Imitating Scriptural Saints

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)

4th C Fresco Christ Teaching

“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.

Hospitality of Abraham

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)

 

 

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Obedience as Discipleship

In the writings of the desert fathers, there is an interesting interplay that occurs regarding a literal understanding of instructions and a literal understanding of the scriptures.  The Scriptures reveal Christ and so often are not understood literally or historically but rather are read as signs or prophecies or prototypes of Christ.  The Scriptures are to help us remain faithfully united to Christ – and thus their historical or literal truthfulness is not the really important issue.   The issue is how they reveal Christ to us and help us follow Christ.  In the early Church it is often the heretics who hold to a completely literal interpretation of every text and who fail to understand the true scope of the Scriptures.  On the other hand, one sees a literalism that is related to obedience in which the disciple tries to fulfill the wish of the teacher to the letter of the law.  So we read:

On another occasion the blessed Arsenius said to Abba Alexander: “Come and eat with me when you have cut your palm-fronds, but if some guests come, eat with them.” So Abba Alexander worked away evenly and moderately; when the time came, he still had palm-fronds. Wishing to fulfill the elder’s instruction, he stayed to complete the palms. When Abba Arsenius saw that he was late, he ate, thinking that [Abba Alexander] had guests, but Abba Alexander went [to him] when he had finished the palm-fronds in the evening and the elder said to him: “You had guests?” and he said: “No.” “So why did you come?” [the elder] said to him. “Because you said to me: ‘When you have cut your palm-fronds, come then,’” he said, “and, observing your instruction, I did not come because I only completed [the task] just now.” The elder was amazed at his scrupulosity and he said to him: “Break your fast earlier so you can perform your synaxis and partake of your water, otherwise your body will soon sicken.” (Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 44-45)

Many in the early church read the sin of Eve and Adam as being one of prideful disobedience.  The corrective as they saw it was for Christians to be disciples – to follow the discipline of their teachers and not follow their own self-willfulness.  Thus we find in the desert fathers many stories of monks diligently and scrupulously obeying their elder’s instructions, even to the point of absurdity.  Of course, the point is not to do the absurd, but to emphasize the need to be a disciplined follower of Christ.

Even A Little Charity is Good

Total black and white, all or nothing thinking is not in the Tradition of the Church always viewed as wise, correct, true or loving.  There are many examples in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church where they note wisdom, truth and love require of us a more nuanced understanding of the Christian life.

Additionally, Christians have been plagued in their piety by all types of doubt and worry about their own motives for doing good.  We give to charity, but want people to notice our generosity.  We give to charity but mostly because it is a tax break for us.  The deed is good, but the motive wrong.  So is the blessing taken away?  Or what if we have good intention to be charitable, but not the means?  Are our intentions of no value?

The desert mothers and fathers in particular often put forth godly wisdom to counter the the exacting doubts of our minds.

A brother said to Abba Poemen: “If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons denigrate the deed as being done to please men.”

The elder said to him: “Even if it is done to please men, let us give the brother what he needs,” and he told him this parable:

“There were two men, both farmers, living in one city. One of them sowed and reaped a small crop of poor quality, while the other neglected to sow and reaped nothing. When there is a famine, which of the two will be found to live?”

“The one who reaped a small crop of poor quality,” the brother replied.

Said the elder to him: “So it also with us; let us too sow a little even if it be of poor quality so that we do not die by famine.”

(Give me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 235)

Even if we give only a little to charity at Christmas it is still a blessing for the one in need.  It is also a blessing for the one who gives.

Our Demons are Our Own Wills

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).

Be An Example

“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).

 

The Power of a Praying Community

“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)

Climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent

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)

 

Nature as Scripture

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.’”

(Evagrius of Pontus in The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware, p 54)

Self-will Vs. God’s Will

“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)