Obedience to an elder is one of the most important aspects of monastic life according to John Cassian, yet it is also problematic in many ways. In the Institutes and Conferences, Cassian continually wrangles with the question of how spiritual authority is established, to whom it belongs, and how potential disciples can navigate the problem of choosing an elder worthy of obedience. Further, the question of obedience is entangled, for Cassian, with his understanding of the virtue of discernment, along with issues surrounding the authority of scripture, of tradition, and of great monastics of the past (Anthony and others).
One of the most notable aspects of Cassian's approach to obedience is the often stark contrast he implies between obedience within cenobitic communities versus that established among erimitic monks. While he appears to expect unquestioning obedience to elders in a monastery, Cassian is often preoccupied with the problem of how desert hermits can avoid bad elders within a kind of spiritual market-place. In this paper, I explore these contrasting approaches to authority on Cassian's part, paying particular attention to how monastic communities function to solve some of the essential conundrums facing the desert hermit from his point of view.