Category: Work


I don’t typically post links here to my other writing, but one today fits so well with the spirit of Everyday Asceticism that it could just as easily have appeared here anyway. At Humane Pursuits, I write,

The Benedictines have bequeathed to the world a twofold motto for daily life: ora et labora, pray and work. While some might presume that the ascetic life is about fleeing to a place of contemplation—and, to an extent, it is—they would be mistaken to believe that this flight from “the world” is also a flight from work. The Church fathers, East and West, have a long tradition that affirms the value of human labor. And their reflections on the subject contain depths of insight still relevant for those of us who live in “the world” today, such as how to find meaning in whatever work one may do.

I then focus on a saying from an anonymous old man from the Egyptian desert about how we ought to work not for that which is impermanent, but rather what is “little and lasting.” To find out more, head over to Human Pursuits and read the rest here.

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Bit by Bit

An old man said to a brother: “The devil is like a hostile neighbour and you are like a house. The enemy continually throws into you all the dirt that he can find. It is your business not to neglect to throw out whatever he throws in. If you neglect to do this, your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to walk inside. From the moment he begins to throw, put it out again, bit by bit: and so by Christ’s grace your house shall remain clean.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 11.48

Who likes cleaning? Really. Possibly the only thing I dislike more than cleaning is being dirty. So I try to clean often when I can (and when I’m not overtaken by sloth). This old man uses this common chore to teach an important spiritual lesson: just as a house can only be cleaned “bit by bit,” so it is with our souls. Continue reading

The Sabbath in a Cup

There were three friends, earnest men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men engaged in controversy, as it is written: “Blessed are the peace-makers.” The second chose to visit the sick. Third chose to be quiet in solitude.

Then the first, struggling with quarrelling opponents, found that he could not heal everyone. And worn out, he came to the second who was ministering to the sick, and found him flagging in spirit, and unable to fulfil his purpose. And the two agreed, and went away to see the third who had become a hermit, and told him their troubles. And they asked him to tell them what progress he had made. And he was silent for a little, and poured water into a cup. And he said: “Look at the water.” And it was cloudy. And after a little he said again: “Now look, see how clear the water has become.” And when they leant over the water, they saw their faces as in a glass. And then he said to them: “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil. But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.16

There are many internal disagreements over the Christian understanding of the Sabbath, the holy day of rest on the seventh day (Saturday). Furthermore, Jewish people tend to have a very strict tradition, but Christians have many practices and sometimes do not seem to celebrate it at all, instead focusing on Sunday (sometimes nearly as strictly as the Jews). In my own tradition, the Orthodox Church, there is a very helpful explanation, I think, rooted in ancient Christian tradition. Continue reading

Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.

~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 6

I have written before on the remembrance of death, but having just read St. John Climacus’s treatment of the subject (which is short, profound, and highly recommended), and since it has been a while, surely I have room for another reflection on the same subject. After all, if it is truly “the most essential of all works,” then I can’t imagine a limit to what of value can be said about it. Continue reading

Knees Like a Camel

[St. James] was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.

Eusebius, Church History, 2.23.6

The St. James in this story is St. James the Just, the son of Joseph, who was the betrothed of the Virgin Mary. Thus, he was one of Jesus’s (step-)brothers, at least according to tradition. (The Greek word “brother,” as is also the Hebrew, is very general in meaning and can simply mean “kindred.”) In any case, he is important for being the brother of Jesus, as I have said, and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was a major leader in the early Church and a martyr for the faith. His example, I think, is especially appropriate to recall this time of year.

(As a small disclaimer, I must apologize that the following post is a little “wonky,” to borrow from the common language of political commentary. It is full of words that I have to define that slow down the flow. On the other hand, I would rather expect much of my readership and be confusing to some rather than talk down to them and belittle many.)

After fifty days of Pascha, this past Sunday was Pentecost in the Orthodox Church, which, among other things, means a lot of kneeling. The divine liturgy and vespers both have additional, long prayers during which everyone kneels for a long time. In fact, kneeling is one of three traditional postures of prayer: standing, kneeling, and prostrations. I cannot begin to rival St. James, but it is probably the time of the year I think most about how he knelt in prayer so much that “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” Continue reading

Fruit Among the Thorns

Further, when we are on the way, and that not a way that lies through space, but through a change of affections, and one which the guilt of our past sins like a hedge of thorns barred against us, what could He, who was willing to lay Himself down as the way by which we should return, do that would be still gracious and more merciful, except to forgive us all our sins, and by being crucified for us to remove the stern decrees that barred the door against our return?

~ St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1.17.16

Tonight Orthodox Christians like myself commemorate by anticipation the Great and Holy Friday upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. I had meant to write a reflection, but poetry seems far more appropriate. Continue reading

Good Grief

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

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 3.12

Sayings like this (and there are many) are not easy to understand at first. The desert fathers and others talk about joy, and I have highlighted this in the past. So why grief? Why compunction? Why praise the virtues of a tearful life? There are many reasons, but I will look at just a few with reference to this saying of Abba Poemen here. Continue reading

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

Journeying With St. Patrick

Then, having received the benedictions, and all things having been accomplished according to custom (moreover with a special appropriateness to Patrick, this verse of the Psalmist was sung, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek “), the venerable traveller [St. Patrick] got on board, in the name of the Blessed Trinity, a ship prepared for him, and arrived in Britain; and dispensing with everything that could delay his journey [on foot], except what the requirements of ordinary life demand (for no one seeks the Lord by sloth), with all speed and with a favouring wind, he crossed our sea.

Muirchu’s Life of Patrick 9

St. Patrick’s biographer, Muirchu, highlights two interesting things in this little excerpt. First, St. Patrick does not simply get on board a ship; he boards the ship “in the name of the Blessed Trinity.” Second, Patrick rids himself of all that is unnecessary for his journey “for no one seeks the Lord by sloth.” Continue reading

An old man said: “I never wanted a work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother: for I have this hope, that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.24

According to Abba Isaac, intercession is the third of four forms of prayer, after supplications and vows and before thanksgiving. Intercession corresponds to the affective state of longing, which differs, in ancient Christian terminology, from desire (epithemia) in its ends. Longing is a wish for what is holy and virtuous. Intercession, similarly, is a request on behalf of another for his/her good. While Christians do not seek the good of others purely out of self-interest well understood, nevertheless the saying of this old man is true that “what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.” Continue reading