Overcoming Evil

So many of the sayings and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers are based on the teachings offered us in the New Testament.  In the desert fathers we find this:

“Malice will never drive our malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice.”  (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 43)

In the New Testament we find this:

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)

 

Repenting of a Serious Sin

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.”

(Abba Poemen, Give Me a Word, p. 229)

The Sins I Cannot See

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)

Praying Pro-Life

The Orthodox Church in America’s leadership lends its support to the Annual March for Life in Washington, DC, each year.  Methropolitan Tikhon also sends an annual message to all the faithful members of the OCA on the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday reminding us of the essential nature of defending human life in a time when the country’s supreme court has ruled that the unborn has no rights.

And while visibly protesting against abortion on demand shows our commitment to the sanctity of human life, as I noted in my post 2019 Sanctity of Human Life Sunday to be pro-life has to mean more than wanting laws that prohibit abortion.  Pro-life means a commitment to helping and supporting families, including single moms, who struggle to raise their children.  Pro-life should mean we commit ourselves  also to being pro-family and pro-education and pro-health for these children whom God brings into existence.  If we believe life is sacred then we should not ignore the fact that once some children come into the world they are thrust into poverty, into situations in which they might lack basic health care, food, housing, educational opportunities.   Our pro-life attitude should not mean we prevent people from having abortions but then turn our backs against them when they need help in raising these children.   Pro-life should never be reduced to supporting pro-life candidates but should include supporting pro-life policies and agencies who work with families in need.  We can financially support such groups and personally volunteer to help them.   One such Orthodox group we can support is Zoe for Life.

 

There is a saying from the desert fathers:

The old man also said unto him, ” If works do not correspond to prayer he who prays labours in vain.”   (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers Volume 2, Kindle Loc. 3218-19)

We are not just to pray pro-life, we are to minister to families in need, we are to work for and with these families as part of our liturgy and prayer.


What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.   (James 2:14-17)

Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

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.

Judging Ourselves, Not Others

To justify ourselves by condemning others is our permanent tendency, in private as in public life. True nobility is to take responsibility oneself. True humility and true love, in the spiritual order, consist in knowing ourselves to be guilty ‘in everything and for everyone.’

Abba John said, ‘We have rejected the light burden of condemning ourselves, and we have chosen to carry the heavy one of justifying ourselves and condemning others.John Colobos, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 21.

How can we judge another person without imprisoning that person in his past acts? Without shackling him to one moment of his development.  A change of heart is always possible.”   (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 282)

Being A Christian, Yet Living in the World

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.’

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 86)

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)

 

Maintaining the Unity of the Community


“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)

Obeying the Gospel When Life is Complex

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.

(Proverbs 3:27-28)

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.

(adapted from The Paradise of the Holy Fathers Vol 2,    Kindle Loc 1150-61)

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.

Serving God

Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.   (James 1:2-4)

Martyrdom of Juvenaly

Beloved Brother: Those who occupy themselves with the ephemeral and vain world, if they advance and make gains, do not count the trials which they have endured, but rejoice at the progress which they have made. Can you imagine, then, my brother, what joy the soul of a man who undertakes spiritual work for God and finishes it successfully experiences? It is natural for the soul to feel unfading joy, for at the moment of its departure, the good works which it has done will precede it when it ascends to Heaven. At that time the Angels of God will rejoice together with it, as they see it delivered from the powers of darkness. (St. Isaiah, The Evergentinos, p. 37)