Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

St. John Cassian on spiritual discernment: Be ye good money changers

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Photo: Ancient counterfeiters and their fake coins 

BE YE GOOD MONEY-CHANGERS is one of a few dozen agrapha, or unwritten sayings attributed to Jesus in the patristic literature.  This particular saying — one of those most commonly cited — forms the basis of an extended discussion in Cassian’s (c. 410) Conferences.  Abba Moses, a desert father whom Cassian interviews, connects it not with the transactional aspect of a money-changer’s profession, but with the need to test coinage: Is it gold or brass? Genuine or counterfeit? Was it legally minted? Is the metal pure or adulterated? Hence the need for careful inspection, a sound eye, a nail to scratch the surface, and a true scale to judge weight.

For Abba Moses, four tests of metal coins have mental counterparts in the process of discernment. He’s mainly concerned with discernment involving an action we propose to undertake — is it truly good, or a mere imitation of goodness? — and secondarily for distinguishing true from false religious doctrines.  But the principles he describes apply to discernment generally.

In the preceding chapter, Abba Moses, the speaker leading this conference, has identified three sources of our thoughts:  from God, from the devil, and from ourselves, and he now continues:

XX. 1. WE SHOULD, then, be continually aware of this threefold distinction and with a wise discretion examine all the thoughts that emerge in our heart, first tracing their origins and causes and their authors, so that, in accordance with the status of whoever is suggesting them, we may be able to consider how we should approach them. Then we shall … in keeping with the precept of the Lord, [be] approved money-changers. [Resch, Logion 43; pp. 112ff.]

The very high skill and training of such persons exists for the sake of [i] determining whether something is gold of the purest sort — what is popularly called obrizum — or whether it has been less purified by fire. It also exists for the sake of not being deceived by a common brass denarius if it is being passed off as a precious coin under the guise of shining gold; this is assured by a very careful examination. These people [moreover] not only [ii] shrewdly recognize coins displaying the heads of usurpers but also [iii] discern with a still finer skill those which are stamped with the image of the true king but are counterfeits. Finally, [iv] they submit them to careful weighing in case they are lighter than they should be.

2. All of these things we ourselves have to carry out in a spiritual manner, as this gospel saying demonstrates.

First, we should carefully scrutinize whatever enters our hearts, especially if it is a doctrine to which we have been exposed, to see if it has been purified by the divine and heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit or if it is a part of … superstition or if, coming from the pridefulness of worldly philosophy, it has the mere look of piety to it. We shall be able to accomplish this if we fulfill what the Apostle says: ‘Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.’ [1 John 4:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21−22 ]

3. This is how some have been deceived who, after their monastic profession, have been seduced by elegant words and by certain teachings of the philosophers which, at first hearing, attracted them superficially at a given moment. These teachings fooled the hearers, much like shining gold, because of a few pious sentiments not inconsistent with religion. But since they were, so to say, counterfeit brass coins, they impoverished those who had been taken in and made them miserable forever, either by reintroducing them into the tumult of the world or by dragging them into heretical errors and bloated presumptions. We read in the Book of Joshua son of Nun that this also happened to Achan: He coveted a gold bar from the camp of the Philistines and stole it, and thus he deserved to be placed under sentence and condemned to eternal death. [cf. Joshua 7]

4. Secondly, we should look closely to see that no wicked interpretation fastened on to the pure gold of Scripture deceives us by the precious appearance of its metal. This was how the crafty devil attempted to deceive even the Lord, the Savior, as if he were a mere man: he tried to make an adaptation, corrupting with a wicked interpretation things that should generally be understood as applying only to the righteous and particularly to him who did not need the protection of angels, when he said: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you, that they may guard you in all your ways, and in their hands they will carry you, lest perchance you strike your foot against a stone.’ [Matthew 4: 5−7; Luke 4:9−12; Psalms 91:11−12] Thus he changed the precious words of Scripture by his clever use of them and gave them a contrary and harmful meaning, like someone who presents us with the image of a usurper’s face under the guise of deceptive gold. He also tries to lead us astray with counterfeits by exhorting us to pursue a certain pious work which, since it is not the legitimate coinage of the elders, leads to vice under the appearance of virtue and brings us to a bad end by deceiving us either with immoderate and inappropriate fasting or severe vigils or inordinate praying or excessive reading.

5. He [i.e., the devil] also persuades us to give ourselves to acts of meditation and to pious visitations, by which he would pry us away from the spiritual ramparts of the monastery and from our retreat of cherished calm, even suggesting that we worry and be concerned about nuns and destitute women, by snares of this sort inextricably entangling the entrapped monk with baleful preoccupations. And, indeed, he inveigles us into desiring the holy clerical office [priesthood] under the pretext of edifying many and for the love of spiritual gain, thus tearing us away from the humility and severity of our present chosen orientation [as monks].

6. Although all these things are contrary to our salvation and to our profession, they nonetheless easily deceive the unskilled and the unwary since they are covered by a kind of veil of mercy and religion. For they imitate the coins of the true king because they appear very pious at first sight, but they have not been stamped by lawful minters — that is to say, by the approved and Catholic fathers — nor do they come from the central and public workshop of their conferences, but they are clandestinely fabricated by the fraud of demons and, to their detriment, are offered to the unskilled and the ignorant. Although they might seem good and necessary at first sight, yet if afterwards they begin to have a negative effect on the solidity of our profession and in some way weaken the whole body of our chosen orientation, they are rightly cut off and cast away from us just like anything that is necessary and seems to perform the office of a right hand or a foot but that causes scandal.

