Archive for September, 2012

Of Monks and Majesty

Since I’ve been less prolific lately, I figured just sharing one longer story might do the trick today until I get the time and energy and inspiration for something of my own. The sayings of the fathers are the real treasure anyway, so far as I’m concerned. If only for an exercise of silence, today I’ll let the saying speak for itself: Continue reading


Memory Eternal

Be very constant in your prayers for the faithful departed, as if each dead person were a personal friend of yours.

~ Rule of Colmcille 13

Death has a way of straightening out our thoughts and perspective. Despite being a curse and contrary to nature, such tragedy can, nevertheless, be a spiritual blessing. Our enemy seeks to put all evil into our lives, but “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Continue reading

Sowing Seeds and Singing Psalms

[Saint Syncletice] said: “There is a useful sorrow, and a destructive sorrow. Sorrow is useful when we weep for sin, and for our neighbour’s ignorance, and so that we may not relax our purpose to attain to true goodness: these are the true kinds of sorrow. Our enemy adds something to this. For he sends sorrow without reason, which is something called accidie. We ought always to drive out a spirit like this with prayer and psalmody.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.71

There is a lot that could be gleaned from this saying. It do not think it is controversial to say that “sorrow without reason” is a fairly common phenomenon today. What is interesting about this saying from Saint Sycletice is her perspective on sorrow in general: some sorrow is good, and “sorrow without reason” has a source (“[o]ur enemy”) and a solution: “prayer and psalmody.” Continue reading

Abba Agatho said: “If an angry man raises the dead, God is still displeased with his anger.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers10.13

I have discovered over the years that this teaching is perhaps more controversial than I would have thought. The fathers seem to be fairly unanimous in the conclusion that anger has but one purpose, to be directed at our own sins and nothing else. Is such a view too extreme? Continue reading

An Apologia for Martha

A brother came to Abba Silvanus on Mount Sinai. And when he saw the brothers working, he said to the old man: “Labour not for the meat which perisheth”: and “Mary hath chosen the best part.” [John 6:27; Luke 10:42] And the old man said to his disciple: “Call Zacharias, and put this brother in a cell where there is nothing.” And when three o’clock came, he kept looking at the door, to see when they would send someone and summon him to eat. But no one spoke to him. So he rose and went to the old man and said: “Abba, do not the brethren eat today?” And the old man said: “Yes, they have eaten already.” And the brother said: “Why did you not call me?” And the old man answered: “You are a spiritual person and do not need food. We are earthy, and since we want to eat, we work with our hands. But you have chosen the good part, reading all day, and not wanting to take earthly food.” When the brother heard this he prostrated himself in penitence and said: “Forgive me, Abba.” And the old man said: “I think Mary always needs Martha, and by Martha’s help Mary is praised.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.69

Mary Magdalene and Martha, the sisters of Lazaras, whom Christ raised from the dead according to the Gospel of John (see John 11), are often used as symbols of the famous dictum attributed to St. Benedict: ora et labora or “pray and work,” respectively. Continue reading

Seeing Salvation (and Elephants)

Saint Syncletice said: “My sons, we all know the way to be saved, and fail to travel it because we do not care.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.31A

Salvation can be a controversial subject, but only because it is such an important one. For my part, I would say that there are many senses of the word and that too much energy has been spent in the past by people who were talking past each other. That is not to say that they never have had real differences. But much of the time they were like the six blind men and the elephant in the famous Hindu parable. Continue reading

Hang Your Cloak Upon a Sunbeam

Once upon a time Brenainn came from the west of Ireland to Brigit, to the plain of Liffey. For he wondered at the fame that Brigit had in miracles and marvels. Brigit came from her sheep to welcome Brenainn. As Brigit entered the house she put her wet cloak on the rays of the sun, and they supported it like pot-hooks. Brenainn told his gillie to put his cloak on the same rays, and the gillie put it on them, but it fell from them twice. Brenainn himself put it, the third time, with anger and wrath, and the cloak staid upon them.

Each of them confessed to the other. Said Brenainn: ‘Not usual is it for me to go over seven ridges without (giving) my mind to God.’ Said Brigit: ‘Since I first gave my mind to God, I never took it from Him at all.’

~ The Leabhar Breac Life of Brigit 91

There are many versions of this story. The context varies widely but the confessions stay the same. Stories like this one of St. Brigid (Brigit) and St. Brendan (Brenainn) hanging their cloaks upon sunbeams are the sort that drove early modern historians to throw up their hands about the historicity of all hagiography. While their frustration is understandable, it sort of misses the point of hagiography in the first place. We have here a story of two historical people, yet the details of their lives can be so full of spiritual stories like this one that it is difficult to decide what to believe and what not to. There is good reason for this, however. It would be wholly inaccurate in an important way to simply record all of the historical data of their lives. In doing so, we would miss so much of the reality of who they truly are, that these people were and are filled with the grace of God and that by looking to them we behold a reflection of the divine glory. Continue reading

Who am I?

Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen: “Tell me how to become a monk.” The old man said: “If you want to find rest in this life and the next, say at every turn[,] ‘Who am I?’ and judge no man.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 9.6

Once again, we have here another unconventional definition of what it means to be a monk. In the previous instance, the definition focused on simplicity and contentment. This one focuses on humility: “If you want to find rest in this life and the next, say at every turn[,] ‘Who am I?’ and judge no man.” Continue reading

With a Little Help from My Friends

There was a bishop of the city of Oxyrhynchus named Affy. They said that while he was a monk, he treated his body very severely. And when he became a bishop, he wanted to continue in his city the austerities which he had practised in the desert, but he could not. So he fell prostrate before God, and said: “Dost thou think, my Lord, that thy grace has left me because I have become a bishop?” And it was revealed to him: “No: in the desert you had no man to help you, and God alone sustained you. But now you are in the world, and have men to help you.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 15.13

This is an important saying. It reveals that, despite their quest for perfection, the desert fathers were realists when it came to discipline. They did not consider that their way of life made them holier than those in the world per se; rather they saw it as an effective way to focus on austerity, as a path, but not the only path. Continue reading


Abba Hyperichius said: “Keep praising God with hymnody, and meditate continually, and so lift the burden of temptations that come upon you. A traveller carrying a heavy burden stops from time to time to take deep breaths, and so makes the journey easier and the burden lighter.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.20

Deep breaths. Stop and take deep breaths. This is something for which I can use continual reminders. Thankfully, I have a baby. Continue reading