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Forgiveness Sunday 2015

Two brothers went to a town to sell what they had made. In the town they separated, and one of them fell into fornication. Afterwards the other brother said: “Let us go back to our cell, brother.” But he replied: “I am not coming.” And the other asked him: “Why, brother?” And he replied: “Because when you left me, I met temptation, and was guilty of fornication.” The other, wanting to help him, said: “It happened also to me: after I left you, I also fell into fornication. Let us go together, and do penance with all our might, and God will pardon us sinners.” When they returned to their cell, they told the elders what had happened to them, and were instructed what penance they should do. But the one did penance not for himself, but for the other, as though he himself had sinned. God, seeing his earnestness and his charity, disclosed to one of the elders, a few days later, that he had forgiven the fornicator because of the charity of the brother who had not sinned. Truly, this was to lay down his soul for his brother.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.27

Just a short reflection—a few notes, really—for this Forgiveness Sunday. Vespers tonight actually marks the start of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians like myself, but I am unable to go: my little son Brendan seems to have the flu. So I’m home with him (who is sleeping next to me on the couch) while Kelly goes to Church. View full article »

Laying Down One’s Life

[Abba Poemen] also said: “There is nothing greater in love than that a man should lay down his life for his neighbour. When a man hears a complaining word and struggles against himself, and does not himself begin to complain; when a man bears an injury with patience, and does not look for revenge; that is when a man lays down his life for his neighbour.”

Abba Poemen here comments on the words of Christ:

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. (John 15:12-14)

What I like about this saying is that it helps to highlight what ought to be obvious. That is, I think when I read this in the past I thought of Christ’s death on the cross, where he literally lays down his life for his friends. And that is true, fundamental even. But Jesus is saying more than that. This is about more than sacrifice and martyrdom. Or, as Abba Poemen points out, it is about a different kind of martyrdom: love. View full article »

Bright Sadness

Abba Poemen said also: “Grief is twofold: it works good, and it keeps out evil.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.12

There are many ways in which Abba Poemen could be wrong. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is aware of all those. When is Abba Poemen right? When is grief not only not bad, but a double blessing? View full article »

Hope on Easter Eve

Sometimes stories from the desert fathers are too long to reflect on here, but I still want to share them. There is a lot to like about this story. It also reflects some of the more severe austerity of monastics, but there is enough here, I think, for readers to apply to their own contexts. I especially like the characterization of despair (and, by implication, hope). I also like the brief comment about “the venerable fathers, many of whom had overcome the devil though they lived in towns”—which somewhat contradicts the sort of spiritual elitism some impute to the fathers. This old man, at least, knew that salvation was available even to those who live in the world, even if the path there is harder to find and slower to travel. View full article »

Abba Evagrius said: “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody, and long-suffering, and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 10.20

When one reads early Christian responses to Jewish practices like Kosher diet or Sabbath observance or circumcision, especially that of St. Paul, perhaps, one can get the impression that he contradicts himself. At some points, he says that so long as someone does these things with a good conscience, it is pleasing to God. At other times, he talks about how none of these things have any spiritual profit. I think this saying from Abba Evagrius gives us some insight into what that early Christian perspective really was about: prudence. View full article »

[Abba Antony] said: “From our neighbour are life and death. If we do good to our neighbour, we do good to God: if we cause our neighbour to stumble, we sin against Christ.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 17.2

Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius: “Why do you run away from us?” The old man said: “God knows I love you. But I cannot be with God and with men. The countless hosts of angels have but a single will, while men have many wills. So I cannot let God go, and come and be with men.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 17.5

I’ve mentioned before how the sayings of the desert fathers are practical wisdom. As such, they can appear contradictory. Practical wisdom is situational, prudential. Sometimes Abba Antony is right, sometimes Abba Arsenius. It depends on the person and the context when the wisdom of one applies compared to another. View full article »

Be the Bee!

[T]he monk who desires to gather spiritual honey, ought like a most careful bee, to suck out virtue from those who specially possess it, and should diligently store it up in the vessel of his own breast: nor should he investigate what any one is lacking in, but only regard and gather whatever virtue he has. For if we want to gain all virtues from some one person, we shall with great difficulty or perhaps never at all find suitable examples for us to imitate. For though we do not as yet see that even Christ is made “all things in all,” as the Apostle says; still in this way we can find Him bit by bit in all.

