Abba Macarius said to Abba Zacharias: “Tell me, what makes a monk?” He said: “Is it not wrong that you should be asking me?” And Abba Macarius said to him: “I am sure I ought to ask of you, my son, Zacharias. I have one who urges me on to ask you.” Zacharias said to him: “As far as I can tell, Father, I think that whoever controls and forces himself to be content with necessities and nothing more, that man is a monk.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 1.6
The word monk (Gk. monachos) means solitary. One might think that the answer to Abba Macarius’s question would be quite simple then: a monk is anyone who willingly lives alone, presumably for spiritual discipline. Furthermore, one would presume that Abba Macarius, whose name is Greek (meaning “blessed” or “happy”) and who presumably spoke Greek, knew precisely what this Greek word meant. But it was not and is not a simple question. As happens in all languages, the semantic range of words broadens, narrows, and shifts. The same was true for the word “monk” at the time. What can we learn from this saying, and how is it relevant for those who live in the world and are by no means monks, in the traditional sense, today? Continue reading
Abba Agatho was asked: “Which is more difficult, bodily discipline, or the guard over the inner man?” The Abba said: “Man is like a tree. His bodily discipline is like the leaves of the tree, his guard over the inner man is like the fruit. Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.’ So we ought to take every precaution about guarding the mind, because that is our fruit. Yet we need to be covered with beautiful leaves, the bodily discipline.”
Abba Agatho was wise in understanding, earnest in discipline, armed at all points, careful about keeping up his manual work, sparing in food and clothing.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.11
Today is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, also known as St. John the Forerunner. Abba Agatho quotes John’s words from Matthew 3:10 when he says, “Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.'” John is known for his austere asceticism, his call to repentance, and, of course, his baptism of Jesus Christ. According to all four Gospels he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord'” (Isaiah 40:3). In his beheading, Orthodox Christians see an extension of his role as the Forerunner of Christ: “The glorious beheading of the Forerunner was a certain divine dispensation, that the coming of the Saviour might also be preached to those in Hades” (from the Kontakion for the day). I would submit that, in addition to being a forerunner of the Messiah to both the living and the dead, he also “prepared the way of the Lord” for the many Christian ascetics yet to be born, like Abba Agatho, who would follow his example of discipline. Continue reading
“Great are you, O Lord, and worthy to be praised”; “great is your strength and your wisdom cannot be measured.” And man—some portion of your creation—wants to praise you, and yet man is surrounded by his mortality, surrounded by the testimony of his sin and the testimony that “you resist the proud”; and nevertheless man—some portion of your creation—wants to praise you. You excite him, in order that he delights to praise you, because you made us for yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.
~ St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1
Today, August 28, was St. Augustine’s day. Thus, though the character of his writings can be significantly different and often more overtly philosophical than the desert fathers, I felt like I ought to give such a master of spiritual reflection his due today. He was himself, after all, inspired by the desert fathers, especially St. Antony. Despite the difference of style, however, I think—at least with regards to this passage—there is a unity of focus. Continue reading
Once when Abba Macarius was praying in his cell, he heard a voice which said: “Macarius, you have not yet reached the standard of two women in that city.” On his arrival, he found the house and knocked at the door. A woman opened it, and welcomed him to her house. He sat down, and called them to sit down with him. Then he said to them: “It is for you that I have taken this long journey. Tell me how you live a religious life.” They said: “Indeed, how can we lead a religious life? We were with our husbands last night.” But the old man persuaded them to tell him their way of life.
Then they said: “We are both foreigners, in the world’s eyes. But we accepted in marriage two brothers. Today we have been sharing this house for fifteen years. We do not know whether we have quarrelled or said rude words to each other; but the whole of this time we have lived peaceably together. We thought we would enter a convent, and asked our husbands for permission, but they refused it. So since we could not get this permission, we have made a covenant between ourselves and God that a worldly word shall not pass our lips during the rest of our lives.”
