An old man, who had a proved disciple, once turned him out in a fit of irritation. The disciple sat down outside to wait: and the old man found him there when he opened the door, and did penance to him, saying: “You are my Father, because your humility and patience have conquered the weakness of my soul. Come inside: now you are the old father, and I am the young disciple: my age must give way to your conduct.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.17
Sometimes I wonder if the world today, often claimed to have “progressed” so far from the supposed dark ages of the past, has forgotten what it means to be an adult. Certainly, this is not absolutely the case; I do not mean to overgeneralize. Our culture, however, does not often encourage maturity.
“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” asked Bob Dylan. To this question, we might reply with the words of Abba Moses: “Travellers who miss their way are still tiring themselves though they are walking no nearer to their destination.” Indeed, our current crisis of immaturity is nothing the world has not seen before. St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal” (1 Corinthians 3:2-3). And we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14).
In the story of the old man and his disciple, it is the disciple’s humility and patience that distinguish him from the old man who acts out of irritation. Having witnessed his disciple’s virtue in contrast to his own passion, he declares, “[N]ow you are the old father, and I am the young disciple: my age must give way to your conduct.”
Despite the development of the category of adolescent in the last century or so—which is not a bad thing per se—it seems that rather than acting as a transitional stage of human development between childhood and maturity, adolescence is threatening to replace adulthood. Men are content to live in their childhood homes and live like children longer and longer, and parents are constantly confused as to how to understand their teenage (and older) children. The answer, however, should be quite simple. These people are (or more accurately, ought to be) adults. However, when we look at them, that is not what we see. We do not see people who are skilled “in the word of righteousness” or are truly able “to discern both good and evil.” In many cases they do not even care. A growing number of people today need milk, not solid food. Even among the older generations, many may find themselves someday saying to their children or grandchildren or students, “my age must give way to your conduct.”
In the end, this saying, like asceticism in general, is once again about embracing reality. What makes an adult is righteousness. Let us compare two people. The first is patient, trustworthy, courageous, and wise. The second is impatient, untrustworthy, cowardly, and careless. What images come to our minds? Doesn’t the second person act like a child (no offense intended to actual children)? Those who are “carnal,” i.e. those who selfishly live only for the fleeting things of our material existence, are not simply unwise or hedonistic or sinful—they are childish. Indeed, they are, quite literally, kidding themselves.
The message of this saying stands in sharp contrast to such a way of life: grow up! What a shame to spend the entirety of one’s adult life having never truly lived as an adult! Asceticism, on the other hand, calls us to true, spiritual adulthood by promoting simplicity, trustworthiness, and chastity (traditionally poverty, obedience, and virginity, but I have phrased the same virtues in a lesser degree for those of us who live in the world). And just as any adult would find it ridiculous to return to a diet consisting only of milk, so also when we take the time and effort to truly grow up in purity of heart and charity, “to discern both good and evil,” we look back at the way we once lived and say with St. Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).
Lord have mercy on me that I would not hold tightly to “childish things” that I ought to gladly “put away” in exchange for love.