Abba John told this story. Abba Anub and Abba Poemen and the others, who were born of the same mother, were monks in Scete. And some savage Mazicae came and sacked Scete. The monks went away, and came to a place called Terenuthis, while they discussed where to live, and stayed a few days there in an old temple. Abba Anub said to Abba Poemen: “Of your charity, let me live apart from you and your brothers, and we shall not see each other for a week.” And Abba Poemen said: “Let us do as you wish”: and they did so.
In the temple stood a stone statue. And every day at dawn Abba Anub rose and pelted the face of the statue with stones: and every day at evening he said: “Forgive me.” Every day for a week he did this: and on Saturday they met again. And Abba Poemen said to Abba Anub: “I saw you, Abba, throwing stones at the face of the statue every day this week, and later doing penance to the statue. A true Christian would not have done that.” And the old man answered: “For your sakes I did it. When you saw me throwing stones at the statue’s face, did it speak? Was it angry?”
And Abba Poemen said: “No.”
And he said: “When I did penance before the statue, was it troubled in heart? Did it say: ‘I do not forgive you?’ ”
And Abba Poemen answered: “No.”
And he said: “Here we are, seven brothers. If we want to stay together, we must become like this statue, which is untroubled by the injuries I have done it. If you will not become like this statue, see, there are four doors to this temple, and each of us may go in the direction he chooses.”
At these words they fell upon the ground before Abba Anub, and said to him: “As you say, Father. We will do what you tell us.” And afterwards Abba Poemen described what happened. “We remained together all our lives, doing our work and everything else as the old man directed us. He appointed one of us as a steward, and we ate whatever he put before us; no one could have said: ‘Bring something else to eat, or ‘I will not eat that.’ And so we passed our lives in quiet and peace.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.11
This is one of the few stories from the desert fathers where biological relations seem to be honored. More often, we read of men who leave everything, including family, for the sake of the Gospel, for a life dedicated to Jesus Christ. To such stories we may say that such literal renunciation is not necessary for all Christians. Yet we can still learn from their dedication. Here, however, we have an example far more easily applicable to a life of everyday asceticism.
The story begins by noting that the monks were all “born of the same mother.” Relation based upon birth is the most fundamental. People do not come to be as isolated, atomistic individuals. They are born to a mother and a father, into families, communities, and societies. Human life is thus fundamentally relational. In the twentieth century, this basic insight was generalized into the social philosophy of personalism, distinguishing the person, who exists only in relation to others, from the individual, who is isolated.
The rhetoric is a bit overblown, since earlier authors before this distinction did not all overlook the essential relatedness of human beings, but that aside it is an interesting point of view. Indeed, while I focus quite a bit on how death is a basic fact of human life, birth deserves just as much attention. It, too, is a basic fact of our existence.
So what does this story tell us?
I’d love to dwell on the oddity of a Christian (Abba Anub) paying homage to a pagan idol that so scandalized Abba Poemon, but I’ll pass by that as it is not the main point of the story.
The point of the story is to answer the question, what does it take for us to live together? These men were brothers; one might think that, after all, they must have some natural bond of affection. And no doubt they had already lived together in the same household as children and adolescents. But that is not enough, according to Abba Anub.
Leo Tolstoy began his masterpiece Anna Karenina, with the famous words, “Every happy family is alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
While I take no inspiration from Tolstoy’s unorthodox conceptions of the Gospel, that does not mean that he has nothing insightful to say at all. In this case, what he suggests is that there are certain conditions that any family must obtain in order to be happy. Marriage itself is not enough. Birth relation is not enough. Community membership is not enough. Even passion is tragically not enough.
For Abba Anub, the missing key is something seemingly unromantic or ideal: to be untroubled by injuries.
While the metaphor of the statue works in order to show how one must appear, it falls short of telling us how to obtain such an untroubled state. It also seems significant to me—though sometimes even this can be part of a cycle of abuse—that he, at least, continually asks the statue’s forgiveness. Thus, the image is not so absolute either. It is not obviously concerned with extreme and tragic cases.
The assumption seems to be, rather, that even under favorable conditions (e.g. seven brothers so dedicated to one another that they are willing to live in the desert together), people will inevitably trouble other people.
As an extreme contrast to the optimism for human relationships of the personalists, we may at this point recall the pessimism of the existentialists, such as the author Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,
There exists a being that is perfectly harmless; if it comes into view you hardly notice it and you instantly forget it again. However, should it somehow invisibly invade your hearing, it starts to develop, it creeps out of itself, so to speak, and one has seen cases where it has got as far as the brain and has thrived in this organ with terrible effect resembling pneumococci in dogs that enter through the nose.
This being is your neighbour.
On the one hand, with the personalists we ought to be a bit less gloomy about other human beings. Surely not all of them are comparable to harmful bacteria. Yet, on the other hand, in our perception there is no one who is exempt from undergoing this sort of metamorphosis. Sometimes, perhaps, it is their fault. But we ought, firstly, to check and be sure it is not ours.
I think this is what Abba Anub is getting at. He doesn’t want his brothers to become bacteria. Nor should we. In order to allow the potential beauty of relation, even (especially?) relation by birth, to shine through our lives without hurting our eyes, we need to cultivate a daily practice of forgiveness. And no doubt, for that matter, of repentance as well.
As Christians, we are all “born of the same mother”: the Church. Through baptism, says St. Paul, we are adopted into the family of God. And this community prays to God with the words, “Our Father.”
Regular participation in the sacrament of confession is a wonderful start to cultivating this practice of forgiveness. It is sometimes easier to confess our sin to the one we’ve wronged after we have first confessed it to one who does not so directly bear the hurt, who is more easily untroubled by our injury because he is not the one we injured.
And regular communion of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, shed for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins, helps as well.
All of this helps us to rightly endure the death of our utopian ideals for family and community life, and thereby to receive the gift of that life raised anew, full of unexpected wonder. What option do we have if we shrink back for fear of death? Individualism: “there are four doors to this temple, and each of us may go in the direction he chooses.”
But through asceticism, with God’s grace, though being pelted in the face with stones will never not hurt, we are able to be yet untroubled and forgive our brothers and sisters, who all, too, are “born of the same mother” after all.