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Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Anonymous

One Father says: “The nearer a man draws to God, the more he sees himself a sinner.”

This is true of my experience.  Is it true for yours?  If one approaches God with reverent awe, one can’t help but notice one sins and has sins and maybe even some guilty pleasure sins.

In The Episcopal Church, we don’t talk about sin very much.  We don’t talk very much about the pursuit of holiness either.  We do talk about following Jesus, becoming more like Jesus. We talk about it positive terms because I guess talking about sin is a downer and we don’t want to have that effect on people.

Which is all well and good. But how is it possible to become more like Jesus unless something within me gives way to that?  Seems to me my personal sins are a barrier. So I pray about them, offer them up, repent, repent, repent, pray to have them go away, live, confident that the Holy Spirit is hard at work within me even if I have no idea what She is doing until She tells me.

Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: anonymous

“An old hermit once became gravely ill. He had no one to take care of him. With great difficulty, he would fix a little food for himself, thanking God for the trial which He had sent him. An entire month passed and no one knocked at his door or brought him relief. God, however, saw his patience and sent a divine angel to serve him. In the meantime, the brothers remembered the old hermit and went to his but to see how he was. As soon as they knocked on the door, the angel withdrew.

“From inside, the hermit shouted pleadingly: “For the love of God, go away from here, brothers.”

“They, however, hastily opened the door to see what had happened, and he shouted: “For thirty days I suffered completely alone and no one thought to come to see me. So, the Lord sent me an angel to keep me company. And now you come and chase the angel away.”

“And as soon as he said these things, the elder died in a sweet manner.”

Imagine being ministered to by an angel!  How blessed and cool that would be? And yet, how many of us could be as an angel to another person?

A few years ago, I had a heart attack on a Wednesday morning.  Various tests were done, stents inserted on Thursday and Friday morning I was sent home.  I felt quite seriously ill and like this monk, I could not care for myself.  Fortunately, on Tuesday, the day before the heart attack, I had gone to Costco and among my purchases were hard-cooked eggs and cans of tuna. For several days, that’s what I ate.

When the Tuesday after the heart attack, I called my priest, explained how ill I was and that I needed help.  He said that he would put me on the prayer list.  As sick as I was, I was unable to think clearly and did not at the time realize that was all he was going to do.

So I waited and waited and for days I expected phone calls from the people at my church I thought cared about me and no one called and no one came to see me.

My best friend was unable to do much as she was caring for her father who was quite ill with cancer.  But she did make me a pot of chili and another occasion and Italian pot roast.  Which made a welcome change from hard-cooked eggs and canned tuna.

Someone called Adult Protective Services and a social worker came, assessed, and returned the next day with three bags of frozen meals that all I had to do was microwave. I was so grateful.

My parish really hurt me and let me down, so I thought.  A few years after this, I ran into someone from that church who expressed concern that I no longer attended. This also happened to be one of the people I had thought would come to my aid.   I explained about the heart attack and this person said that the priest never said a word to anyone.

This long long story is told because I would hope the moral of the story for you would be to take a look around you.  Who is missing that usually see?  Call that person.  Visit that person. You might have the opportunity to serve that person as the angel ministered to the monk.

Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: anonymous

“A monk in our times tells us that his own grandfather, who had wished to be a monk, but turned against his deep desire, told him the following before he died: “All that has befallen me is the result of a wrong choice. God placed it in my heart to be a monk, yet I ignored Him. I introduced my family to other faiths. Out of my many children, few lived. My wealth brought me no happiness. And now my mind and body are wasted. By removing myself from His grace, I lost the knowledge of God. I willingly cast myself into the cruelty of a demonic world. I only hope that, not blaming Him for my suffering, God will have compassion on me and call me in my heart, at my last breath, once again.”

Such a sad Saying.  I wonder what caused this man to turn against his “deep desire” to be a monk. There could be any number of reasons.  But it does me no good to speculate.  I have to deal with the actual text, not what I want to read into it.

He made a choice.  He lived his life. He know heartbreak and sorrow.  He earned lots of money and it didn’t make him happy.  At the end of his life, he confronts his deep longing for God.

I think his deep longing for God must have been with him every day of his life, don’t you? When God places a desire in our hearts, doesn’t that desire drive us?  From this Saying it is clear that even though there is the desire, it didn’t drive this man to be a monk, to embrace the desire.  He ran away from it and it did him no good at all.

God calls us. Each of us.  God calls us to be our most authentic self, the person God envisioned when God created us. Our calling, our vocation is to fulfill that vision. It’s the only way we will ever know contentment.

The questions for each of us is this: Do I hear God calling me? Have I made myself a receptive vessel for God’s call to fill me? Will I embrace it?

Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Isaias the Anchorite

“A Christian has great difficulty in attaining three things,” Abba Isaias the Anchorite says, “grief (over sins), tears, and the continual memory of death. Yet these contain all of the other virtues.”

Of the remembrance of death specifically, he writes: “He who succeeds in saying each day to himself, ‘today is the last day of my life,’ will never willingly sin before God. He, however, who expects to have many years to live, without fail entangles himself in the nets of sin. God sanctifies the soul which is always prepared to give an accounting for its deeds. Whoever forgets the Judgment remains in the bondage of sin.”

How many of us who follow Jesus have these three things: grief over sin, tears; and the continual memory of our death?

