Archive for November, 2012

The Gift of Poverty

Abba Evagrius said that there was a brother who had no possessions but a Gospel, and sold it to feed the poor. And he said a word which is worth remembering: “I have even sold the word which commands me to sell all and give to the poor.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 6.5

Poverty is one of three particularly monastic disciplines, though I think in a more moderate form they can apply to everyone. The three are poverty, as I said, and virginity and obedience. These may quite possibly be the three least favorite things of our society. Continue reading


Abba Arsenius was once asking an old Egyptian for advice about his temptations. And another, who saw this, said: “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, who are so learned in the Greek and Latin languages, come to be asking that uneducated countryman about your temptations?” He answered: “I have acquired the world’s knowledge of Greek and Latin: but I have not yet been able to learn the alphabet of this uneducated man.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 15.7

A, B, C … learning the alphabet of a language (or system of symbols, as the case may be), is the first step toward literacy in that language. One cannot read a single word if one does not know the letters of the language. One must simply memorized them; their names and sounds cannot be deduced from their shapes. Alphabetic languages often have memorable songs to help, but the task is still large and requires discipline and memory. Nevertheless, as this story teaches, there is a language whose alphabet is far more important to learn and which surpasses the value and achievement of learning any other. Continue reading

Thanksgiving and Joy

[Abba Isaac said:] Thanksgiving seems particularly suitable for those who have torn out of their hearts the sins which pricked their conscience and are at last free from fear of falling again: and then, recollecting the generosity and the mercy of the Lord, past or present or future, are rapt away into that spark-like prayer which no mortal can understand or describe.

~ Conferences of Cassian 9.15

Thanksgiving, in this case one of four types of prayer (perhaps I’ll write on that more general subject some other time), represents an exceptional thing. It is the proper response to true joy, that joy that comes from virtue, from tearing “sins which pricked [our] conscience” out of our hearts and being freed from the fear of falling in the same way again. It is the joy that comes when, through ascetic struggle and the grace of God, we make real progress in righteousness. Continue reading

Giving Thanks

Abba Cassian also said: “We came to another old man and he invited us to sup, and pressed us, though we had eaten, to eat more. I said that I could not. He answered: ‘I have already given meals to six different visitors, and am still hungry. Have you only eaten once and yet are so full that you cannot eat with me now?'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 13.3

For Orthodox Christians like myself, the season of Advent has come (beginning November 15). Advent is a period of fasting leading up to the feast of the Nativity, better known as Christmas. In the United States, however, there is a significant bump along this road to Christmas: Thanksgiving. This year, not only does Thanksgiving day interrupt the fast, but I attended a conference last weekend (beginning last Thursday) that was catered with all sorts of wonderful, but non-lenten foods and drinks. So I didn’t really get to begin. On top of that, Sunday night Kelly and Brendan and I went to my mother’s to have a local family Thanksgiving. Tomorrow, we are driving down to Indiana for Thanksgiving with Kelly’s aunts and uncle and grandfather. Before too long, everyone will be having Christmas parties (before Christmas, of course, rather than during those twelve days afterward set aside for, you know, celebrating Christmas). I am starting to wonder if I will get an Advent at all this year…. Continue reading

The Ethic of the Icon

[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

The teaching of this saying is very simple, yet it is one that deserves continual repetition. There is a similar saying, Romanian I think, that says, “Your neighbor is your salvation.” The point being that every relationship we have holds ultimate significance, because every human being is created in the image of God. Continue reading

Slaying Dragons and Weathering Storms

[Abba Piamun said:] Our Lord and Saviour taught a parable about two houses, one founded on a rock and the other on sand. On both houses fell the rain and the floods and the storms. But the one built on the rock sustained the violence unharmed: the one built on the shifting sand straightway collapsed. It is obvious that it did not collapse because the rains and the floods beat upon it, but because it had been built foolishly on sand. The saint does not differ from the sinner in not being tempted so strongly. The saint is not conquered by a great onslaught, the sinner falls to a trivial temptation. As I said, we should not praise the courage of a man who had won a fight without opposition. No conflict with an enemy—no victory.

~ Conferences of Cassian 18.13

Of the four classic cardinal virtues, perhaps one of the most peculiar is courage or fortitude, as it is variously translated. Furthermore, it is strange, in general, that those four (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) should be the four cardinal virtues and not others. What about, for example, compassion or honesty or humility? Nevertheless, the more I have contemplated them (which is not as often as I should), the more I have come to see that these four really do tend to play a fundamental role. Compassion takes courage. Honesty is ultimately an expression of justice. One cannot be humble without temperance. I am not so sure that one cannot start elsewhere, but it does not hurt to begin with these four. This story from the Conferences of St. John Cassian is ultimately about courage, or fortitude. Continue reading

Reverse Procrastination

A brother fell hungry at dawn, and struggled with his soul not to eat until 9 o’clock. And when 9 o’clock came, he extracted from himself a resolution to wait till noon. At noon he dipped his bread and sat down to eat—but then rose up again, saying: “I will wait till three.” And at 3 o’clock he prayed, and he saw the devil’s work going out of him like smoke; and his hunger ceased.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.58

We are not told any other details concerning the brother in this story. We can only speculate that perhaps he struggled with gluttony or, at any rate, for some reason had resolved to observe a total fast for the day. Yet, “at dawn” he finds himself hungry. In order not to give in to his hunger, he implements a strategy that I would refer to as “reverse procrastination.”
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