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)
Love and wisdom are two energies that are to guide us Christians in our decisions and behavior. Neither can be learned from a book of rules. Both require the help of the Holy Spirit to know when, how, where and to what degree we are to actor speak.
An Elder was asked by a brother, “If I see the sin of my brother am I to despise him?” And the old man said, “If we hide the fault of our brother God will also hide our faults; and if we expose our brother’s faults, God will also expose ours.”
An old man was wont to say, “There was a brother whose name was Timothy, and he used to lead a life of silent contemplation in a religious house; and a temptation came upon one of the brethren of that house, and the head of the house asked Timothy, saying, “What shall I do to this brother?” Timothy said unto him, “Expel him.” When he had expelled the brother, the temptation of that brother was sent upon Timothy, and he cried out to God, saying, “I have sinned, O my Lord, have mercy upon me.”
He passed the whole night in a grave of dead men, crying out and saying, “I have sinned, O my Lord, forgive me.” The temptation was upon him until he was greatly exhausted. And a voice came to him saying, “Timothy, do not imagine that these things have happened to you for any other reason than because you offended your neighbor in the time of his trial.”
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.
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:15)
Many in religious leadership positions think they lead by giving direction and commandments to others. But the desert fathers noted that the Christian way is to lead by example, which is so much more difficult. We are to be models of virtue so that others can follow our example. “… set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
An old man asked Abba Poemen, saying, “Some brethren dwell with me; does thou wish me to give them commandments?” And he said unto him, “No, but thou thyself must first do work, and if they wish to live, they will observe it and do it.” The old man said unto him, “Ought they also to wish me to govern them?” And Abba Poemen said unto him, “No, be unto them an example, and not a lawgiver.” (E. Wallis Budge, The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, p. 108)
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?
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.”
Another brother asked him: “what is the meaning of ‘Never repay evil with evil’?” [cf. Rom 12.17].
Abba Poemen said to him: “This passion works in four ways: first, in the heart; second, in the sight; third, in the tongue; fourth, in not doing evil in response to evil.
If you can purge your heart, it does not come to the sight.
If it comes to the sight, take care not to speak of it.
If you do speak of it, quickly prevent yourself from rendering evil for evil.” (Give me a Word, p. 233)
The Desert Fathers did not hold to a “one-size fits all” spirituality. They were realistic about the capabilities of different people and allowed for the fact that no everyone would be perfect in following Christ. They did not have a total “black and white” viewpoint of people or of sin. They recognized rather that in spiritual warfare, sometimes one gets only a partial victory. They did not think that if you fail on one point that everything is lost. As in the words above, they saw the battle for the heart as a war of inches, difficult battles with sometimes small victories, a war of attrition in which gains and loses might occur on small levels. One might even suffer some defeats, but one would keep fighting against sin and evil wherever one could.
One of the multitude said to Jesus, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:13-15)
Wisdom is as an essential element of our Scriptures and Tradition as is any set of rules or rubrics that have been offered to the faithful. And yet, Wisdom is often given a secondary place in the pedagogy of the Church as many in leadership roles prefer to lay down the law of God rather than to wrestle with Wisdom. In the early Church they relied on the Book of Proverbs as a manual for instructing catechumens, to prepare them for baptism and living the life in Christ. To this day the Orthodox continue to read Proverbs during Great Lent as a source for wisdom in living in a fallen world.
Besides the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, there also emerged in the early centuries of the Church’s history the Wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers – not lives of the saints but wise sayings designed to make us think about how to live the Gospel. This wisdom literature is related to the parables that Jesus taught in which He did not give law, but rather offered instruction for all believers to ponder. The parables like the wisdom sayings often have a hidden, deeper meaning to them.
The following story from the desert fathers gives us a sense in which wisdom was understood to be different from the Law. Law involves a more black and white thinking while wisdom considers how and when to apply the law or when it is correct to vary it. For example, a stop sign is the law. But that stop sign can never tell the driver when to go – to take that action requires wisdom. In this story a monk wants to know what to do with an inheritance he has received. Perhaps he was trying to avoid deciding himself what to do so he wouldn’t make the wrong choice. He wants the monastery abbot to decide for him – not to give him a word, but give him a rule. Abba Poemen wants the monk to learn to live the Gospel himself. Poemen offers an answer to the monk in terms of wisdom: he tells the monk what to do by not telling him what to do.
A brother asked Abba Poemen: “A legacy has been left to me; what shall I do with it?” The elder said to him: “Go away and come in three days then I will tell you.” He came as he had directed him and the elder said to him: “What am I to say to you, brother? If I say to you: ‘Give it to a church,’ they will have banquets there; if I say: ‘Give it to your relative,’ there is no reward for you; but if I tell you: ‘Give it to the poor,’ you will have no worries. Do whatever you like; this is not my business.” (Give me a Word, p. 233)
Poemen shows the monk he has actually considered his request about the inheritance. Giving the money to the church is a good thing, but he realizes it will cause the church community to celebrate and waste some of the money by benefiting no one but themselves. He could simply give the money away to relatives and be free of it himself, a noble thing, but of no spiritual benefit to the monk. Or, the monk could give the money to the poor and not worry about it any more, though humanly speaking people might fear the poor wouldn’t use the money wisely. Any of the actions could be proper for a monk because the monk is freeing himself from the cares of wealth. Each possibility could be good and each has a downside. Poemen is telling the monk to free himself of the inheritance, but refuses to give the monk a rule about it. The monk is going to have to decide for himself how to fulfill the Gospel commands. There may not be just one right answer, only one choice pleasing to God. Poemen, however, refuses to burden himself with the inheritance!
A brother came to see Abba Poemen and while several of them were sitting round, he praised a brother for hating evil. Abba Poemen said to the one who had spoken, ‘What does it mean to hate evil?’ The brother was surprised and found nothing to say in reply. Getting up, he made a prostration before the old man, and said, ‘Tell me what hatred of evil is?’ The old man said to him, ‘Hatred of evil is to hate one’s thoughts and to praise one’s neighbor.
A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go and join one who says “What do I want?” and you will have peace.’
Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy and I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him saying, “Tell me where you were.” He was forced to answer and he said, “My thought was with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she wept by the cross of the Savior. I wish I could always weep like that.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 187).
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).