A brother asked Abba Poemen: “I have committed a serious sin and I want to repent for three years.” The elder said to him: “It is a long time.” “For a year, then?” said the brother to him, and again the elder said to him: “It is a long time.” They who were present began saying: “How about forty days?” and again he said: “It is a long time,” but he said: “I am telling you that if a person repent with his whole heart and does not go on to commit the sin again, even in three days God will receive him.”
We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice. But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others. In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk. The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him. But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.
They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place. (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:18-27)
It is often debated as to how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ. If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen? Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything. And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything. It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything. So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey. Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human. The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him. In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings. Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.
In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:
One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)
Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment. The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there. He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live. We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit. It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian. The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 13:1-3)
Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion. On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ. On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose. As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.
The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil thatsaves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:
The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart. As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!]. It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.
If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons. The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart. For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!
For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting. For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide. What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.
“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.
Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)
When the same Abba Macarius was in Egypt he found somebody who had a beast of burden carrying off his things. Standing beside the robber as though he were a stranger, he helped him load up the beast then sent him on his way in great hesychia, saying: “‘We brought nothing into this world and it is clear that neither can we carry anything out’ [1 Tim 6.7].
“The Lord has given and it has transpired as he willed it to; blessed be the Lord in all things [see Job 1.21].”
“Authentic asceticism used practices that deepened self-awareness. The desert ascetic understood that growth in self-awareness was a necessary and valued component of the spiritual journey. Self-awareness was pursued through ascetical practices in order to become more deeply united with God and closer to heaven.
As the ammas [the desert mothers] taught, inner hesitancy and resistance to meet God in honesty, silence, and solitude are related to our resistance to come to know ourselves in our frailties. An honest encounter with God challenges our capacity for intimacy. We may come to discover that we fear our passion for God. We may want to run from our sense of emptiness. Self-awareness calls us to face our hurt and anger. Above all else, self-awareness reveals our idols – those self-serving, false images of God that deny who God actually is.
…Apatheia is purity of heart. The ammas teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and additions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism.”
It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am John, your brother.’ But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying, ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning.
Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him saying, ‘Forgive me.’
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9)
The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world. They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might. They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means. They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal. Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end. They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth. As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.
These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God. They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience. Sometimes they are simply stories which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel. What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous. Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on. They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord. So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:
Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)
Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.” Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault. They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” – that they are lost. For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.
“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)
The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were. The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide. And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost. It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
There was a certain brother who lived a life of very strict seclusion, and the devils wishing to lead him astray appeared to him when he was sleeping at night in the form of angels. They woke him up to sing the Psalms and pray and they would show him a light. So, he went to an elder and said unto him, “Father, the devils come to me with a light to wake me up to sing and pray.” The elder said unto him, “Don’t listen to them, my son, for they are devils – if they come to wake you up, say to them, “When I wish to rise up I will do so, but I will not listen to you.” And when they came to wake him he said to them what the old man had told him, and they immediately said to him, “That wicked old man is a liar, and he has led you astray. For a certain brother came to him and wished to borrow some money promising to pay it back, and although he had the money to lend, he lied and said, “I have none”, and he gave him nothing. Learn from this that you can’t trust his word. Then the brother rose up early in the morning and went to the elder and related unto him everything which he had heard. The old man said to him, “This is what happened. I did have some money, and a brother came and asked to borrow money from me. I would not give him any because I saw that if I did so we would both lose our souls. So I made up my mind that I would treat with contempt one of the commandments, rather than the Ten. Thus, we came to enmity with each other. However, don’t believe the devils who wish only to lead you astray.” When he had been greatly confirmed by the old man, that monk departed to his cell.
The above story from the desert fathers shows just how complex the spiritual life can be. Even a monk who strictly keeps the ascetical life can be bothered by demonic thoughts. This monk, though having committed himself to living alone, knows enough to talk to an elder when the demons are bothering him. He does not rely on his own mind to solve his problem, but humbles himself and turns to his brother for help. The elder gives him sound advice, but then the demons tell the monk that the elder himself has been involved in scandal and failed to be honest and do the right thing (as according to the Proverbs quotes at the beginning of this post). The demons endeavor to plant mistrust between the brother monks by pointing out that the elder has faults and is not himself perfect. Still, the story shows it is better to trust a fellow Christian with known faults than ever to listen to demons or demonic thoughts. The elder admits the truth of the accusation against him but also has an explanation for why he chose to do what he did. He admits he had to choose between evils, and had to ignore what he believes to be a godly commandment. He felt to give the money would produce even worse spiritual results than to withhold the money. Nevertheless, his decision ended badly as he and the other part parted in enmity. Even when we do what we believe to be the best thing in a difficult situation, there can be some negative consequences.
Still, he tells his younger brother in Christ, no matter how you judge me for what I did, never listen to demons. The monk agrees with that wisdom. We are to rely on one another for wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that our brothers and sisters in Christ will be without fault in some matters. And because someone may have done something wrong in one thing, doesn’t mean they are wrong about everything else. We always have to practice discernment as Christians. But discernment also requires us to make difficult judgments – we might not know the whole story, we have to consider the motives of those who tell us the faults of others, we might have to choose between the lesser of evils, we might have to make a choice even without having all the information we need to know. Remaining faithful to Christ and His teachings are what we always need to do, but sometimes life is complex and we have to discern as best we can what we need to do to fulfill the Gospel.
And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:16-17)
“A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby?
The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? and that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him.
Elias [Elijah] loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 25-26)