When Macarius heard it, he said: “Truly, it is not whether you are a virgin or a married woman, a monk or a man in the world: God gives his Holy Spirit to everyone, according to their earnestness of purpose.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 20.17
People of true sincerity and purity, like the two women in this story, are rare. It seems that careless words are far too common, and sincere people are often pariahs, never feeling that they fit. It can be disarming to meet a person who does not laugh at all the same snarky comments as everyone else. And living peaceably is rare too. How often do people prefer to one-up each other? How often do we, in seeking our own victory, forfeit our opportunity for virtue? Continue reading
[Abba Evagrius] said: “A certain monk was told that his father had died. He said to the messenger[,] ‘Stop blaspheming. My father cannot die.'”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 1.5
Family is a wonderful thing. Yesterday Kelly and Brendan and I attended a family reunion in southern Indiana. It was a five and half hour drive. We left Friday. We got back this evening. It was a long trip but a good one. Brendan (our six month old) was a real trooper. He is such a good baby. If seeing family and having such a patient baby weren’t enough of a blessing, this weekend Brendan quite clearly started saying, “Dada” (and “Mama”). It even seems intentional about 75% of the time. “Dada”—my son knows my name, and he can say it. And it’s possibly the cutest thing ever. Continue reading
Of his diligence in prayer, we shall try to write down only a few details out of the many things that might be said about Patrick. Daily, whether he was staying in one place or traveling along the road, he used to sing all “the psalms and hymns” and the Apocalypse of John “and” all “the spiritual songs” of the scriptures. No less than a hundred times in each hour of the day and each hour of the night he made the sign of the triumphant cross upon himself; and at every cross he saw as he traveled, he used to get down from his chariot and turn toward it in order to pray.
~ The Life of Patrick 2.1
For St. Patrick the saying of St. Paul, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), was a matter of daily practice, a matter of spiritual discipline. He did not reduce it to a matter of theological speculation. That is not to say that we ought not to think philosophically about the cross, but that it is a danger to reduce it to that. It is also, importantly, a present reality. The cross of Christ becomes our cross as we “take up [our] cross daily, and follow [him]” (Luke 9:23). Continue reading
Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus: “Can a man live every day as though it were the first day of his religious life?” Abba Silvanus answered: “If a man is a labourer, he can live every day, nay every hour, as though it were the first day or hour of his religious life.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.29
Everyone knows the cliche, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I’m not sure how old it is, but I think that there are a few desert fathers who would caution us not to roll our eyes at it. Importantly, though, rather than using it to try to offer seemingly baseless hope, Abba Silvanus offers a challenging qualifier: “If a man is a labourer….” Indeed, the very fact that Abba Moses questions the possibility of actualizing such an idea indicates that the desert fathers took it on a much deeper level. Continue reading
Said the Abbess Matrona: “Many people living secluded lives on the mountain have perished by living like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live a solitary life than to live a solitary life but all the time be longing for company.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 2.14
If I am not mistaken, I adapted this saying for my tagline: “Living in the world. Longing for the desert.” I am married to a wonderful woman, and we have a wonderful son who is the cutest baby (possibly cutest creature) that the world has ever seen. I am very blessed and would not really prefer to be in the desert as a hermit. It is the spirit of the desert that I want. I want the stillness, the discipline, the peace that comes from an inner flight away from “the world”—all that is transient—and to a place free from those things, a place of clearer spiritual vision: the desert. Continue reading
Once a brother came to Abba Theodore of Pherme, and spent three days asking him for a word. But the Abba did not answer, and he went away sadly. So Abba Theodore’s disciple asked him: “Abba, why did you not speak to him? Look he has gone away sad.” And the old man said: “Believe me, I said nothing to him because his business is getting credit by retailing what others have said to him.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 8.6
This seems to me like a good place to begin—a reminder that nothing ought to be done for show. I hope that this blog never degenerates into that. However, I am keenly aware that such a temptation lies in any publishing, even (and perhaps especially) self-publishing. But what, after all, is wrong with doing things for show? Continue reading