~ St. John Cassian, Institutes, 5.4

My wife Kelly sent me the following video. I’m sure I’m late in seeing it, but I figured it was worth sharing here anyway. Anyone who can make a video about apatheia that kids could actually get into is doing something right in my book. Kudos.

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Born of the Same Mother

Abba John told this story. Abba Anub and Abba Poemen and the others, who were born of the same mother, were monks in Scete. And some savage Mazicae came and sacked Scete. The monks went away, and came to a place called Terenuthis, while they discussed where to live, and stayed a few days there in an old temple. Abba Anub said to Abba Poemen: “Of your charity, let me live apart from you and your brothers, and we shall not see each other for a week.” And Abba Poemen said: “Let us do as you wish”: and they did so.

In the temple stood a stone statue. And every day at dawn Abba Anub rose and pelted the face of the statue with stones: and every day at evening he said: “Forgive me.” Every day for a week he did this: and on Saturday they met again. And Abba Poemen said to Abba Anub: “I saw you, Abba, throwing stones at the face of the statue every day this week, and later doing penance to the statue. A true Christian would not have done that.” And the old man answered: “For your sakes I did it. When you saw me throwing stones at the statue’s face, did it speak? Was it angry?”

And Abba Poemen said: “No.”

And he said: “When I did penance before the statue, was it troubled in heart? Did it say: ‘I do not forgive you?’ ”

And Abba Poemen answered: “No.”

And he said: “Here we are, seven brothers. If we want to stay together, we must become like this statue, which is untroubled by the injuries I have done it. If you will not become like this statue, see, there are four doors to this temple, and each of us may go in the direction he chooses.”

At these words they fell upon the ground before Abba Anub, and said to him: “As you say, Father. We will do what you tell us.” And afterwards Abba Poemen described what happened. “We remained together all our lives, doing our work and everything else as the old man directed us. He appointed one of us as a steward, and we ate whatever he put before us; no one could have said: ‘Bring something else to eat, or ‘I will not eat that.’ And so we passed our lives in quiet and peace.” 

 ~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.11

This is one of the few stories from the desert fathers where biological relations seem to be honored. More often, we read of men who leave everything, including family, for the sake of the Gospel, for a life dedicated to Jesus Christ. To such stories we may say that such literal renunciation is not necessary for all Christians. Yet we can still learn from their dedication. Here, however, we have an example far more easily applicable to a life of everyday asceticism. View full article »

Audio: What is Fasting?

I recently had the honor to be a guest on a radio show, prompted by my recent post on fasting. If you’d like to give it a listen, you can find it here. Thanks again to John and Kathy for having me on the program.

Countless Contemplations

I haven’t lately had the time to write new posts. But I came across a passage in St. John Cassian’s Conferences (1.15) that I thought speaks pretty well for itself:

[Abba Moses said:] In many ways we come to contemplate God. We know him in worshipping his very being which we cannot fathom, the vision which is yet hidden, though it is promised, and for which we may hope. We know him in the majesty of his creation, in regarding his justice, in apprehending the help we receive for our daily lives. We contemplate him when we see what he has wrought with his saints in every generation: when we feel awe at the mighty power which rules creation, the unmeasurable knowledge of his eye which sees into the secrets of every heart; when we remember that he has counted the grains of sand upon the shore and the waves upon the sea and the raindrops, that he sees every day and hour through all the centuries past and future: when we remember his mercy unimaginable seeing countless sins committed every moment and yet bearing them with inexhaustible long-suffering; when we contemplate that he has called us by reason of no merit which he found in us but simply of his free grace: when we see so many opportunities of salvation offered to those whom he is going to adopt as his sons: how he caused us to be born in circumstances where we might from our cradles receive his grace and the knowledge of his law: how he is working to overcome the enemy in us, simply for the pleasure of his goodness, and is rewarding us with everlasting blessedness: and, finally, how for our salvation he was incarnate and made man, and has spread his wonderful mysteries among all nations. There are countless other contemplations of this kind, which arise in our perceptions in proportion to our holiness of life and our purity of heart and through which, if our eyes are clean, we see and grasp God. No man in whom anything of earthly passion remains can keep the vision continually. ‘Thou canst not see my face’ said the Lord. ‘For no man shall see me and live’—live to this world and its desires.”

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