Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Paul

“I feel myself continually sunk up to my neck in the mud of sin,” Abba Paul said with humility, “and I weep, crying to Jesus with all of the strength of my heart: ‘Lord, have mercy on me.'”

It has been said before and will be said again, that there is an element of extremism in the practices of the Desert Christians. According to any modern teachings of psychology, this Saying certainly falls into that category.  But before we dismiss it, is there anything at all we can glean for our use?

There are three things I can see.  The first is an awareness of sin. In our modern day we tend to dismiss the idea of sin as “human nature.”  To a certain extent, yes, it is human nature to sin but that does not excuse us from taking responsibility, repenting, seeking forgiveness, and doing better. Sin is real. We must face it within ourselves.

The second thing I notice is the gift of compunction, the gift of tears. The ability to weep and grieve over sin, one’s own, the world’s, was considered a gift of the Holy Spirit.  These tears were considered cleansing. Tears are not really valued in the USA, the only society of which I can speak.  We think tears are something shameful, to be hidden away, to be gotten over like an adult. One can learn more bout this gift here: Irene Hausherr, Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East [Cistercian Publication, 1982.

The third thing I glean is the simplicity of the abba’s prayer.  He doesn’t go into detail, he doesn’t name his sin, he doesn’t go on and on about how awful he feels. If he did, he would be dwelling on himself. Instead all he does is beg Jesus to have mercy.


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