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.
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.”
There is something peculiar about this statement. The temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription, “Know thyself,” which functioned as a central area of philosophical reflection, most notably by Socrates (via Plato). There is a sense in which this saying both agrees and disagrees.
Abba Poemen recommends that “at every turn” the person who seeks peace and rest ought to ask themselves, “Who am I?” This is not, for him, an invitation to philosophical reflection per se, however. Rather, it is an invitation to humility, to admit how little we truly know ourselves and in so admitting our ignorance to refrain from judging others. Who are we to judge? What a presumption! “What is man that you are mindful of him?” asks the psalmist (Psalm 8:4). And elsewhere the prophet Isaiah writes,
All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass. (Isaiah 40:6-7)
Our lives are so frail and fleeting, why spend our energy condemning others? “What is your life?” asks St. James the Just, “It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Withering grass, fading flowers, vanishing vapor—this is what we are. And Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” not us.
Indeed, Christ himself has commanded,
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:1-3)
Too often we do not realize the absurdity of judging others. Many, in fact, live their lives wholly in comparison to others. They never ask, “Who am I?” but instead focus entirely on “Who is he?” and “Who is she?” What a shame when their own lives are little more than vapors—yet capable of so much—if only they were not unaware of it.
Who am I? A fading flower. But, as Christ has said,
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30)
Only once, in humility, we learn to ask ourselves “at every turn,” “Who am I?” will we realize what little right we have to ask such a question of others and what great grace sustains us that we even have life and breath to ask in the first place.