7. For it is preferable to be without the member of one commandment — that is, without one work and its fruit — and to be healthy and solid in the other members and to enter the kingdom of heaven crippled, than with all the commandments to trip against some stumbling block that through pernicious habit would separate us from our habitual rigor and from the discipline of the orientation that we have chosen and embraced. This would bring such a great loss upon us that we would never be able to compensate for future setbacks, and all our past achievements and the whole body of our activity would be burned up in the fires of Gehenna. [cf. Matthew 18:8]

8. Proverbs also speaks well about these kinds of deceptions: ‘There are paths that seem to be right to a man, but they arrive finally at the depths of hell. [Proverbs 16:25 LXX] And again: ‘An evil person does harm when he involves himself with a righteous one.’ [Proverbs 11:15a LXX] That is to say, the devil is deceptive when he veils himself in the appearance of holiness. ‘But he hates the sound of the watchman’ [Proverbs 11:15b LXX] — namely, the power of discretion that comes from the words and the advice of the elders.

XXI. l. WE HAVE heard how even the Abba John, who used to live at Lycon, was recently deceived in this way. For when he had put off eating because of a two-day fast and his body was worn out and enfeebled, the devil approached him in the form of a black Ethiopian on the following day, just as he was about to eat. Embracing his knees he said: ‘Pardon me, for it was I who inflicted this labor on you.’ Then that man, so great and perfect in the ordering of his discretion, understood that in haring exercised an exaggerated abstinence he had been duped by the devil’s cleverness and been so preoccupied with his fasting that he had considered unnecessary weariness, which would in fact be spiritually harmful, more important, than his exhausted body. He was deceived by a counterfeit coin, and while he was venerating the image of the true king on it he was too little aware of whether it was lawfully minted.

2. The final thing to be observed by this approved money-changer, which we said had to do with examining and weighing, will be accomplished if we reflect meticulously on whatever our thoughts suggest that we should do. This we must place in the scale of our heart and weigh with the most delicate balance to see whether it has the proper weight of common goodness, and whether it is sufficiently heavy with the fear of God and integral in meaning, or whether it is too light because of human ostentation or some novel presumption, or whether the pride of empty vainglory has diminished or eroded the weight of its worth. Hence, let us bring it out immediately in public to weigh by having recourse to the deeds and testimonies of the prophets and apostles, and let us hold on to the things that balance with them as being integral and perfect and very cautiously and carefully reject, as being imperfect and condemnable, whatever does not weigh conformably with them.

XXII. 1. THIS DISCRETION, then, will be necessary for us in the fourfold manner of which I have spoken — that is, in the first place, so that the material itself, whether real gold or false, may not be concealed from us; secondly, so that we may reject thoughts that lie about works of piety as being adulterated and counterfeit coins since they are not lawfully minted and have a false image of the king; then, so that with similar discernment we may be able to turn down those which, because of an evil and heretical interpretation, portray in the precious gold of Scripture the face not of the true king but of a usurper; and finally, so that we may refuse as too light and condemnable and insufficiently heavy those coins whose weight and value have been eaten away by the rust of vanity, which does not let them balance out in the scale of the elders. Otherwise we shall stumble into what we are warned by the Lord’s commandment to be on the watch for with all our strength, and we shall be defrauded of all the deserts and rewards of our labors: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth destroy and where thieves break in and steal.’ [Matthew 6:19]

2. For whatever we have done with a view to human glory we know that we have stored up for ourselves as a treasure on earth, according to the Lord’s words, and that consequently, having been as it were hidden in the soil and buried in the earth, it will be ravaged by different demons and consumed by the devouring rust of vainglory and so eaten up by the moths of pride that it will be of no use or profit to the person who hid it.

All the secret places of our heart, therefore, must be constantly scrutinized and the prints of whatever enters them must be investigated in the most careful way.

Source: John Cassian, Conferences 1.20-22.2 (PL 49:510−519); tr. Ramsey.

Bibliography

Gazet, Alard (ed.). Joannes Cassianus: Collationes. Migne Patrologia Latina 49:477−1328. Paris, J. P. Migne, 1846. Latin text. [Online version]

Gibson, Edgar Charles Sumner. (tr.). Conferences of John Cassian. In: Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 11 (NPNF2-11), pp. 291−545. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.

Hutt, Curtis. ‘Be ye approved money changers!’ Reexamining the social contexts of the saying and its interpretation. Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 131, no. 3, 2012, pp. 589–609. doi:10.2307/23488256

Petschenig, Michael (ed.). Iohannis Cassiani: Conlationes XXIIII. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vienna: Geroldi, 1886. Latin critical edition.

Pichery, E. Jean Cassien: Conférences, SC 42, 54, 64. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1955, 1958, 1959. Latin text with French translation.

Ramsey, Boniface (tr.). John Cassian: The Conferences. ACW 57. New York: Paulist Press, 1997. English translation. [This edition — well translated, with ample notes and excellent introductions (overall and for each book) and remarkably inexpensive — is highly recommended. Amazon and Google ebook versions are available.]

Resch, Alfred (ed.). Agrapha: Ausserkanonische Evangelienfragmente. Leipzig, 1906. Agraphon 87 (Logion 43), pp. 112−128.

Stewart, Columba. Cassian the Monk. Oxford University Press, 1998.

1st draft: 18 Apr 2020

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