Abba Agatho was asked: “Which is more difficult, bodily discipline, or the guard over the inner man?” The Abba said: “Man is like a tree. His bodily discipline is like the leaves of the tree, his guard over the inner man is like the fruit. Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.’ So we ought to take every precaution about guarding the mind, because that is our fruit. Yet we need to be covered with beautiful leaves, the bodily discipline.”

Abba Agatho was wise in understanding, earnest in discipline, armed at all points, careful about keeping up his manual work, sparing in food and clothing.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.11

Today is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, also known as St. John the Forerunner. Abba Agatho quotes John’s words from Matthew 3:10 when he says, “Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.'” John is known for his austere asceticism, his call to repentance, and, of course, his baptism of Jesus Christ. According to all four Gospels he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord'” (Isaiah 40:3). In his beheading, Orthodox Christians see an extension of his role as the Forerunner of Christ: “The glorious beheading of the Forerunner was a certain divine dispensation, that the coming of the Saviour might also be preached to those in Hades” (from the Kontakion for the day). I would submit that, in addition to being a forerunner of the Messiah to both the living and the dead, he also “prepared the way of the Lord” for the many Christian ascetics yet to be born, like Abba Agatho, who would follow his example of discipline. Continue reading