Category: Patience


The Angelic Life

John the Less of the Thebaid, a disciple of Abba Ammonius, was said to have lived for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill, and sitting on a mat near him. But the old man was always cross with him; and although John worked a long time for him, he never said: “May it be well with you.” But when the old man was on his death-bed, in the presence of the elders of that place, he held John’s hand and said: “May it be well with you, may it be well with you.” And the old man commended John to the old men, saying: “This is an angel, not a man.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.4

John the Less (not to be confused with John the Short) lived, according to this story, “for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill.” And yet, not once did he hear from the old man, “May it be well with you.” I think that there are many in John’s situation in the world today—serving others thanklessly for years and years. Yet how many of us have eyes to see: “This is an angel, not a man [or woman].” How many of them know what saints they are? Continue reading

Beauty Unseen

They said of Abbess Sarah of blessed memory, that for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked down to see the water.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.19

I have read this saying several times over the years, and it has always bothered me. Perhaps it is simply because I am a Celt (in addition to being German) and I have a strong, natural affinity for the beauty of nature, but such inner strength, such fortitude, that Abbess Sarah must have had is difficult for me to even imagine, let alone realize in my own life.

Until recently, I do not think I can even say that I understood the point of this saying. Many of the desert sayings are still a mystery to me, in fact; I only reflect on the ones about which I actually have a little understanding and a little something to say myself.

The problem that I have with this story is that, despite acknowledging that it must take great inner strength to live “for sixty years … on the bank of a river,” and yet “never [look] down to see the water,” I’ve always thought that such natural beauty was a good thing. After all, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 [18:1 LXX]). But Great Lent has recently given me a little insight into what might be going on in this story. Continue reading

Rejection and Resurrection

The monks praised a brother to Abba Antony. But Antony went to him and tested whether he could endure abuse. And when he perceived that he could not bear it, he said: “You are like a house with a highly decorated facade, where burglars have stolen all the furniture out of the back door.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 8.2

While not all rejection comes with whatever “abuse” St. Antony gave to the brother in this story, it can feel like abuse even when given in a spirit of love. The problem is the same: an easily bruised ego or “thin skin” combined with misplaced hope in ourselves. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there, even the most praised among us. Continue reading

A pilgrim to the Holy Mountain of Athos asked an old hermit, “Father, how can I attain my salvation?” The venerated holy man replied, “Every day at dusk go to the cemetery and for an hour hurl insults to the dead. Do that for a month and pay attention to everything that happens around you. Then come and report to me.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I have done what you told me but nothing happened!” The hermit then said, “Go to the cemetery again for another month and sing praises to the dead. Then come and tell me what happened.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I did what you told me but nothing happened!” The holy father then said, “My son, if you wish to attain your salvation, be like the dead, indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.”

~ From Inner River, vii
(the epithet on the inside before the TOC)

Ah yes. In the unique manner of monks, we have the recommendation, in addition to always keeping the day of one’s death on one’s mind, to live like the dead, “indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.” I have written previously on the dangers of praise and the avoidable nature of anger when provoked, and while these are both themes that deserve continued reflection, I would like to primarily focus on something else for this post. Continue reading

Slaying Dragons and Weathering Storms

[Abba Piamun said:] Our Lord and Saviour taught a parable about two houses, one founded on a rock and the other on sand. On both houses fell the rain and the floods and the storms. But the one built on the rock sustained the violence unharmed: the one built on the shifting sand straightway collapsed. It is obvious that it did not collapse because the rains and the floods beat upon it, but because it had been built foolishly on sand. The saint does not differ from the sinner in not being tempted so strongly. The saint is not conquered by a great onslaught, the sinner falls to a trivial temptation. As I said, we should not praise the courage of a man who had won a fight without opposition. No conflict with an enemy—no victory.

~ Conferences of Cassian 18.13

Of the four classic cardinal virtues, perhaps one of the most peculiar is courage or fortitude, as it is variously translated. Furthermore, it is strange, in general, that those four (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) should be the four cardinal virtues and not others. What about, for example, compassion or honesty or humility? Nevertheless, the more I have contemplated them (which is not as often as I should), the more I have come to see that these four really do tend to play a fundamental role. Compassion takes courage. Honesty is ultimately an expression of justice. One cannot be humble without temperance. I am not so sure that one cannot start elsewhere, but it does not hurt to begin with these four. This story from the Conferences of St. John Cassian is ultimately about courage, or fortitude. Continue reading

Reverse Procrastination

A brother fell hungry at dawn, and struggled with his soul not to eat until 9 o’clock. And when 9 o’clock came, he extracted from himself a resolution to wait till noon. At noon he dipped his bread and sat down to eat—but then rose up again, saying: “I will wait till three.” And at 3 o’clock he prayed, and he saw the devil’s work going out of him like smoke; and his hunger ceased.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.58

We are not told any other details concerning the brother in this story. We can only speculate that perhaps he struggled with gluttony or, at any rate, for some reason had resolved to observe a total fast for the day. Yet, “at dawn” he finds himself hungry. In order not to give in to his hunger, he implements a strategy that I would refer to as “reverse procrastination.”
Continue reading

Medicine

Saint Syncletice also said: if you are troubled by illness, do not be melancholy, even if you are so ill that you cannot stand to pray or use your voice to say psalms. We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body—in this they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast. In the same way that a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.17

Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about the desert fathers (or mothers, as the case may be) is their seemingly counterintuitive wisdom. Does your life lack meaning? Maybe you should think about death more often. Need to learn patience? Maybe you need more annoying people in your life. Feeling sick? That’s good medicine. Indeed, St. Syncletice goes on to say that “there is much profit in bearing illness quietly and giving thanks to God.” Headache? Thanks God. Fever? Thanks God. Queasy stomach? Thanks God. Continue reading

Grow Up

An old man, who had a proved disciple, once turned him out in a fit of irritation. The disciple sat down outside to wait: and the old man found him there when he opened the door, and did penance to him, saying: “You are my Father, because your humility and patience have conquered the weakness of my soul. Come inside: now you are the old father, and I am the young disciple: my age must give way to your conduct.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.17

Sometimes I wonder if the world today, often claimed to have “progressed” so far from the supposed dark ages of the past, has forgotten what it means to be an adult. Certainly, this is not absolutely the case; I do not mean to overgeneralize. Our culture, however, does not often encourage maturity. Continue reading

Abba Agatho said: “If an angry man raises the dead, God is still displeased with his anger.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers10.13

I have discovered over the years that this teaching is perhaps more controversial than I would have thought. The fathers seem to be fairly unanimous in the conclusion that anger has but one purpose, to be directed at our own sins and nothing else. Is such a view too extreme? Continue reading

Breathe

Abba Hyperichius said: “Keep praising God with hymnody, and meditate continually, and so lift the burden of temptations that come upon you. A traveller carrying a heavy burden stops from time to time to take deep breaths, and so makes the journey easier and the burden lighter.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.20

Deep breaths. Stop and take deep breaths. This is something for which I can use continual reminders. Thankfully, I have a baby. Continue reading