The desert fathers used wisdom stories to teach each other how to live according to the Gospel commandments of Jesus. The stories are sometimes humorous, sometimes challenging and often counter intuitive. They attempt to set forth a clear Gospel imperative (such as the command to love) in a way that expands one’s understanding of the commandment.
The stories show the weakness of a constant diet a very legalistic or literal reading of Scripture. They use human foibles and failures to reveal the depths of Christ’s teachings. Love is not something that is quantifiable and cannot be explained through questions of how many or how often or to whom do I show love? The question, ‘who is my neighbor?‘, results in Christ teaching the parable of the Good Samaritan and a demand that disciples are to be neighborly to all they encounter. Here is a story from the desert fathers that focuses on the importance of love and maintaining unity among brothers and sisters by avoiding criticizing a member of the community. The story is not about offering a pragmatic solution to the problem (they are lost and need to find their way), but rather explores what does love demand of us in difficult situations.
“On one occasion when Abba John and the brethren who were with him were traveling from Scete, their guide got lost. The brethren said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, father? For this brother has lost the way and peradventure we shall die wandering about in the desert.’ Abba John said to them, ‘If you tell him he will be grieved and feel ashamed. But, watch, I will feign to be sick, and will say that I am not able to go on any further’. The brethren said, ‘Father, you have spoken wisely.’ And they all joined the act and decided that they should stay where they were until the morning, rather than rebuke the brother who was their guide.” (THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS Vol II, p 260)
The idea of ‘lying’ in order to fulfill the commandment to love might seem ridiculous since the problem might be easily solved by honesty. And certainly the story’s point is not that lying is ever a good. In fact in the story it is because lying is sin that the story is powerful. The Abba realizes the only way to avoid offending or embarrassing the errant monk is commit a sin himself. He is taking the blame on himself – the young monk has erred inadvertently but the abba sins by choice. This takes the blame, shame and attention off the mistaken monk – the abba takes on himself the wrong of the situation. And all the monks know he has done this. Instead of embarrassing the one monk, the Abba takes the fault on himself in a creative way. He also teaches the rest of the monks to care for the feelings of one of their own. Being ‘correct’ is not the only value – love rules.
The story is about coming up with a clever way to preserve unity and maintain love for an erring friend. It is not at all saying that lying is OK. We also see this idea explored in the 2019 movie THE FAREWELL. There an entire family decides not to let the grandmother know she is dying – and they do it out of love (however mistaken they may be). It is seen as a kindness to the dying person – don’t let them be burdened with their impending death. The movie portrays this as the cultural way of the Chinese – let the dying elder enjoy the remaining time of her life without worrying about dying. The family takes on the grief of losing a beloved member including the grief the dying person might feel if they knew they were dying. Of course one has to decide whether one is doing it for the good of the other or because it is easier for us to deal with by pretending it is not happening.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.” (Romans 15:1-3)