Abraham, Abba Agathon’s abba, asked Abba Poemen: “Why are the demons doing battle with me so?” and Abba Poemen said to him: “Are the demons doing battle with you? The demons do not battle with us as long as we are following our own wills, for our wills have become demons; it is they that oppress us so that we fulfill them. Do you want to see with whom the demons do battle? It is with Moses and those like him” (Give me a Word,p. 238).
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘I am living with some brothers. Do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The elder said to him, ‘No. Do your own work first, and if they want to survive they will provide what is needed themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves who want me to be in charge of them.’ The elder said to him, ‘No. You must become their example, not their legislator.’”
An example like that does not draw attention to himself. Only those who wish will follow.
“A young man came to see an old ascetic to be instructed in the way of perfection. But the old man said not a word to him.
The other asked him the reason for his silence. ‘Am I your superior to give you orders? Do what you see me doing if you like.’ From then on the young man imitated the ascetic in everything and learned the meaning of silence.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 145-146).
“One can see them scattered in the desert waiting for Christ like loyal sons watching for their father, or like an army expecting its emperor, or like a sober household looking forward to the arrival of its master and liberator. For with them there is no solicitude, no anxiety for food and clothing. There is only the expectation of the coming of Christ in the singing of hymns. Consequently, when one of them lacks something necessary, he does not go to a town or village, or to a brother, or friend, or relation, or to parents, or children, or family to procure what he needs, for his will alone is sufficient. When he raises his hands to God in supplication and utters words of thanksgiving with his lips, all these things are provided for him in a miraculous way.” (Benedicta Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, p 50)
That is why it becomes contentious: it tries to support itself on something, and finds nothing except rancor.”
(Ilias the presbyter, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 24665-66)
On the 4th Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, author of the book THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT. The imagery of a ladder connecting earth to heaven is an ancient image found both in the Old (Genesis 28:10-17) and New (John 1:43-51) Testaments. It is an imagery that was popular with the monastic authors of the Church as well. Here is one of the sayings from the Desert Fathers:
“He also said:
‘At first when we were brought together with each other we used to speak of [spiritual] benefit, confirming each other. We became as choirs, choirs [of angels] and we were going up to heaven. But now we meet together and come to slandering one another – and down we go.’”
(Megethius in Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 206)
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)
“There came to St. Anthony in the desert one of the wise men of that time and said: ‘Father, how can you endure to live here, deprived as you are of all consolation from books?’
Anthony answered: ‘My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and whenever I wish I can read in it the works of God.’”
“Abba Poemen said, ‘The will of man is a brass wall between him and God and a stone of stumbling.
When a man renounces it, he is also saying to himself, “By my God, I can leap over the wall.” (Ps. 18.29) If a man’s will is in line with what is right, then he can really labor,’ […] Abraham, the disciple of Abba Agathon, questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘How do the demons fight against you? They do not fight against us at all as long as we are doing our own will.
For our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us in order that we may fulfill them. But if you want to see who the demons really fight against, it is against Moses and those who are like him.’” (Poemen in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp 174, 176)
Teaching by parable or story has been normative in Christianity since the time of Jesus, who himself taught in parables. Parables present us with a special way of coming to the truth. For parables or stories show the words themselves are not enough – one has to interpret the story to come to the truth. Interpretation requires wisdom and knowledge. Interpretation is key to the Gospel message.
In Mark 8:27-29, we see clearly how essential interpretation is to the Gospel:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”*
Even having Jesus standing right in your midst or having the ability to observe Jesus’ deeds and words does not automatically give one the knowledge of the truth. Jesus asks his disciples, “How are people interpreting me?” And those who had observed Jesus’ teachings and miracles, still came to differing conclusions about who Jesus is. The same is true for having the Bible – the truth is in the interpretation of the words. The Bible alone cannot give you the truth.
And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch … was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.
We need reliable spiritual guides to help us interpret the Scriptures. This is clear in the Scriptures themselves!
