Tag Archive: discipline


Easier Said Than Done

798px-1-Green_peasOnce Abba Agatho was going on a journey with his disciples. And one of them found a tiny bag of green peas on the road, and said to the old man: “Father, if you command, I will take it.” The old man gazed at him in astonishment, and said: “Did you put it there?” The brother replied: “No.” And the old man said: “How is it that you want to take something that you did not put there?”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.8

The conventional wisdom in the above situation, or at least my own first impulse, would be that if someone finds something that is not his/hers in the road, the proper thing to do is to take it and seek out the rightful owner. If no owner can be found, then finder’s keepers. There is an important lesson here, however. Continue reading

Abba Arsenius was once asking an old Egyptian for advice about his temptations. And another, who saw this, said: “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, who are so learned in the Greek and Latin languages, come to be asking that uneducated countryman about your temptations?” He answered: “I have acquired the world’s knowledge of Greek and Latin: but I have not yet been able to learn the alphabet of this uneducated man.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 15.7

A, B, C … learning the alphabet of a language (or system of symbols, as the case may be), is the first step toward literacy in that language. One cannot read a single word if one does not know the letters of the language. One must simply memorized them; their names and sounds cannot be deduced from their shapes. Alphabetic languages often have memorable songs to help, but the task is still large and requires discipline and memory. Nevertheless, as this story teaches, there is a language whose alphabet is far more important to learn and which surpasses the value and achievement of learning any other. 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

The Fruit in the Seed

And this tenant of [St. Antony’s] was also truly wonderful, that neither the way of virtue nor the separation from the world for its sake ought to be measured in terms of time spent, but by the aspirant’s desire and purposefulness.

~ Life of Antony 7

It is easy, I think, to presume that time equals experience. However, as the old man from my previous post put it, age must give way to conduct. The same is true of time. How many composers, I wonder, were utterly humbled by Mozart, composing already at five years old? Nevertheless, St. Antony’s rule is especially helpful. Not only does he not measure the way of virtue or worldly detachment “in terms of time spent,” but he also does not mention accomplishments, either. Rather, he gives a much more comforting standard: “the aspirant’s desire and purposefulness.” Continue reading

With a Little Help from My Friends

There was a bishop of the city of Oxyrhynchus named Affy. They said that while he was a monk, he treated his body very severely. And when he became a bishop, he wanted to continue in his city the austerities which he had practised in the desert, but he could not. So he fell prostrate before God, and said: “Dost thou think, my Lord, that thy grace has left me because I have become a bishop?” And it was revealed to him: “No: in the desert you had no man to help you, and God alone sustained you. But now you are in the world, and have men to help you.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 15.13

This is an important saying. It reveals that, despite their quest for perfection, the desert fathers were realists when it came to discipline. They did not consider that their way of life made them holier than those in the world per se; rather they saw it as an effective way to focus on austerity, as a path, but not the only path. Continue reading