It’s Not All or Nothing

For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not.   (2 Corinthians 8:12)

One temptation in the spiritual life is to understand perfection to mean you do everything perfectly right and then to decide that anything less than perfect is utter failure.  This “all or nothing” spirituality shows itself in people who start out to keep Great Lent perfectly, but then falter along the way and give up on the whole enterprise thinking if I can’t keep it all, why try to do anything?  The same thing happens with people who set up for themselves a demanding spiritual discipline or prayer life and soon cannot keep to their high standards and so decide to abandon the spiritual life altogether.

Additionally, it is not the one who begins the race but who never finishes it who wins the prize.  So beginning any spiritual endeavor with zeal and the mind toward perfection but then abandoning the effort  because of a failure along the way is worse than beginning the race with only moderate effort but then persevering to the end.

Between everything and nothing there is a lot of middle ground, and there are many stories and lessons in the lives of the Fathers to support that point.  The desert fathers knew that Jesus commanded us to practice charity and hospitality.  Yet some of the monks struggled in subsistence level conditions and had little to give to others.   Rather than advocating all or nothing, the spiritual advice is to keep at the spiritual life and do the best you can, fulfilling as much of the Gospel as you can, but not worrying about what you can’t do.  Here are two from monastic fathers, adpated from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2) :

“And if you art unable to give alms of your work at least supply all your needs by your own hands.”  (Kindle Loc. 3156-57)

If you can’t earn enough to be able to give charity, at least earn enough so you don’t have to beg from others.  There is a wisdom here to help the struggling Christian who may feel the demands of the Faith are more than he or she can do daily.  The wisdom response is do what you can.  A second example on the same theme of charity:

A brother asked Abba Joseph, saying, “What shall I do? For I cannot be disgraced, and I cannot work, and I have nothing from which to give alms.”  The old man said unto him, ” If you can not do these things, keep your conscience from your neighbor, and guard yourself carefully against evil of every kind, and you shall live; for God desires that the soul shall be without sin.”   (Kindle Loc. 1465-68)

As with many of the desert father stories, they are short and so leave out some details.  In the story above it appears that the one monk is ill or injured and so cannot work and thus cannot give alms.  Should he quit being a monk?  No, he is advised to continue on doing the things he can do – be a good neighbor, not nosey, not a gossip, and don’t do any evil yourself.   Even if you cannot practice charity because you haven’t anything to give, you can still be a Christian by following other teachings of Christ.  All or nothing doesn’t work.  There is no one shoe size for all.  Each of us has to work out our own salvation.  Do you know how Christ loves you?  Then love others as you have been loved.

… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…  (Philippians 2:12-16)

A Jonah Moment

 

The Holy Prophet Jonah is perhaps best remembered for trying to flee from the Lord, so that he wouldn’t have to do the Lord’s will since he found it disagreeable that the Ninevites, enemies of Israel,  might be given opportunity by God to repent and be saved.   As we read in the Book of Jonah:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.  ...  (Jonah 1:1-4)

Try as he might to flee from the presence of the Lord, Jonah discovered God is everywhere, one is never away from the presence of the Lord.  And though we have free will to choose in life anything other than God’s will, God is able to outlast us in any game of hide and seek or in any staring contest we might want to engage with God.  It is pretty hard to beat an eternal being in time, though we often are willing to try to play the game.   What is amazing about God in the Jonah story is that God saves Jonah from the belly of the whale while Jonah is trying to flee from God (the belly is certainly a symbol of Sheol – the place of the dead, and the whole story is a resurrection story and a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection, at least as Christ and His followers read Jonah) .  Jonah is not saved because he is trying to do God’s will, but is saved despite his effort to thwart God’s will.  Think about that – Jonah is saved despite clearly rejecting holiness.  Jonah has worked his way to his Sheol, just like Adam did – by disobeying God.  Yet, Jonah is saved from the consequences of his own behavior.  No eternal punishment for the disobedient in this prophecy.

In the writings of the desert fathers, Abba Issac has his own Jonah moment, though in the end he agrees to God’s will a lot more easily than Jonah ever did.  Even saints do not always want to do the will of God, and some do it only grudgingly.  Humans are headstrong and strong willed to their deaths.  So we read in the desert fathers:

Once they came to make Abba Isaac a priest. When he heard, he fled into Egypt, went into a field, and hid amidst the crop. The fathers went after him and, when they got to the same field, sat down to rest a little there, for it was night. They set the ass free to pasture, but the ass went and stood by the elder. When they sought the ass at dawn, they found Abba Isaac too. They were amazed and wanted to bind him but he would not let the. “I am not running away any more,” he said, “for it is the will of God and no matter where I run away to, I will come to it.”   (Isaac of the Cells, Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

No matter where we might run to get away from God, we will find God present there.  That is the mercy of an omnipresent God!

