And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)
As we move through the second week of our Lenten sojourn, we are reminded that if we are not acting in love or if we are not growing in love than our Lenten discipline, no matter what heights of ascetical self-denial we attain, are in vain. The purpose of Lent is to control the passions and sin, not just to strictly change our diets. Among the sayings that come to us from desert monastics are the words of Amma Syncletica.
She also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 234)
Asceticism can become a source of pride as we compare ourselves to how others are keeping or not keeping the food fast. Or, even as we compare how much better we are doing this year than last or this week than last week. Pride can set in, judgmentalism, gossip, bickering and backbiting. Or, on the other hand, envy and jeealousy, showmanship and hypocrisy.
Amma Syncletica thinks that obedience to an elder or a rule is even better because then there is no self pride, self vaunting, seeking attention or hyper-vigilance in watching what others are doing or keeping track of how much more I am doing than others. Obedience says, it doesn’t matter what others are doing or not doing, I have a rule which I am to keep and that is what I need to be mindful of. There is nothing to get proud about, or envious, or judgmental – we are simply doing our duty, doing what we were told to do.
“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:7-10)