Reflection on a saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Joseph the Thebite

“There are three things especially pleasing to God,” said Abba Joseph the Thebite. “Illnesses suffered with patience, works done without ostentation and for His love only, and submission to a spiritual elder with perfect self-denial. This last thing will gain the greatest crown.”

Illnesses suffered with patience, eh? You should hear me complain when I have flu!  But of course, back in Abba Joseph’s day, the flu was a fatal disease. So many of the illnesses we experience as temporary were for them life-threatening.  Which gives me a context for his words. Knowing one may die from a disease is something heavy to confront. To accept it with patience means, among other things, that one’s feelings about one’s illness do not become a burden to loved ones. To accept it with patience means trusting God will hold onto one even when one passes from temporal life into eternal. 

Works done without ostentation takes us right back to Jesus who tells us that we give so that the left-hand does not know what the right is doing. It is hard to do good works in secret. We want acclaim, we want applause.  Judaism has a lovely concept: mitzvah.  Maimonides defines it as “to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven. This is like the “anonymous fund” that was in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem]. There the righteous gave in secret, and the good poor profited in secret. Giving to a charity fund is similar to this mode of charity, though one should not contribute to a charity fund unless one knows that the person appointed over the fund is trustworthy and wise and a proper administrator”

Submission to a spiritual elder with perfect self-denial has been a theme in recent days.  To subsume one’s will to another is quite the act of humility.  And, yes, I can hear your “but what about” from here. Yes, it is certainly true that there are those who abuse.  There are cults built on this idea.  Put that aside and think instead of a relationship with a trusted spiritual mentor who has been a recipient of spiritual mentoring and training. Someone wise and who loves God.  That’s the kind of spiritual elder Abba Joseph means.


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