Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Paul

John, the disciple of Abba Paul, was a paradigm of obedience. The Fathers relate the following event regarding him: “A short distance away from their hut was a cave, inside which a hyena had made its lair. One day the elder saw some wild onions growing thereabouts and he sent John to pick some, so he could cook them.

” ‘What do I do if the hyena chances to come out?’ the young man asked.

” ‘Tie it up and bring it here,’ the elder jokingly said.

“The good disciple went to fulfill his elder’s command. But just as he had anticipated, the fearful beast fell upon him. The young monk, however, not only did not hesitate, but rushed to tie it up. Then the following unusual thing took place. Instead of the disciple being afraid, the beast was afraid and ran into the desert to save itself. John chased behind it and shouted:

” ‘Stop, now! The Abba told me to tie you up.’

“After much effort, he caught the hyena, tied it up, and took it to his elder. In the meantime, the Abba, seeing how late it was, became uneasy and had already gone out to meet him. Thus he saw the disciple coming, bearing the bound beast behind him, and marveled at the power of obedience.

“To John, however, he did not show any surprise. Indeed, on the contrary, to make him humble, he shouted, with feigned austerity:

” ‘You silly man, why did you bring this mad dog here?’

“Therewith, he untied the wild beast and let it go free, to return to its lair.”

At first glance, this would seem to the silliest of the Sayings. Yes, the Desert Christians valued humility and obedience but humility was most important to them.

This young disciple was quite probably a bit too proud of his obedience such that he was unable to tell when his Abba was joking. I don’t know much about hyenas but they do not have a good reputation. Still, despite the lunacy of chasing a hyena and gragging the thing back with him, we have to admire the disciple’s heart.  He wanted to do the right thing.

This is also why he still needed a spiritual mentor.  Because what the young man thought was the right thing, wasn’t.  He needed his spiritual father to tell him so.

How often do we make the mistake of thinking we know the right thing and it turns out we don’t.  Do we sufficiently trust someone else when they try to tell us what is the right from the wrong? Are we too full of ourselves to hear it?  I know I am and more frequently than I would care to admit.


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