Be an Example to Believers

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.   (1 Timothy 4:12)

St. Alexander Schmorell (d. 1943AD)

Abba Isaac said: “As a young man I was staying with Abba Cronios and he never told me to do a task even though he was aged and tremulous. Of his own accord he would get up and offer the water bottle to me and likewise to all. After that I stayed with Abba Theodore of Pherme and neither did he ever tell me to do anything. He would lay the table himself and then say: ‘Brother, come and eat if you like.’ I would say to him: ‘Abba, I came to you to reap some benefit; why do you never tell me to do anything?’ The elder said to them: ‘Am I the superior of a coenobium to order him around?’ For the time being I didn’t tell him [to do] anything. He will do what he sees me doing if he wants to.’

So from then on I began anticipating, doing whatever the elder was about to do. For his part, if he was doing anything, he used to do it in silence This taught me to act in silence.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

So the Evangelist Luke writes:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:24-27)

When Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

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Christian Freedom – Detachment from the World

In the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day which many Americans consider to be the very basis for personal freedoms.  We can as Christians look at history to see how Christians in past Centuries (long before there was a United States) understood the notion of freedom.  One expression of Christian freedom which grew rapidly after the establishment of the Christian Roman Empire is monasticism.  Monastics, among other things, wanted to be able to practice their faith fully, without state interference and without being influenced by the masses of Christians who the monks felt practiced a watered-down version of Christianity.  For these monastic Christians, the monasteries and the deserts into which they fled, leaving behind the Christian state, offered them freedom.  Certainly we can recognize the value of some of the freedoms they sought.

“The telos of the monks’ life in the desert was freedom: freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and with God. They hoped also that this freedom would express itself in a positive sense: freedom to love others; freedom to enjoy the presence of God; freedom to live in the innocence of a new paradise. The desert fathers’ aspiration toward freedom expressed itself in many different guises and touched upon various levels of their lives. They drew heavily upon biblical images to articulate their hopes, focusing on such New Testament ideas as “not being anxious about anything (Mt 9:25),” “not worrying about tomorrow (Mt 6:34),” “seeking first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6:33),” believing in the limitless goodness of God (Mk 9:23), and on what the Psalms call “casting one’s cares upon the Lord (Ps 54:23).” Taken altogether, these images comprise a montage expressing the ultimate goal of renunciation and detachment for the desert fathers: freedom from worry, anxiety, and care, born of a sense of total dependence upon and confidence in God.” (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 222)

They felt themselves freed of worldly values and norms and able to live completely in and for the Kingdom of God.

Bringing Others to Salvation

“After having passed thirty-one years as a hermit in the desert with his companion John, Symeon said to him: ‘What more benefit do we derive, brother, from passing time here in this desert? But if you hear me, get up, let us depart; let us save others. For as we are, we do not benefit anyone except ourselves, and have not brought anyone else to salvation.’ And he began to quote to him from the Holy Scriptures such things as ‘Let no one seek his own good, but rather the good of his neighbors’ (1 Cor. 10:24), and again ‘All things to all men, that I might save all’ (1 Cor. 9:22).

And his biographer notes: The all-wise Symeon’s whole goal was this: first, to save souls…For it was not thought just that the one thus honored by God and placed high should disdain the salvation of his fellow men, but remembering the one who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27), who did not disdain to put on the form of a slave, although unchanged, for the salvation of a slave (cf. Phil. 2:6 ff), Symeon imitated his master and truly used his own soul and body to save others.’” (Jean-Claude Larchet, Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, p 151)

Fasting: Wisdom and Discipline for the Newbie

Sometimes new converts to Orthodoxy in their zeal are tempted to try to keep every detail of the Great Fast even if they have no previous experience with fasting. It also happens that some falter along the way which though spiritually discouraging can lead to a worse attitude that if they can’t do it all then there is no use doing any of it.  The all-or-nothing mindset often is a sign of an immature spiritual attitude.

We are blessed in that we can read in the desert fathers the wisdom with which they guided the novices who entered the monasteries – often zealously imagining that they will match or exceed the holy ascetics of old.  The elders certainly recognize the folly of novices thinking they are capable of keeping all aspects of the fast, and the experienced Christian also knows the immaturity of the all-or-nothing thinking.  The elders recognized the unenlightened zeal of the new comers for what it was: folly.  There is a wisdom that comes only with experience, and that is a lesson new converts don’t always want to take the time to learn.

