[Abba Poemen] also said: “There is nothing greater in love than that a man should lay down his life for his neighbour. When a man hears a complaining word and struggles against himself, and does not himself begin to complain; when a man bears an injury with patience, and does not look for revenge; that is when a man lays down his life for his neighbour.”
Abba Poemen here comments on the words of Christ:
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. (John 15:12-14)
What I like about this saying is that it helps to highlight what ought to be obvious. That is, I think when I read this in the past I thought of Christ’s death on the cross, where he literally lays down his life for his friends. And that is true, fundamental even. But Jesus is saying more than that. This is about more than sacrifice and martyrdom. Or, as Abba Poemen points out, it is about a different kind of martyrdom: love.
The Church father Tertullian is known to have said, “[T]he blood of Christians is seed.” What he means, writing in the early third century when Christians often faced death in Rome just for being Christians, is that the more Christians were martyred, the more they multiplied. Until 313, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the early Church faced deadly and cruel persecution intermittently from its beginning. After that time, Christians in Persia were suspected of being a “fifth column” of Rome and the persecution, rather than subsiding, just migrated from one ancient empire to another.
So early Christianity, Roman or otherwise, arose within a martyric context. Most of the Apostles were martyred. Jesus was crucified. They literally faced death every day.
People know this, and I think they imagine that these early Christians were heroes. They were, but not in any superhuman sense. Maurine Tilley studied the persecution of early Christians and the torture they endured. She determined that the Romans’ tactics backfired. They tried to intimidate them, isolate them, and finally to indoctrinate them. But instead of a bunch of brainwashed drones, they ended up with martyr after martyr.
What made the difference? Asceticism.
The earliest Christians practiced solitude, so when isolated they had visions of Christ and angels and the saints—their practice connected them with another reality, in light of which they could never be alone.
When police action broke out in a city, the Christians there would start fasting. By the time they were arrested and starved in prison, what was meant to manipulate them didn’t work. It was just a continuation of their fast.
Through enduring suffering daily, they made themselves antifragile. When the biggest threat came, the threat of physical death, to them it was the highest opportunity. It is not so much that they were living their lives only for the future, rather it was that they had been dying from the first, laying down their lives for others just as Abba Poemen describes. Early Christians were known for rescuing discarded babies, caring for the sick during plagues that their Pagan neighbors would leave to die. They loved with no thought of the cost to themselves. And so they went to their deaths not as tragedies but as seeds of new life.
Jesus had already said it: He connects “love one another” with “lay down your life.” He defines love sacrificially. Or conversely, he defines true sacrifice only as an act of love. And friendship finds its fulfillment in this love. As we ought to “love one another” in life and death, I think Abba Poemen sees this command rightly: “When a man hears a complaining word and struggles against himself, and does not himself begin to complain; when a man bears an injury with patience, and does not look for revenge; that is when a man lays down his life for his neighbour.”
Our impulse does not often tend towards love. But our impulses can be trained. And we do that every day we say to ourselves, “Enough.” Whenever we look away from ourselves and toward God in prayer, whenever we look to others in alms and other acts of compassion, whenever we fast or embrace simplicity, then we, though ever so little, lay down our lives for our friends. Then we take the first baby steps toward the love of the cross.
On the one hand, this means that I am constantly missing opportunities. On the other hand, this gives me hope that new opportunities to practice this love are always before me, if only I have eyes to see them.