Apophthegmata


I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

One of the things that I have been aware of for some time is the concern that one sometimes hears that people will become involved in the Church for the wrong motives. Particularly in a society like ours with its rampant poverty, there is a fear that people will come to Church for what they can get out of it. And this can be more subtle than simply a desire for material gain – as Thomas Scarborough expressed it in a recent post:

if all is working as it should, people may find many privileges they do not find elsewhere: status where they have had none, forgiveness where they have been stained by sin, a voice where they have been ignored — and so on. This applies to people high and low.

Now I do think that there is a point to these concerns. I have heard horror stories of missionary activities that effectively sought to buy people’s conversion. And I agree with Thomas that there needs to be a true discernment of motivations.

However, sometimes when I hear such concerns raised, or when I raise them myself, I become uncomfortable at what seems to be a clear-cut distinction between right and wrong motivation, and, indeed, between “us” and “them” – as if the motivation of those of us expressing these concerns is necessarily one hundred percent pure. The more we grow in self-knowledge, the more we discover that our motivation is all too often mixed. It is relatively easy to spot the tainted motivation of those seeking material gain, or even some forms of affirmation. It is considerably more difficult to discern the many more subtle ways that our egos are built up and our passions are fed by things that can appear most “holy.”

With this in mind, I was pleased to come across this response of Abba Poemen recently which also reminds me of the parable of the wheat and the tares. Instead of worrying too much about how mixed all of our motivations are, we should perhaps rather accept them for what they are and pray and work for their purification.

A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts saying it was only done to please men.’ The old man said to him, ‘Even if it is to please men, we must give the brother what he needs.’ He told him the following parable, ‘Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?’ The brother replied, ‘The one who reaped the small poor crop.’ The old man said to him, ‘So it is for us; we sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984])  173.

Pachome

If you see a man pure and humble, that is a great vision. For what is greater than such a vision, to see the invisible God in a visible man, the temple of God.

Saint Pachomius the Great,  quoted in The Synaxarion, The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Volume 5. 164.

I love this quote. I am also reminded that Saint Pachomius, whose feast we celebrate today, was first attracted to Christianity through the love of the Christians of Thebes for the conscripts-cum-prisoners among whom he was numbered. And how he understood his vocation to be be to serve all humanity, despite it being a pretty withdrawn one – indeed, perhaps even because of it being a pretty withdrawn one.

Amma Sarah said, ‘If I prayed God that all should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart be pure towards all.’

Seven instructions which Abba Moses sent to Abba Poeman. He who puts them into practice will escape all punishment and will live in peace, whether he dwells in the desert or in the midst of the brethren.

1. The monk must die to his neighour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.

2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.

3. If the monk does not think in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him. The brother said, ‘What does that mean, to think in his heart that he is a sinner?’ Then the old man said, ‘When someone is occupied with his own faults, he does not see those of his neighbour.’

4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayer, he labours in vain. The brother said, ‘What is this harmony between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.’ The brother asked, ‘In all the affliction which the monk gives himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”‘ (Ps.46.1)

5. The old man was asked, ‘What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?’ and he replied, ‘They make the soul humble. For it is written, “Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (Ps.25.18) So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it.’

6. The old man was asked, ‘What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?’ The old man said to him, ‘He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discernment. For it is written, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?”‘(Ps. 118.6)

7. A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of a fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “Forgive me, I have sinned.”‘ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No, for from the moment he takes upon himself responsibility for the affair and says, “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim of these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused the first-born in the land of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does that mean?’The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and to go and weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings to anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.” ‘

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 141-143.

If the last point raises questions for anyone, as it does for me, you may want to look at some remarks by Metropolitan Zizioulas here.

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 138-139.

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 129-130.

Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 2.

Humility is one of the central mysteries around which our life circles. I have always found it a mystery and have sometimes found myself puzzling over what it means, caught between the rather problematic doormat mentality and the equally problematic culture of self-assertion. Of course humility in the monastic tradition is intimately related to self-knowledge, to understanding our own identity in the eyes of God and our place among our brothers and sisters. But even this can too easily become a matter of theoretical knowledge. I suspect that true humility has more to do with that which is given to us, with the insights that we catch glimpses of in our struggle to acknowledge reality as it is, with the confrontation with our own weakness that impels us to throw ourselves onto the mercy of God, and with the compassion that the truly humble radiate simply by who they are. And that has a power that is beyond words or concepts.

[Amma Syncletica said] ‘It is dangerous for anyone to teach who has not first been trained in the “practical” life. For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, he does them harm because of the dilapidation of his dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; he causes loss to those who come. By words one may convert them to salvation, but by evil behaviour, one injures them.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 233.

And, on a similar note,

If you wish to sow your seed among the destitute, sow from your own seed; for if you wish to sow from the seed of others, know that what you sow is the most bitter of tears.

Abba Nilos of Sinai, as quoted by Saint Isaac of Nineveh, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 30.

Abba Poeman said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’ He said, ‘If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, Who am I? And do not judge anyone.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 102.

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