Yet, we are to grow in the faith.  We don’t start at the top of the spiritual ladder, but at the bottom.  It is safer and wiser that way.  The lives of ascetic saints are meant to inspire us, but wisdom reminds us they spent decades humbly and obediently attaining their discipline – we are often foolish enough to imagine we can imitate them in our first Lent.  They weren’t deluded in thinking perfection is attainable in one’s first year or in one’s first try at spiritual discipline.  Plus, they knew the basis for everything had to be the love of God, not some pursuit of personal success or self achievement.

A story of wisdom from the desert fathers for those new in the faith who are tempted by zeal to do what the most experienced saints only achieved after decades of self denial.

Now certain of the beginners in the ascetic life are so silly and bold as to dare to undertake things which are far above their capacity and their strength; they do not wish to learn, and they will not be persuaded by the commands of their Fathers, but, without having lived the proper period of time in the cenobium, they dare to enter the cell, even as it is written concerning one of the brethren in the Book of Paradise, for immediately he had received the garb of the monk, he went and shut himself up as a solitary recluse, saying, I am a monk of the desert ; and the Fathers went and brought him out into the monastery [again]. There are others, too, who seek to shut themselves up for a week at a time, and it in no wise helps them; and there are others, the children of this world, who at the beginning of their careers imitate the exalted rule of life of the Fathers, and who imagine that they can imitate the rule of the mind, that is to say, of the spirit, when as yet they have not fulfilled the rule of the body. Therefore their lives and works are not open to the Fathers, and they will not receive correction, but they live according to their own desire, and they are delivered over into the hands of the devils who make mockery of them.”        (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers Vol 2, Kindle Loc. 5457-67)

Denying the Self Will

The Lord Jesus said:  “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”  (Luke 9:23-24)

Apostle Peter

Fulfilling the Gospel commands of Christ has been the desire and goal of His disciples through the ages.  Countless numbers of Christians left homes and families and became monks and nuns in an effort to practice the command to deny the self.   But even among them, many became monks to follow their own will and desire rather than in obedience to Christ.  Many Christians choose to follow Christ only in those areas that suits their own personalities – what comes natural to them – but not in those areas which really require self denial.   The practice of true self denial, requires us to obey Christ not just when it suits our  personalities or is convenient or when we happen to agree with or approve of the behavior.   Some people are kind or generous by nature, some are by nature indifferent to the finer things of life, some find abstinence suits their personalities.  However, to obey Christ, to deny the self or one’s self will in everything is another matter.  In the desert fathers we find this story:

“Four monks of Scetis, clothed in skins, came one day to see the great Pambo. Each one revealed the virtue of his neighbor.

The first fasted a great deal;

the second was poor;

the third had acquired great charity;

and they said of

the fourth that he had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to an old man.

Abba Pambo said to them, ‘I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.’ ”

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg. 196)

The Wisdom of Love

On one occasion when Abba John and the brethren who were with him were going up from Scete, he who was guiding them lost the way, and the brethren said unto Abba John, “What shall we do father? For this brother has lost the way, and peradventure we shall die in wandering about.”

Abba John said unto them, “If you tell him he will be grieved and feel ashamed. But behold I will feign to be sick, and will say that I am not able to go on any further.”  The brethren said, “Well said, Father.”

And they acted thus, and decided that they would stay where they were until the morning, rather than rebuke the brother who was guiding them.

(Adapted from E. Wallis Budge, The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, pg. 260)

Imitating A Desert Father

I have frequently enjoyed and been edified by writings for and about the desert fathers.  I will admit I do not like all of their stories, and find some unedifying.  Their stories are written by, to and about monks in the desert and so sometimes their is a culture divide between my understanding of Christianity and theirs, and some of the stories really are not applicable to the daily life of one living in the world.

When I appreciate the stories, it is often because they are a good story.  The message is sometimes hidden in the text, sometimes told with humor, frequently they confront my normal mode of thinking, and often told with an unexpected twist.  The following story has that unexpected twist, with humor, at the end.  It helps me to see how real their stories were and how they are applied to real life.  Imitating the heroes in the stories, or following their teachings, cannot be done in a wooden manner of literally doing what they do, but requires us to translate the saying into our own life and thinking.

“An elder of great virtue visited us and we were reading the sayings of the holy fathers in the book called PARADISE, for that elder was always very fond of going through those sayings.  He inhaled them, as it were, and from that seed he produced the fruit of every virtue.  We came to the story of that elder to whom robbers came and said: ‘We have come to take everything in your cell.’  When he replied: ‘Take whatever you like, children’, they took everything  and went their way.  Buy they had overlooked a purse which was hanging in the cell.  The story says that the elder took the purse and ran after the robbers, shouting and saying to them: ‘Children, take this from me which you overlooked in our cell’.   The were so amazed at his forbearance that they gave back to the elder everything that have been in his cell.  And they repented, saying to each other: ‘Truly, this is a man of God’.

