Tag Archive: silence


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

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

The Ladder of Humility: Step 9

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk controls his tongue and keeps silence till a question be asked. For the Scripture teaches that “in much talk you will not avoid sinning”; and “the talkative man shall live out his life haphazardly.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

“In much talk you will not avoid sinning.” This reminds me of Adam Smith’s take on justice. As it was told to me, to Smith justice is the only duty a man can perform by not doing anything. That is, to him, justice amounts to “do no harm,” and doing nothing harms no one. Personally, I would take a broader understanding of justice—and perhaps he does as well, I’m no expert in his ethics. But it does call to mind a true corollary: say nothing and you will be much less likely to sin with your tongue. 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

No Small Danger

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

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

Christ is Born!

447px-Intesa_nativityNow, Mary’s virginity and her giving birth escaped the notice of the prince of this world, as did the Lord’s death—those three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom [of evil] was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.

~ St. Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19.1-3

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 110 A.D.) gives, perhaps, a bit more dramatic picture of the Nativity of Christ—Christmas—than what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament. There, we actually only find two accounts, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Neither of them are without their own excitement, but I’ve always liked St. Ignatius’s focus since I first encountered it. It is a bit more overtly theological and highlights some interesting points relevant to the praxis of the spiritual life as well. 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