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.”
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.
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” writes St. Paul, “but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And if I … understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Abba Arsenius knew this well. The most important knowledge, the highest language, is not an academic or worldly endeavor: “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.”
I love education, and I especially love language. I have an intermediate knowledge of a few languages (some better than others), and no matter how difficult I always have enjoyed the experience of learning and love the new insights of knowledge that knowing a new language can bring.
Yet this truly is no reason for pride. For unless I direct this learning toward the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, toward the God who “is love” (1 John 4:8), I have squandered it and the time and effort I gave to acquire it. Learning the alphabet of true charity (from the Latin charitas), that highest form of love, is a greater achievement and opens far more paths of communication, wisdom, and knowledge than knowing all the languages of the earth or the heavens. It may be that the uneducated Egyptian man was completely illiterate (though he may have known Coptic, but not Greek or Latin). Yet Abba Arsenius says, “I have not yet been able to learn the alphabet of this uneducated man.”
The spirit of the desert has a way of opening our eyes to new realities—or more simply, to reality as it truly is. The ascetic disciplines are like the alphabet of true love. Well understood, they all aim at charity and teach the self-sacrifice that it requires. When I am faithfully and simply living my rule of prayer and fasting, when I am setting my heart on things above, then all creation shines to me anew and I begin to learn the ABC’s of the way of life and love.