John Cassian was a well-traveled monk who founded monasteries in France as the Roman Empire was imploding. He was a contemporary of Augustine. Benedict reaches back to Cassian frequently in his “Rule,” which is still the basic text of Western monasticism. Cassian’s “Conferences” are a very fun-to-read, conversational set of insights drawing the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers into Western Europe.
In his Conference 2:5, Cassian presents a cautionary tale of what it means to lose perspective — to think you are a spiritual gold medalist in a field of weekend warriors.
It concerns a monk named “Hero” who “was cast down from the heights to the lowest depths because of a diabolical delusion.” Although attached to a community of monks, Hero thought he was a special case. For 50 years he practiced extreme solitude, fasting and prayer “with a fervor marvelously greater than anyone else living there.”
Even at Easter, we’re told, he kept to his cell and refused to break his ultra-regimen because — so he thought — “by taking the tiniest share of the vegetables he might give the impression of having relaxed from what he had chosen to do.”
(Vegetables? An Easter treat?! Turns out chocolate was known only to Mayans and Aztecs until the time of Columbus. We forget what deprivations pre-moderns had to endure.)
One day, Hero threw himself into a well, believing that “on account of the merit of his virtues and of his works he could never come to any harm.”
Harm came. The brothers pulled Hero from the well. He died two days later.
Interestingly, he refused to believe he had been deluded:
“He was to cling firmly to his illusion,” says Cassian, “and the very experience of dying could not persuade him that he had been the sport of devilish skill [i.e., Satan].”
Sound familiar? Harold Camping refuses to admit the 5/21 Doomsday he’s been predicting for years and on which he spent $100 million didn’t happen. Religious obsession, taken far enough, splinters into alternate states.
However, mainstream religious like Cassian have always known this — and they warn us all: “Don’t be a Hero.”