What follows is a story for the desert fathers, also used to teach us how to live the Gospel. We need to take time to think about the story and to know the Kingdom of God is found in the meaning the story conveys. The monk John Colobos related the following story:
“A brother asked Abba Sisoes: ‘If we are walking along the way and our guide goes astray, should we tell him?’ ‘No,’ the elder brother said to him. ‘Should we let him lead us astray then?’ said the brother? The elder said to him: ‘What else? Are you going to take a stick and beat him? I know some brothers who were walking along and their guide went astray in the night. They were twelve in number and they all knew they had gone astray; they were each one at pains not to say anything. At daybreak their guide learnt that they had strayed from the way. “Forgive me,” he said to them; “I have gone astray.” They all said: “We too knew that but we kept silent.” ’ [The brother] was astounded when he heard this and [Abba Sisoes] said: ‘The brothers disciplined themselves not to speak [of it] until death,’ and he glorified God. The extent to which they had gone astray was twelve miles.” (Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 288)
Are we to beat with a rod a member who becomes lost in the spiritual life? What does it take to preserve the unity of community? What seem to be the most important values to these monks? What virtues do they exhibit? The story is really counter intuitive for many practically minded Americans who would simply want to “fix” the errant problem. What does love have to do with this lesson?
Below is a story from the desert fathers relating Lenten fasting and Christian hospitality. It is an ancient 4th Century story from a time before a 40 day Lenten Fast was decreed by the Church or followed by all monks. In the story, these desert monks, known for their extreme rigor, themselves decide to keep a week long fast before celebrating Pascha. Once they established this as the community rule, they expected everyone to follow it for that is what love demands of us who live together as Christ’s disciples.
“Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose custom it was not to eat every day. But when he saw the brethren he invited them with joy to dine with him, saying: Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren. They made a rule in Scete that they would fast a whole week before celebrating Easter. But it happened that in that week some brethren came to Abbot Moses, from Egypt, and he cooked them a little vegetable stew. And when they saw the smoke coming up from his cell, the clerics of the church that is in Scete exclaimed: Look, there is Moses breaking the rule, and cooking food in his cell. When he comes up here we’ll tell him a thing or two. But when the Sabbath came, the clerics saw the great holiness of Abbot Moses, and they said to him: O Abbot Moses, you have broken the commandment of men, but have strongly bound the commandment of God.” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 77-78)
We see in the story the wisdom of the desert fathers – rules were meant to serve the community, but the community doesn’t serve the rules. We are reminded of Christ’s own words to those in His day who had determined Sabbath rules rule humans: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). The rules are in themselves not God, and there are legitimate reasons for setting aside the rules at times – especially as an act of love for others. The rules are meant to help maintain community love, peace, concord, and unity. But even as important as those goals are, there still may be godly reasons for setting the rules aside in order to practice love for others.
The fasting rigor of these monks is obvious in the story: though Abbot Moses cooks for his guests not a gourmet meal but only a little vegetable stew the other monks are outraged that he has violated community rules.
In the end love and wisdom rule the hearts of the monks. They understand that Abbot Moses had followed a greater commandment: the commandment from our Lord to love one another. The rules of fasting, even if determined by the community or set by canon law, are still rules of humans, not from God. They are essential rules for helping humans to live in community, but they belong only to the fallen world. For if we all lived by our Lord’s commandments to love one another as He loved us, to love God with all heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we would have not need for merely human rules to govern our behavior and our communities.
Jesus told parables in which He taught us the values of the Kingdom of God. Such story-telling continued in the early church as is obvious in the sayings we have from the desert fathers. The stories are sometime counterintuitive, sometimes startling, and often give us a new perspective on how to understand our lives as disciples of Christ. The value of stories in Christian education is that they are didactic without having to be dogmatic. They show us that the desert fathers did not believe that Christianity could be taught or lived within some “one-size-fits-all” framework. People have differing abilities to understand and to carry out the Gospel commandments. While there are lessons that apply to everyone, and truths that all should abide by, these stories show that all-or-nothing zealotry is not part of the life of the fathers.
