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.