The Fear of God and God’s Love

In some cases, the sensitivity of the elders toward those who were lost in despair or confusion was such that they were willing to adopt whatever position necessary to lead the others out of their pain. In a story alluded to earlier, some old men who had heard of Abba Sisoes’s reputation for wisdom came to consult him on the matter of the coming judgement. This first two cited texts having to do with eternal judgement, and the third, obviously troubled by the thought of this, asked: “Father, what shall I do, for the remembrance of the outer darkness is killing me.” Sisoes himself was not troubled by these thoughts and tried to encourage the brothers by speaking of his own experience: “For my part, I do not keep in mind the remembrance of any of these things, for God is compassionate and I hope that he will show me his mercy.”

However, the old men were offended by this answer, which seemed to them to make light of the issue of the final judgement, and got up to leave. Realizing the effect that his response had had upon them, Sisoes quickly changed course, and said to them: “Blessed are you, my brothers; truly I envy you. The first speaks of the river of fire, the second of hell and the third of darkness. Now if your spirit is filled with such remembrances, it is impossible for you to sin. What shall I do then? I who am hard of heart and to whom it has not been granted so much as to know whether there is a punishment for men; no doubt it is because of this that I am sinning all the time.” They prostrated themselves before him and said, “Now we have seen exactly that of which we have heard tell.” One could argue that Sisoes was being disingenuous with these old men. Did he really believe what he was telling them in his second response?

In a sense he did – he knew that a constant awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the uncertainty of the judgement to come could kindle real moral acuity. Yet his response is more important for what it shows us about his capacity to empathize with his visitors’ concerns. His desire to reach them and draw them out of their paralyzing fear about the final judgement was stronger than his attachment to any particular position about that judgement. It was Siseos’s willingness to move toward his visitors in love which touched them most deeply. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 284-285)

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