When we read this, the elder said to me: ‘You know, abba, this saying has been very advantageous to me’.  I asked him, ‘How so, father”?  And he said: ‘I read this at a time when I was in the Jordan region, and I was filled with admiration for the elder.  I said: ‘Lord, let me follow in his footsteps, you who have counted me worthy to embrace this way of life’.  While this desire was still strong within me, two days later some robbers came by.  When they knocked at the door I knew they were robbers.  I said to myself: ‘Thanks be to God; the occasion has arisen for me to show the fruit of my desire’.  I opened the door and welcomed them cheerfully.  I lit a lamp and began showing them the things that were there, saying: ‘do not worry; before the Lord, I believe that nothing shall be hidden away from you’.  They said to me: ‘Have you any gold?’  ‘Yes’, I replied: ‘I have three pieces of gold’.  I opened the chest before them; they took the gold and went their way in peace.’

With a smile, I asked him if they had returned like the robbers in the saying.

He replied without hesitation: ‘No, God forbid!  Nor did I want them to come back’.”

(John Moschos, THE SPIRITUAL MEADOW, pp 190-191)

While we can choose to imitate the saints as an act of godliness, those around us do not have to imitate anyone.  We don’t imitate the saints in order to manipulate the behavior of people around us, nor to bring about miracles.  We imitate the saints in order to live according to the Gospel commandments and to experience the Kingdom of God in our own lives

Humility: An Expression of Love

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

“Every day there were endless opportunities to assert oneself and one’s opinions at the expense of others, to insist on one’s status, to engage in petty disputes, to hold grudges, to respond to perceived injustices against oneself with righteous indignation. And such responses were often natural and understandable. However, the monks sought to overcome their natural tendency to grasp at their own rights and privileges through the practice of humility. They wanted to place human relationships on a different footing, to undermine the impulses which perpetuated discord and factionalism. In short, they sought to create an atmosphere in which it would be easier to love. Consciously taking the lowest place was a first step in this process. In this sense, humility became an expression of love.”     (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pg. 249)

Monasticism Began at Home

It is interesting that today some Orthodox families seek out monasteries to add a dimension to their spiritual lives that is missing in their daily lives.  Laura Swan in her book, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, reminds us that monasticism itself began in the home.  Families wishing to live the Gospel life more fully began shaping their lives around Christ’s commandments.  These families attempted to live for the Kingdom of God though still living ‘in the world.’

“Christian monasticism began in the home. The first communities usually included relatives, dependents, and household slaves. This inclusiveness had a deep impact upon monastic and desert spirituality. Life was centered around times of communal prayer, private prayer, services in local churches, the study of scripture and the writings of the leaders of the movement, and service to the poor. Some experienced a call to move away from the common life toward solitude.” (Swan,  pgs. 8-9)

If Swan is correct in how monasticism began, it is interesting that nowadays families seek something from outside the family to help them be disciples of Christ – they go to monasteries for monastic spirituality rather than trying to live the Gospel more fully in their own homes.   One can wonder: has historical experience taught us that we cannot live the Gospel in our home and family lives and so must go to monasteries for that dedicated spirituality?   Or have we Orthodox discovered that only in monasteries can people pursue the evangelical life – that the monastic community rather than the family community is the only way to follow Christ and practice Christian discipleship? (or at least discipline as monastics came to believe is normative for Christianity)  Or is it because we want to follow mammon AND God that we cannot be disciples of Christ in our families?  We want to pursue the American dream of success, prosperity, a suburban home and wonderful vacations AND so cannot figure out how to followChrist taught self-denial?   Is it that we want to live comfortable, middle class lives with only an occasional touch of monastic spirituality rather than shaping our family time and values by the Gospel lessons?   Or maybe we believe only monastics can really be fully Christian and so accept that we must have occasional monastic experiences but we really can’t live in the world and follow Christ.

Living a Christ-like life daily is hard work, so do we settle for vicarious experiences 0f Christianity – observing monastics while we are on retreat but imagining that we should not bother to figure out how to follow Christ within the opportunities presented by our families?   Perhaps a time will come again when we realize that Christ called us to follow Him as mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.  Christ can be a member of our families and dwell in our homes.  We do not have to go anywhere else to find Christ, for He lives in us, in our hearts, our homes, our families.  Christ commanded us to love one another, to repent, to forgive, to practice self-denial and He taught us to pray, be charitable, to pursue godliness, to live humbly and to proclaim the joyous Good News of the resurrection.  These are all things we can do in our own homes and families.  Monasticism became the Christian way for those who wanted to forgo the married life.  Those who embrace marriage and family life have to find their way to be disciples of Christ.