“Some bothers visited Abba Anthony and they said to him: ‘Tell us a saying [indicating] how we are to be saved.’ The elder said to them: ‘Have you not heard the Scripture? That is good enough for you,’ but they said: ‘We want to hear [it] from you, father.’ So the elder said to them: ‘The Gospel says: “If someone hits you on they right cheek, turn the other one to him too”‘ [Mt 5:39]. ‘We cannot do that,’ they told him. The elder said to them: ‘If you cannot turn the other [cheek], at least patiently endure the one [blow].’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they told him. The elder said: ‘If you cannot do that either, do not return [the blow] you received,’ but they said: ‘Nor can we do that.’ So the elder said to his disciple: ‘Make them a little soup, for they are sick.’ and he said to them: ‘if you cannot do this and you will not do that, what am I to do for you? There is need of prayer.'” (GIVE ME A WORD: THE ALPHABETICAL SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS, p 35)
The above story is funny. The bothers insist they must have a lesson from Abba Anthony, but he tells them, “you already read the bible, what more can I tell you?” He really has nothing to add to what Jesus said.
They persist in asking. The very first scriptural lesson he gives them, they admit they can’t live up to. Then in a series of exchanges Abba Anthony tries to “water down” the message to some basic level that these brothers might feel they can live up to. It is reminiscent of the Genesis 18 story in which Abraham negotiates with God to save the city of Sodom for the sake of 10 men. No matter what the respected elder proposes, the brothers feel they won’t be able to live up to the level of virtue suggested. Finally Anthony becomes exasperated and tells his disciple to feed the brothers some soup since they are sick! He doesn’t know what else to do with such monks. Anthony was very willing to adapt the Gospel command to some level to which they felt they could commit themselves. He starts with a high standard (we might even call it a literal reading of the Gospel), but acknowledges the standard might be too high for them. Anthony’s basic teaching is they shouldn’t abandon the Gospel command just because they can’t fulfill it. Rather, they should keep wrestling with the command until they find some way in which they can obey it or some level at which they can fulfill it. There is no absoluteness to his understanding of the Gospel commandment, and yet at some point he realizes they simply aren’t going to live up to the Gospel lesson no matter how he teaches it. His last resort is to abandon teaching and to simply pray about it. He does not demand from them a standard to which they cannot live up to. He gently tries to help them find some way in which they can live by the Gospel, even if it is far below the obvious, the literal, ethical demand of Christ’s teaching. Anthony wants to help them succeed as Christians and to grow in their faith.
Another story, this one from an Abba Joseph teaches us a similar lesson:
“A brother asked Abba Joseph: ‘What am I to do, for I can neither endure hardship nor work to provide charity?’ The elder said to him: ‘If you cannot do even one of these things, keep your conscience clear from thinking any evil of your neighbor or belittling him and you will be saved.'” (GIVE ME A WORD: THE ALPHABETICAL SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS, p 151)
As we work our way through Great Lent, all of us might meditate on these stories of the saintly desert fathers. Instead of trying to impose the strictest rules on others, we might in love try to imitate Abba Anthony and help our fellow Orthodox find a way to do some things for Great Lent. The fast well pleasing to God may not be one which keeps the rules to the max, but one which is based purely in love. Wisdom and love are two virtues and energies we need in order to have a spiritual Lent.
For all of us instead of feeling shame or frustrated that we cannot keep the strictest letter-of-the-law of lent, we can realize even if we can’t do it all, we can do something and still be well pleasing to God. All-or-nothing thinking is perhaps for zealots, but is also found frequently among the immature and the unwise. Between doing everything and doing nothing there are countless degrees of variations in behavior which we can do. And besides if we push ourselves and realize we have limits, we are learning the truth about ourselves. This is a good lesson from Lent. It can humble us.
And what if in the end we cannot seem to find any degree of fasting we can keep?
Try having some of St. Anthony’s soup!
And then just pray.