Category: Silence


Piety and Propriety

When Abba Theodore was supping with the brothers, they received the cups with silent reverence, and did not follow the usual custom of receiving the cup with a “Pardon me.” And Abba Theodore said: “The monks have lost their manners and do not say ‘Pardon me.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.20

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher. While his Wealth of Nations is better known today, he actually published another book seventeen years earlier: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This book is fascinating and bizarre. It is like no other book on ethics or morality that I’ve read. Indeed, one might even think of it more as a work of moral psychology, or maybe, in a uniquely anthropological and natural-philosophical way, a book of meta-ethics.

He does not begin by delineating a fundamental, normative principle or principles for moral action. Instead, he tries to answer the question: How do we become moral? He wants to be descriptive before being prescriptive. Continue reading

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Racism and Asceticism

40a3c679a8a8c232f2bfaf15d6698bdfAt a meeting of monks in Scete, the old men wanted to test Abba Moses. So they poured scorn on him, saying: “Who is this blackamoor that has come among us?” Moses heard them, but said nothing. When the meeting had dispersed, the men who had given the insults, asked him: “Were you not troubled in your heart?” He answered: “I was troubled, and I said nothing.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Today is the feast day of St. Moses the Ethiopian, also known as St. Moses the Black. (I’ll give you three guesses why.)

As this saying shows racism is not new. No doubt it grows naturally (however viciously) from our tribal pasts, when one’s society was also one’s extended family. Not only were customs and culture shared, so was DNA and, thus, common physical characteristics. Continue reading

Unceasing Prayer is for Everyone

Let no one think, my Christian Brethren, that only persons in holy orders, or monks, are obliged to pray unceasingly and at all times, but not laymen. No, no! It is the duty of all us Christians to remain always in prayer.

~ St. Gregory Palamas, On the Necessity of Constant Prayer for all Christians in General

This is both an encouraging and a hard saying. It is encouraging because it affirms the focus of this blog, everyday asceticism. It is hard because it seemingly sets the bar so high. Continue reading

Humility and Secrecy

One of the holy men named Philagrius lived in Jerusalem and laboured to earn himself enough to eat. And when he was standing in the market-square trying to sell what he had made, by chance a bag fell on the ground near him, containing a great many shillings. The old man found it, and stood there thinking, “The loser must soon come here.” And soon the man who had lost it came lamenting. So Philagrius took him apart and gave him back his bag. The owner asked him to accept some of the shillings, but the old man would have nothing. Then the owner began to shout and call: “Come and see what the man of God has done.” But the old man fled away unperceived, and went out of the town, so that they should not know what he had done, nor pay him honour.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Abba Philagrius demonstrates well the admonition of Christ,

Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. (Matthew 6:2-4)

Not wanting the praise of men for his reward, Abba Philagrius fled, knowing that praise can induce pride, and pride destroys compassion and humility, which are better than any material reward.

There is something else about this story, however, that I find insightful. Continue reading

‘Gossip, Slander, and Complaining’

An old man said: “… If anyone speaks to you on a matter of controversy, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say ‘Yes.’ If he speaks ill, say ‘l am ignorant in the matter.’ But argue not with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Obviously “Everyday Asceticism” does not refer to frequency of publication. But as this saying reminds us, sometimes—perhaps most of the time—it is better not to speak at all. Continue reading

There is a prayer of Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow that I love, but I haven’t yet succeeded in memorizing. In effort to capture in a memorable way the spirit of that prayer (a version of which can be found here), I worked out this more poetic paraphrase: Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 11

The eleventh degree of humility is, when a monk discourses with moderation and composure, mixing humility with gravity; speaking few words, but home, and to the purpose; not raising the voice. “The wise man is known because he speaks little.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

This step of the ladder immediately reminds me of a saying from the Tao Te Ching:

He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know.

Indeed, across cultures the saying is true: “The wise man is known because he speaks little.” While it may disturb some that I would immediately think of a text from another religion, it is worth noting that St. Benedict here is quoting the Sentences of Sextus, a compilation of Christianized Pythagorean proverbs. As St. Justin put it, “whatever has been well said by anyone belongs to us”—for in the Logos, whose humility we are seeking to imitate through St. Benedict’s ladder, is “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). Continue reading

The fourth degree of humility is, when anyone, in the practice of obedience, meets with hardships, contradictions, or affronts, and yet bears them all with a quiet conscience and with patience, and continues to persevere. The Scripture says: “He who perseveres to the end, the same shall be saved,” and again: “Let your heart be strengthened, and wait for our Lord.” And to show that the faithful servant ought to suffer every trial for God, the Scripture speaks in the person of those that suffer: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long: we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

At the fourth step of St. Benedict’s ladder of humility, he offers two correctives to common spiritual images. In the first case, he rightly puts Christ’s statement: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10) in the context of humility and self-denial (“in the practice of obedience”). In the second case, he references Psalm 43 (44 in most English Bibles), correcting the common, Sunday-school image of God’s people as a happy flock of sheep. Instead, he reminds us what sheep are for: “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.Continue reading

Roots of Salvation

When Abba Arsenius was still at the palace, he prayed the Lord saying: “Lord, show me the way to salvation.” And a voice came to him: “Arsenius, run from men and you shall be saved.” He went to become a monk, and again prayed in the same words. And he heard a voice saying: “Arsenius, be solitary: be silent: be at rest. These are the roots of a life without sin.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.3

Abba Arsenius may not have been the Roman Emperor, but he worked “at the palace” and likely enjoyed a very high quality of life for his time. Yet he finds that material comforts are not enough, and he prays, “Lord, show me the way to salvation.” The answer: “run from men and you shall be saved,” for him this meant becoming a monk, a hermit even. However, solitude, silence, and rest are not the exclusive property of hermits, even if they have much more abundant supply. A “life without sin” may be hard to come by in the world, but its roots can still grow in that soil. Continue reading

Serenity: Mother of Chastity

An old man said: “Chastity is born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.25

Unchastity, and the lust from which it is born, is a problem that we do well to revisit often with an ear to the wisdom of the fathers. How many relationships, marriages, ministries, careers, and so on have been ruined by a person’s own lust? This unnamed old man offers an interesting insight to contemplate. If chastity is “born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation,” then logically unchastity thrives where there is no serenity, no silence, and no secret meditation. Continue reading