Grief over sin is something I talked a bit about yesterday. Seems to me that most of us excuse sin as being part of human nature as if Jesus doesn’t call us to become better people than human nature allows. Possibly this is because, at least in western society, we are so hepped up on self-reliance and self-sufficiency that we forget that following Jesus is really a communal venture and that we really should be relying on the Holy Spirit.

As for tears… I don’t know if your experience is anything like mine but I was taught that it is bad to cry.  “Big girls don’t cry,” I was told when I was three.  “Be a man, don’t cry,” my parents told my brothers at around the same age.  These messages were repeated throughout our childhoods.

And yet isn’t there something cleansing about a really good cry?  Don’t those tears wash away something too painful for words? If we were to truly grieve over ou sins, maybe our tears would make the grip of sin less strong?

Remembering that we are going to die might have been easier in the days before the so-called miracles of modern medicine.    My mother is ninety-two years old and going strong. She has some health issues but tells me that at her age a person knows death is around the corner so she isn’t too concerned.  I am younger than she and I don’t think about death at all.

As a practicing Benedictine, I should engage in memento mori every day, but I forget to reflect on the hour of my death.  I could die before I finish this sentence.  I suppose that would be a good thing because my mind is focused on what it means to follow Jesus and be a daughter to God.

Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Arsenios the Great

When Arsenios the Great fell ill and understood that at last he had reached the end of his earthly life, he began to cry.

“Are you afraid, Abba?” his disciple asked with perplexity.

“This fear, my child, has never left my heart, since the time I became a monk,” this great friend of God answered, his wise lips closing forever.

 

This Saying disturbs me.  Arsenious is one of the most quoted of all the Desert Christians, a respected teacher and monk and even he, after years of faithfulness, is terrified to die because he didn’t know if his asceticism, his efforts during his life had won him his salvation or not.

It’s hard for us on this side of the millennia to appreciate how seriously sin was taken.  Sin was sin was sin to them, all equally horrible and any sin could cost a person salvation. Some people even postponed baptism because of their belief that any sin committed after baptism would cancel the effects of baptism and send them to hell.  So they were baptized on their death beds.

Yes, of course, that kind of thinking was extreme.  But isn’t it just as extreme to think sin doesn’t matter, that it is all human nature and therefore excusable? 

I don’t think so. A continuum has two opposite ends.  Arsenious is at one end and those of us who excuse sin as human nature are at the other.  After all, Jesus came to make us better people, which means we can change, we don’t have to be bound by human nature.  Paul tells us to put on the mind of Christ.  Paul tells us to let ourselves decrease so that Christ might increase within us.

That means we have to challenge our human nature.

Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: anonymous

A present day monk tells the following beneficial story: “I was once walking with a very pious and humble man, when we were stopped on the street by an old man distributing small pamphlets. The old man asked us, ‘Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus?’

“My humble companion said, ‘I only know that I am a sinner.’

“The old man answered my friend: ‘Jesus has saved me. I have the assurance of his salvation. I have conquered pride, lust, and sin. Praise God.’

“At these words, my companion very abruptly grabbed me by the arm, saying to the old man, ‘Leave us alone.’ But as we walked my humble friend began to cry bitterly. Embarrassed that others were watching, he controlled himself.

“I asked him: ‘Why are you crying like this?’

“He quietly answered, As that man told us that, a strange voice in my mind translated his words, so that he said, “I have saved myself. I have assured myself. Pride, lust, and sin no longer bother me, for they have conquered me. God must praise me.” The mere thought of his blasphemy and the state of his soul crushed me. God forgive us all.”

People who hold to Reformed Theology may have a problem with this Saying.  Evangelicals and Fundamentalists may have a problem with this Saying.  This of us who may identify as catholic, be we Anglican, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Episcopalian, Orthodox may have less trouble with it.

Clearly, the man with the pamphlets is evangelizing people walking by. He offers a brief testimony and the humble man accompanying the monk bursts into tears.  Why is that?

The sense I have of this is that the evangelist’s words were all about himself.  “I this, I that” without any mention of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.  It is emphasizing himself, not God and that is what grieved the humble man. He perceived the evangelist to be relying on himself and not on God.

Reflections on a Saying of a Desert Christian: anonymous

In modern times, a rich man told a certain monk of his philanthropy: “I have given away most of my riches, so that, without growing a beard, wearing monastic garb, and sacrificing myself, I have done everything that is needed to be saved. In essence, I have gained monasticism without your abnormal way of life.”

Remembering the words of Saint Basil regarding a great official who had abandoned his wealth, yet kept some money for his needs and had no desire to submit himself to monastic discipline, the monk answered the rich man as Saint Basil did the ancient official: “You have given up your senatorial rank, but you have not become a monk.”

To be honest, I have been thinking about this one for weeks now.  It challenged me personally.  I have taken vows as an Episcopal Solitary and while I was never a rich person, I don’t wear monastic garb nor do I have anyone to subject me to monastic discipline.  I have to rely on the Holy Spirit for that.

Is that what prompted the monk to tell the rich man that he was not a monk?  After all the rich man did call it an abnormal way of life.  I take that to mean that the rich man was not living a life of prayer and service to others but holding on to something for himself instead of throwing himself entirely on the Lord.

This is a troubling Saying.