Category: Grace


Bright Sadness

Abba Poemen said also: “Grief is twofold: it works good, and it keeps out evil.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.12

There are many ways in which Abba Poemen could be wrong. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is aware of all those. When is Abba Poemen right? When is grief not only not bad, but a double blessing? Continue reading

Hope on Easter Eve

Sometimes stories from the desert fathers are too long to reflect on here, but I still want to share them. There is a lot to like about this story. It also reflects some of the more severe austerity of monastics, but there is enough here, I think, for readers to apply to their own contexts. I especially like the characterization of despair (and, by implication, hope). I also like the brief comment about “the venerable fathers, many of whom had overcome the devil though they lived in towns”—which somewhat contradicts the sort of spiritual elitism some impute to the fathers. This old man, at least, knew that salvation was available even to those who live in the world, even if the path there is harder to find and slower to travel. Continue reading

Abba Evagrius said: “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody, and long-suffering, and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 10.20

When one reads early Christian responses to Jewish practices like Kosher diet or Sabbath observance or circumcision, especially that of St. Paul, perhaps, one can get the impression that he contradicts himself. At some points, he says that so long as someone does these things with a good conscience, it is pleasing to God. At other times, he talks about how none of these things have any spiritual profit. I think this saying from Abba Evagrius gives us some insight into what that early Christian perspective really was about: prudence. Continue reading

Be the Bee!

[T]he monk who desires to gather spiritual honey, ought like a most careful bee, to suck out virtue from those who specially possess it, and should diligently store it up in the vessel of his own breast: nor should he investigate what any one is lacking in, but only regard and gather whatever virtue he has. For if we want to gain all virtues from some one person, we shall with great difficulty or perhaps never at all find suitable examples for us to imitate. For though we do not as yet see that even Christ is made “all things in all,” as the Apostle says; still in this way we can find Him bit by bit in all.

~ St. John Cassian, Institutes, 5.4

My wife Kelly sent me the following video. I’m sure I’m late in seeing it, but I figured it was worth sharing here anyway. Anyone who can make a video about apatheia that kids could actually get into is doing something right in my book. Kudos.

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Born of the Same Mother

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. Continue reading

Countless Contemplations

I haven’t lately had the time to write new posts. But I came across a passage in St. John Cassian’s Conferences (1.15) that I thought speaks pretty well for itself:

[Abba Moses said:] In many ways we come to contemplate God. We know him in worshipping his very being which we cannot fathom, the vision which is yet hidden, though it is promised, and for which we may hope. We know him in the majesty of his creation, in regarding his justice, in apprehending the help we receive for our daily lives. We contemplate him when we see what he has wrought with his saints in every generation: when we feel awe at the mighty power which rules creation, the unmeasurable knowledge of his eye which sees into the secrets of every heart; when we remember that he has counted the grains of sand upon the shore and the waves upon the sea and the raindrops, that he sees every day and hour through all the centuries past and future: when we remember his mercy unimaginable seeing countless sins committed every moment and yet bearing them with inexhaustible long-suffering; when we contemplate that he has called us by reason of no merit which he found in us but simply of his free grace: when we see so many opportunities of salvation offered to those whom he is going to adopt as his sons: how he caused us to be born in circumstances where we might from our cradles receive his grace and the knowledge of his law: how he is working to overcome the enemy in us, simply for the pleasure of his goodness, and is rewarding us with everlasting blessedness: and, finally, how for our salvation he was incarnate and made man, and has spread his wonderful mysteries among all nations. There are countless other contemplations of this kind, which arise in our perceptions in proportion to our holiness of life and our purity of heart and through which, if our eyes are clean, we see and grasp God. No man in whom anything of earthly passion remains can keep the vision continually. ‘Thou canst not see my face’ said the Lord. ‘For no man shall see me and live’—live to this world and its desires.”

If [the Holy Spirit] takes possession of Fishermen, He makes them catch the whole world in the nets of Christ, taking them up in the meshes of the Word [Gk. Logos]. Look at Peter and Andrew and the Sons of Thunder, thundering the things of the Spirit. If of Publicans, He makes gain of them for discipleship, and makes them merchants of souls; witness Matthew, yesterday a Publican, today an Evangelist. If of zealous persecutors, He changes the current of their zeal, and makes them Pauls instead of Sauls, and as full of piety as He found them of wickedness.

~ St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily 41: “On Pentecost,” 14

Ascension and Pentecost came and went, and I haven’t even reflected on either yet! Monday we will start the Apostles Fast that lasts until the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It’s all too much to cover in one post, so I’ll try not to get carried away, but what I do have might serve as a little bridge between the two seasons. Continue reading

Great and Holy Pascha 2014

Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’”

~ The Gospel According to St. Luke, 24:1-7

Last year, I posted the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. Holy Saturday always seems a bit too busy to write my own reflection, and anyway, we celebrate Pascha (Easter) for the next forty days, so I will have plenty of time for that. Instead, I would like to simply offer a little florilegium of passages from the fathers on the meaning of Pascha. Continue reading

Great Friday: Christ Crucified

Today is hung upon a tree,

he who hung the land upon the waters. (x3)

Crowned with a circlet of thorns is he,

who is the king of angels.

Wrapped in the purple of mockery is he,

who wrapped the heavens in the clouds.

Buffeted upon the face is he,

who in the Jordan set Adam free.

Joined with nails [to the cross] is he,

who is the Bridegroom of the Church.

Pierced with a spear is he,

who is the Son of the Virgin.

We venerate your passion, O Christ; (x3)

show us also your glorious Resurrection!

~ Great Friday Matins, Fifteenth Antiphon

Tonight in the Orthodox Church, we observe the matins service for Great Friday by anticipation of the coming day. Kelly and Brendan and I had intended to go, but Kelly had to work and Brendan staged a successful rebellion against napping this afternoon, so I’ve had to content myself with this reflection on the most somber and beautiful part of the service. The priest chants this hymn slowly, with a loud voice, as he processes with the acolytes and others, holding a life-sized icon of Christ crucified, which he and the faithful all venerate once he has set it at the front of the nave. Everyone kneels in the candlelight as the procession passes and all is quiet except the thundering proclamation, “Today is hung upon a tree, he who hung the land upon the waters.”

Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). He goes on to say, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). What does it mean to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified”? Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 12

The twelfth degree of humility is, when the monk’s inward humility appears outwardly in his comportment. And wherever he be, in the divine office, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on a journey, in the fields wherever he is sitting, walking or standing, he is to look down with bowed head conscious of his guilt, imagining himself ready to be called to give account at the dread judgement: repeating in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with eyes downcast: “Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to lift up my eyes to heaven”; and with the prophet “I am bowed down and humbled on every side.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Is there a way to separate humility from low self-esteem? On the one hand, the fathers are not a fan of self-esteem in the first place. Evagrios even refers to it as a demon. So perhaps not. And perhaps we are overly positive about the idea in our time in the first place. On the other hand, if low self-esteem means a defeatist mentality, the answer is definitely yes: they can be separated and are, in fact, distinct. Continue reading