Now, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth. In mutable nature nothing can be observed which is always the same. Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as a result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a [spiritual] birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be … moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.
~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2.3
Birth is a common spiritual metaphor, but—at least in my own case—I do not think the depth of this metaphor is contemplated often enough. Continue reading
At 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
Abba Poemen said: “The mark of the true monk only appears under temptation.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers
We could easily say the same for any man or woman. It is a strange thing about life that sometimes its best blessings, rightly understood, are tragic. Continue reading
There are a few similar sayings from the desert fathers to the one below, but I think it might be the most expansive. In any case, I think it stands alone just fine—one could consider every post on this blog as commentary on this one saying. It is an epitome of the ascetic life. The part that sits with me the most right now is “in deep humility.” Those three words are profound enough for me. Continue reading
Hell is ignorance, for both are dark; and perdition is forgetfulness, for both involve extinction.
~ St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 62
I confessed in my last entry that I do not think often about hell, despite the fathers’ commendation of the practice. One way to remedy that is to reflect more here. St. Mark the Ascetic offers a radically different view than the common adage, “Ignorance is bliss.” Rather, he warns, “Hell is ignorance.” Continue reading
The tenth degree of humility is, not easily to lay hold on occasions of laughing. For it is written: “He who laughs loud is a fool.” [Ecclesiasticus 21:20]
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
At what point do I just declare myself totally unqualified to comment on St. Benedict’s ladder of humility? This step, about something so simple—laughter—is extremely difficult in our time or, at least, for me. The average person, even people in poverty, in the United States enjoys entertainment once the luxury of royalty alone. Every day we are met with hundreds of invitations to “easily lay hold on occasions of laughing.” What are we to do? Is our culture so depraved? Or, on the other hand, is this step of the ladder now passé? Neither. Continue reading
So great is the splendour of a virtuous life that a peaceful conscience and a calm innocence work out a happy life.
~ St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.1
Virtue, it would seem, is woefully undervalued today. I do not mean to say that there are too few virtuous people—only God knows the hearts of others after all, and by what it appears virtue still shines upon the hearts of many. Rather, if St. Ambrose is correct—and I think he is—a virtuous life is the key to happiness. Shouldn’t our whole society be organized with the purpose of teaching and obtaining virtue then? What else would be more befitting of “the pursuit of happiness?” Continue reading
Abba John the Short said: “The gateway to God is humility. Our fathers endured much suffering and so entered the city of God with joy.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.22
Humility is often praised (perhaps paradoxically) in the most exalted ways by ancient Christians. But rightly so! I’ve heard that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” I’m not sure whether that is true, but humility, I know, is a “gateway to God.” It is a gateway virtue. I can see the public service announcement now: “Parents, have you talked to your children about humility?” If only, right? Humility, indeed, is so powerful in its apparent weakness that it can even turn suffering into great joy.
I am reminded of a saying of St. Anthony: “I saw the snares that the enemy spread out over the world, and I said groaning, ‘What can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humiity.'” Continue reading
It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers
It is easy to become discouraged in the spiritual life. It is easy to think, “I am no St. Anthony. How can I hope for blessedness? How can I even be saved?” Attempting to answer this concern is, in part, the reason for this blog. I love the wisdom of the Christian ascetic tradition, but nearly all of it is written primarily by and for monastics. Is perfection only possible in the desert? Or might there be hope for the city as well? Continue reading
Abba Ammon said [to Abba Poemen]: “If I need to talk with my neighbour, do you think I should talk to him about the Scriptures, or about the sayings and judgments of the elders?” And the old man said to him: “If you cannot keep silence, it is much better to talk about the sayings of the elders than about the Scriptures. For the danger is no small one.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.20
It may be a curiosity to some why my reflections, which focus on Christian spiritual practice, almost entirely consist of musings on the sayings of the fathers and mothers of the Church rather than the Scriptures. To be sure, the Scriptures are not absent in my reflections, but on the other hand they are always only referenced in the context of seeking to understand one of “the sayings and judgments of the elders.” The reason is quite simple, as Abba Poemen puts it: “the danger is no small one.” Continue reading