Jonah’s complaint with God is that God is too forgiving and merciful, and Jonah makes it clear that he disapproves of God’s nature:   But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray you, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”    (Jonah 4:1-2)   While it is true of God that:  “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever” (Psalms 103:9), that was not true of Jonah who was unforgiving of the Ninevites and hoped they all would be destroyed and perhaps sent to hell for all eternity.  Fortunately for us, God is far more loving, forgiving and merciful than his saints!  We may never find reason to forgive someone or their offense in our lifetime.  On the other hand, since God is not bounded by time, God can afford to be eternally patient with us and forgive us in the world to come.

We  commemorate the Holy Prophet Jonah on September 22.

Vacation and Recreation

One might get the impression from the monastic tradition of the Church that the life of a Christian is all work and no play.  Yet, the monastic tradition is nothing if not brutally honest about what it means to be human – our limits, our foibles, our weaknesses.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that even in the strict spiritual tradition of the desert fathers we find a story (in several variations) of the human need for rest and relaxation.  The stories of the desert fathers often contain humor in them, or the humor is obvious in the story.  Here is one story where Abba Antony realizes he and the monks are being observed by a layman who is scandalized to see the Abbot jesting with the monks.  The Abbot realizes he needs to soothe the ruffled feathers of the scandalized layman.

There was somebody in the desert hunting wild animals and he saw Abba Antony jesting with the brothers. The elder wanted to convince the hunter that he had to come down to the level  the brothers from time to time. He said to him: “Put an arrow to your bow and draw it.” He did so. He said to him: “Draw again,” and he drew. Again he said: “Draw.” The hunter said to him: “If I draw beyond its capacity my bow will break.”

Said the elder to him: “So is it too with the work of God. If we draw on the brothers beyond their capacity, they will quickly break. So it is necessary to come down to the level of the brothers from time to time.” The hunter was conscience-stricken when he heard this and went his way greatly benefitted by the elder. The brothers withdrew to their place strengthened. (Give Me a Word, pp. 33-34)

While we enter into our summer vacation season, we can appreciate the gift that God gives us to enjoy life, to recreate our hearts and minds.  While it is true we are to continue practicing our faith in every circumstance, we also are to pray, give thanks and rejoice as part of our Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  It is true that we cannot take a vacation from God, we still can take a vacation to renew our gratitude to our Creator.

Perfection: Grant Me to See My Own Sins

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.  (Luke 6:41-42)

A brother asked Abba Poimen, ‘What ought I to do? I lack courage when I am praying alone in my cell.’

The elder told him, ‘Do not despise, condemn or blame anyone. God will grant you peace and you will meditate in tranquility.’”  (Thomas Merton, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 144).

The Fear of God and God’s Love

In some cases, the sensitivity of the elders toward those who were lost in despair or confusion was such that they were willing to adopt whatever position necessary to lead the others out of their pain. In a story alluded to earlier, some old men who had heard of Abba Sisoes’s reputation for wisdom came to consult him on the matter of the coming judgement. This first two cited texts having to do with eternal judgement, and the third, obviously troubled by the thought of this, asked: “Father, what shall I do, for the remembrance of the outer darkness is killing me.” Sisoes himself was not troubled by these thoughts and tried to encourage the brothers by speaking of his own experience: “For my part, I do not keep in mind the remembrance of any of these things, for God is compassionate and I hope that he will show me his mercy.”

However, the old men were offended by this answer, which seemed to them to make light of the issue of the final judgement, and got up to leave. Realizing the effect that his response had had upon them, Sisoes quickly changed course, and said to them: “Blessed are you, my brothers; truly I envy you. The first speaks of the river of fire, the second of hell and the third of darkness. Now if your spirit is filled with such remembrances, it is impossible for you to sin. What shall I do then? I who am hard of heart and to whom it has not been granted so much as to know whether there is a punishment for men; no doubt it is because of this that I am sinning all the time.” They prostrated themselves before him and said, “Now we have seen exactly that of which we have heard tell.” One could argue that Sisoes was being disingenuous with these old men. Did he really believe what he was telling them in his second response?

In a sense he did – he knew that a constant awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the uncertainty of the judgement to come could kindle real moral acuity. Yet his response is more important for what it shows us about his capacity to empathize with his visitors’ concerns. His desire to reach them and draw them out of their paralyzing fear about the final judgement was stronger than his attachment to any particular position about that judgement. It was Siseos’s willingness to move toward his visitors in love which touched them most deeply. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 284-285)

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.