[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
Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius: “Why do you run away from us?” The old man said: “God knows I love you. But I cannot be with God and with men. The countless hosts of angels have but a single will, while men have many wills. So I cannot let God go, and come and be with men.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 17.5
I’ve mentioned before how the sayings of the desert fathers are practical wisdom. As such, they can appear contradictory. Practical wisdom is situational, prudential. Sometimes Abba Antony is right, sometimes Abba Arsenius. It depends on the person and the context when the wisdom of one applies compared to another.
That said, this is quite the contradiction. I explored recently how two twentieth century philosophies—personalism and existentialism—have commonalities with ancient Christian asceticism. If I were to categorize each of these sayings, Abba Antony would be the personalist while Abba Arsenius would be the existentialist.
Personalism emphasizes the essential relatedness of all people. As such, I tend to think of it as a philosophy grounded in the basic fact of birth. Since human beings do not exist apart from other human beings, human flourishing does not come about without them either. A person finds fulfillment in communion with others. The Jewish personalist Martin Buber even asserted that it is precisely in dialogue with other persons that we encounter God.
Existentialism, on the other hand, is sometimes associated with the aphorism “hell is others.” It emphasizes the ephemerality of all things and the dread that comes from nothingness and nonbeing. As such, I tend to think of it as a philosophy grounded in the basic fact of death. Human beings are not only social animals, as Aristotle put it, but mortal animals (as Aristotle also put it). This mortality goes beyond physical death—everything human, including human communities, dies. Given this, however, they emphasized the primacy of choice—all things pass, but we have a say in what we value. Or, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “life begins on the other side of despair.”
The ascetic tradition of the Church, I believe, affirms quite a bit from both of these philosophies while also offering something vitally unique. With the personalists, we can say, as I have heard it: “my neighbor is my salvation.” All people are icons of God, and the honor we pay to them passes on to the Archetype, Jesus Christ. Like St. Patrick, we ought to see Christ everywhere and in everyone, and honor him wherever we find him. This, truly, is part of our salvation. Or, as one ancient saying puts it, unus Christianus, nullus Christianus: “one Christian is no Christian.”
And yet, we also must know ourselves and be prudent. Notice that Abba Arsenius does not deny the importance of loving his neighbor: “God knows I love you.” Yet he adds, “But I cannot be with God and with men.” Unus Christianus, Christianus est? Sometimes we need solitude to experience God directly. Sometimes we need to flee the conflict of the world of other persons. Indeed, even St. Antony admits, “From our neighbour are life and death.” Without denying the straightforward reading of this saying, I would add that it is always both life and death with all people and in all situations. Our lives are constantly birth and death: what we need, and what St. Antony and St. Arsenius both know, is resurrection.
In our own lives, we cannot expect to make spiritual progress if we ignore basic facts of reality, such as birth and death, relatedness and corruption. The ascetic tradition teaches us how to live and die rightly, in order to “walk in newness of life,” to quote St. Paul. Through the sacraments we are united to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through asceticism we actualize that grace we’ve received. We learn to deny every thought, desire, anxiety, and care, not out of any scorn for the material and concrete but precisely so that they might be spiritualized and filled with eternal life.
Perhaps that old Latin saying is practical wisdom too. Christ begins his ministry by calling disciples to follow him, creating a group of close friends. Yet he does not rise up upon the cross without those friends first all but abandoning him. Sometimes one Christian is no Christian, but sometimes we must stand alone or seemingly so.
Of course, God is always with us, as are the saints and angels. So if that’s what the saying means then we can take it in a more principled sense. But it would be a shame if, in our desire to acknowledge the importance of community, we neglected the value of solitude and the tragedy of loneliness. Without the experience of loneliness, would we have any desire for community? Without the self-denial of solitude, could true communion be possible? There is a time for everything, after all, and through asceticism both birth and death can be transformed into transcendent, resurrected, and eternal life.