BLOG: Collations

A old word from a memorial service for a treasured vet.

The Easton Historical Society dedicated a flagpole in honor of long time member Ken Martin on Saturday. After the ceremony the program said we would have a collation. “What’s a collation?” the person sitting next to me asked. Having been through two wars-the Revolution and the Civil as a living history reenactor  I knew it meant refreshments, but I had no idea where the word came from. Turns out we can thank a saint.

The story starts with John Cassian who lived from about 360-435 A. D..  This was so long ago that no one knows whether he came from present day Bulgaria, Romania, or France. Cassian was very devout and like lots of men of his age he went to the desert to better talk to God. As a young man he spent time hermiting around Bethleham, but finding it too crowded, he headed for the desert near Scete in Egypt. Unfortunately, other religious folks beat him to it, and Cassian spent about 15 years moving among the small groups of hermits that were coalescing into the first monasteries. Eventually he wrote a book called Conferences with the Hermits of Scete.

At any rate, poor Cassian lived in a time when there seemed to be a new heresy every day. His choice was Semipelagianism, but that need not detain us here because Cassian avoided burning at the stake because his position didn’t become officially heretical until a hundred years after his death. However, Cassian left the desert to avoid getting caught up in a completely different heresy. Arriving in Constantinople he got a job with the Patriarch of Constantinople who hadn’t yet broken with the Pope in Rome to found the Greek Orthodox Church. The Big P had broken with the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, however and sent Cassian to Rome to ask the Pope for help.

While in Rome Cassian told the Pope about how all those Egyptian hermits were banding together into monasteries. What the Pope did about the Patriarch I have no idea, but he asked Cassian to start a monastery, one of the first in Europe, in the city of Marseilles. This Cassian did about 415. He spent the last twenty years of his life there and his Conferences and another book called the Institutions became the rule book for early monastic life.

All this effort got Cassian official sainthood in the Eastern Orthodox Church with the bummer Saint’s Day of February 29th. In the West he was never officially canonized, but drew a better Saint’s Day, July 23. You can visit his head and right hand at the church of St. Victor in Marseilles, the descendent church of his original monastery.

So when do we eat? Or at least what has this got to do with collations?  Well, about 50 years after Cassian’s death, St Benedict came along. Benedict picked up on Cassian’s  monastery idea and founded the Benedictine order. He wrote the Rules of St. Benedict that still govern his order, the Cisterians, and the Trappists.

Benedict decreed that on fast days his monks could eat two small meals (Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck was a Benedictine and over the centuries the definition of “small” apparently changed). Cassian fanboy that he was, Benedict also decreed that a reading from Cassian’s Conferences should precede the light meals. The Latin title of the Conferences is Collationes partum in secetica eremo, hence the word collation. Believe it or not it is also the origin of the Polish word for supper-kolacja. “And now you know the rest of the story.”

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