perfect union with the Creator?
The advocates of an exclusive asceticism should remember that the perfect Man spent only forty days in the wilderness; those who contemplate the light of Tabor should not forget that that light appeared only once in the earthly life of Christ, Who proved by His own example that true prayer and true contemplation are simply a foundation for the life of action.
If this great Church, which for centuries has done nothing but pray, has not prayed in vain, she must show herself a living Church, acting, struggling, victorious. But we ourselves must will that it be so. We must above all recognize the insufficiency of our traditional religious ideal, and make a sincere attempt to realize a more complete conception of Christianity. There is no need to invent or create anything new for this purpose. We merely have to restore to our religion its Catholic or universal character by recognizing our oneness with the active part of the Christian world, with the West centralized and organized for a universal activity and possessing all that we lack.
We are not asked to change our nature as Easterns or to repudiate the specific character of our religious genius.
We have only to recognize unreservedly the elementary truth that we of the East are but a part of the Universal Church, a part moreover which has not its center within itself, and that therefore it behooves us to restore the link between our individual forces upon the circumference and the great universal center which Providence has placed in the West. There is no question of suppressing our religious and moral individuality but rather of crowning it and inspiring it with a universal and progressive life.
The whole of our duty to ourselves consists simply in recognizing ourselves for what we are in reality, an organic part of the great body of Christendom, and in affirming our spiritual solidarity with our Western brethren. This moral act of justice and charity would be in itself an immense step forward on our part and the essential condition of all further advance.
St. Cassian need not become a different person or cease to care about keeping his clothes spotless. He must simply recognize that his comrade has certain important qualities which he himself lacks, and instead of sulking at this energetic worker he must frankly accept him as his companion and guide on the earthly voyage that still lies before them.