Abba Poemen said: “As a bodyguard is always standing by to protect the Emperor, so the soul ought ever to be ready for the demon of lust.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.8

The fathers, even by many Christians today, are often derided for supposed sexual puritanism (no offense intended to any actual Puritans).

Personally, I’d rather have the fathers who erred on the side of celibacy than what many have today: clergy sexual abusers. Perhaps it has always been this bad—I hope not.

Worse, as Daniel Silliman recently wrote, it seems the standard practice of religious communities, across all traditions, is to side with the victimizer, rather than the victim, and downplay, if not cover up, the atrocity.

While it does not at all excuse the matter to me—and Silliman rightly points to a selfish concern for reputation—I suspect part of the problem is the surprise. The idea that their minister (or, for that matter, close friend, family member, boyscout leader, and so on) could do such a thing is inconceivable to them, so improbable to the point of being impossible.

Except that it does. And sadly it is not as rare as people imagine. Yet they are always surprised.

It reminds me of Solzhenitsyn’s description in The Gulag Archipelago of every Russian’s response to being arrested by the Soviet authorities: “Me? What for?”

Inconceivable. Impossible. Yet it happened all the time.

In my last post I talked about how religious conversion, for some, is what Nassim Taleb has called a Black Swan: an unseen, unknown, improbable, yet highly consequential event.

As a trader, Taleb saw this sort of thing in the stock market all the time. People would take the safe bet, presuming that the randomness of socioeconomic events would follow the bell curve, the standard pattern found in nature and gaming.

But it doesn’t.

Superstar, safe-bet companies (even whole industries) sometimes spectacularly fail (e.g. Pan Am, Enron, the Dot-Com crash, the real estate bubble, and so on).

Taleb did something different. Instead of seeking consistent, short-term gains, he bet on the long-shot, but not impossible, occurrence of the safe bet failing. Every day for four years he lost money. Until, in 1987, there was a crash. No one expected the Black Swan when it came, except Taleb.

That is not to say that Taleb predicted it. Rather, he simply operated under the assumption that the unpredictable and unlikely, but consequential, does in fact happen. He didn’t know when his strategy would pay off and spent four years in what he calls “the antechamber of hope,” every day struggling with self-doubt.

Taleb thinks this has application beyond the stock market, and I agree. What is it but an acknowledgment of the fact of mortality? For Taleb, it was the mortality of companies. In the spiritual life, we ought also to learn to anticipate the death of our expectations.

“As a bodyguard is always standing by to protect the Emperor,” says Abba Poemen, “so the soul ought ever to be ready for the demon of lust.” Ever to be ready.

Abba Poemen is advocating the spiritual ideal of apatheia, or passionlessness. He believes that we should not be pushed around by our passions, emotions, instincts, and desires. Rather, through a continual practice of watchfulness, we should always be on guard and stand ready for the unexpected, persevering in virtue.

I’m simplifying a bit, but Taleb would call this antifragility. We might say, then, that apatheia is a sort of spiritual antifragility. It is about being ready for the unexpected.

Religious people want to trust their ministers. They ought to be able to trust them. The status of these ministers as spiritual elders is what makes such abuse even more heinous. Yet, after the fact, they, like economists who were blind to marketplace Black Swans, try to rationalize what happened rather than admit their own responsibility and blindness.

Similarly, I suspect that, in some cases at least, among the surprised we could actually include the minister him/herself. In some cases, a person may have an especially warped sexual inclination from the start (though one must still assent to acting on that inclination). Some also have histories of being abused themselves, for which they need serious help. In others, however, I do not doubt that the problem lies as much (or more) in failing to stand watch.

One reason (the reason?) to fast and practice watchfulness of one’s thoughts, constantly trying to cut out our passions and sins by the roots, is to prevent ourselves from being taken off guard in these matters. It is a way of suffering daily for the sake of spiritual antifragility. Such everyday asceticism, then, is the antechamber of hope in the spiritual life.

With this in mind, let us imagine how these things might happen: A man becomes a youth minister. Perhaps this person was not the most popular in high school but always loved his church youth group. So he made a career out of it. Being a bit of a romantic “loser,” imagine his surprise when he becomes the cool youth leader, and girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day now think he is funny and hip.

But they’re minors, and he’s an adult.

He lets his mind wander, thinking that a little fantasy is harmless, enjoying his newfound popularity, and letting his imagination exaggerate the reality. He takes friendliness and admiration the wrong way. He tries to reciprocate the signs he imagines he is seeing. And then comes the last straw: he finds himself in a situation where he can act and (so he thinks) do so with impunity.

And he does.

Afterwards, he is surprised at himself for compromising his morals, but he also fears getting caught and, he cannot deny, is also enchanted with the pleasure that came from the act. Ashamed, confused, and ever twisted, he rationalizes. Again, like economists who didn’t see Black Swan crashes coming, but afterwards claimed that they were “so obvious,” he makes up explanations and justifications, trying to naturalize what does not fit into a natural paradigm, maybe even telling himself that it was just the one time and it is still so unlikely as to be impossible. It won’t happen again.

Then it happens again.

Call him superstitious, puritanical, et al., but I think Abba Poemen is onto something really important for religious (and other) communities and leaders who neglect watchfulness, thinking that, of course, they would never do X evil deed.

Christ, on the other hand, gives us no excuse and puts things in the staunchest terms: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Adultery begins in the heart. Child abuse begins in the heart. Sin, of all kinds, begins in the heart. Without watchfulness over one’s thoughts and feelings, how would one ever presume that what one has already assented to in the heart could not also happen in fact? Blind bodyguards ought not to be trusted.

Perhaps one of the first places to begin—a subject I have reflected on in the past—is the Christian conviction that “I am a sinner.” This is not meant to be a defeatist mantra. If it were that, it would only make the problem worse. No, rather it is about acknowledging one’s spiritual fragility.

Knowing that I am a sinner, I know that I do, in fact, need to be constantly guarded. I need to keep watch over myself. Moreover, I need God’s grace. And I need others to keep me accountable, including, hopefully, a minister who has not allowed him/herself to grow lax in the same discipline.

By remembering this, that I am a sinner, and reflecting often on the dangers set before my path—then I have a chance of surviving them. If the bodyguard falls asleep, the Emperor may as well be unguarded. But if he is awake, then he can sound the alarm while the enemy is still far off.

By God’s grace, I will practice my discipline, keep guard on my thoughts, and so prevent myself from meeting the unexpected unprepared, knowing that no temptation is impossible, knowing my need “ever to be ready.”