Tag Archives: Desert Fathers and Mothers

Empty Words

A brother went to find Abba Serapion. According to his custom, the old man invited him to say a prayer. But the other, calling himself a sinner and unworthy of the monastic habit, did not obey. Next Abba Serapion wanted to wash his feet, but using the same words again, the visitor prevented him.

Then Abba Serapion made him eat, and he began to eat with him. Then he admonished him saying, ‘My son, if you want to make progress stay in your cell and pay attention to yourself and your manual work; going out is not so profitable for you as remaining at home.’ When he heard these words the visitor was offended and his expression changed so much that the old man could not but notice it. So he said to him, ‘up to now you have called yourself a sinner and accused yourself of being unworthy to live, but when I admonished you lovingly, you were extremely put out. If you want to be humble, learn to bear generously what others unfairly inflict upon you and do not harbor empty words in your heart.’ Hearing this, the brother asked the old man s forgiveness and went away greatly edified.

—-Sayings of the Desert



These empty words and feelings are bitterness, anger, jealousy, strife, and others too numerous to mention. Abba Serapion calls on us to bear unfairness with generosity and grace. Society tells it very differently. If we are wronged we must get even, or at least make it right. People spend far too much time trying to sort out the unfairness of life, and precious little effort is given to generous forgiveness. With that generosity in our hearts, we can put away empty words and replace them with words of grace and forgiveness. We, like the monk who visited Serapion, can rise up edified, and an edified man can accomplish much. All of us have times that we feel unworthy of the place we have been given in life, but God has a way of turning that feeling into elation. Look hard at the empty words that clutter your heart, and give some of them away to the generous grace of God.

When we give our bitterness and anger to the generous grace of God we become different people. We once were self-centered and bitter because we never experienced the grace of God, but we now are people who understand grace and can live at peace with ourselves and others. That peace allows us to live a healthy and productive life. Our lives are then freed from the “empty words” of anger and strife.

Perhaps today is the day that you should seek to give away your “empty words.”



Prayer BannerLord, It is very difficult to put hurt and anger aside. Too often we strike back with words that defile ourselves and the one that offended us. This is not your way. Help us to follow your path of grace and forgiveness by inviting your grace into the very center of our being. Free us from the “empty words” of contempt and anger and fill us with your words.

Amen

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Refuge – Prayer and Contemplation



It was said of him (Abba John the Dwarf) that one day he was weaving rope for two baskets, but he made it into one without noticing, until it had reached the wall, because his spirit was occupied in contemplation.

Abba John said, ‘I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.’

— Abba John the Dwarf



At various times people are in need of refuge from the troubles they face in life. The word refuge means: a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble. We all need refuge because danger lurks, and safety is a primary need of all. As followers of Christ, we need refuge from the problems of this world. Life is so trying and difficult that we just want to say that this “Christian thing” just isn’t working. Our culture does not readily respond to the idea of committing to a power greater than ourselves. Many times we feel that we are the first people to experience this. Not so, the men and women of the desert faced this long ago. These Monks were occupied in contemplation and took refuge in prayer. Maybe we can, too.

A few questions:

  • Who or what do you turn to when you feel tired or oppressed?
  • Is there any time in your schedule to just “get away” while you are in the middle of the crowd?
  • Does the concept of contemplation seem workable to you?
  • How and where do you pray?

First, it is essential to know that you have a refuge when you feel tired or oppressed. The psalmist said: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” In this lifting up our help comes. There are not enough self-help books and webinars to save us from those times of spiritual tiredness and oppression. These battles are not limited to our spirit because they effect everything. We have all experienced times when could not lift our eyes to God or anyone else. In those times we must turn to our inner selves. The spirit of God dwells in all of us and is readily available in our times of need. The best way to tap into our inner spirit is to be still and let the spirit touch us. Contemplation is a tool by which we hear the voice of the spirit. We are carried away to a place that is spirit chosen. When there, the world seems far away. This journey could be short or long, alone or in a crowd, in stillness or motion.

Second, we must learn to get away while we are still in the crowd. Very few people can escape to the literal desert to find God. We must find Him where we are. All of us have likes and dislikes, things that energize us and things that drain us. The key is allowing our times of energy to be times that we can be in touch with God. Find a place to get away. Maybe it is by taking a walk in a crowded park. My favorite place is a coffee shop. Things have changed since Covid 19 but here are my thoughts anyway. The roar of the grinder, the rumble of the conversations, and even the distinct voice that is coming from the table next to me are like the bells of the monastery calling me to prayer. My coffee shop time is a “get away” time. There is me, God and the 30(now 10)other people in the shop, but I have gotten away. Find your place in the middle of the crowd and just get away.

Please don’t take my ideas as being negative towards real silence and isolation. We are all better people for taking times of literal silence, but our challenge is to be a monk in the world.

Third, contemplation is a scary and elusive word. A fellow monk once said of the Thomas Merton, “Merton told us we weren’t contemplatives; we were just introverts!” You can imagine that did not go over too well with men who had lived in community for ten, twenty and even fifty years. What Merton was saying is that contemplation is not isolation but involvement with God and man. Through our times of contemplation and prayer we find energy to engage the world as radically different people. The concept of isolating ourselves in some type of cloister to find God is a type of contemplation that just will not work for the bulk of us. Unfortunately, that is the picture we see when we envision contemplation. If we take the time to rethink contemplation, I believe we can all be contemplatives and monks in the world. That leads us to the how and where?

Fourth, how and where do we engage to take our refuge. The “how” is that we clear our minds and begin to focus on God. Silence, walking, writing, reading, Lectio, are all excellent “hows.” Primarily, all of us need to have a desire to encounter God at all times. Not many people fail to encounter God if they engage in silent meditation and focus attention on our breathing and God’s role in giving us life. Sacred reading is a fine way of turning our attention to the one who is sacred. The very way we are given the words we write causes us to look to God who gives us that gift of language and expression. Sometimes taking a walk and seeing the majestic creation, not just in the big mountains and blue sky, but in the small flower that grows in the crack of the city sidewalk helps us realize that God created it all. Such a walk is not a walk with a destination but a journey to discover the divine. Now the where. Quite simply it is the places God has given you -your home, a church, a sidewalk, anywhere that is available. I waited a great portion of my life to find the monastery, only to find that it was everywhere. There are cloistered monks who never find their monastery.

Find your refuge, its right in front of you.



Prayer

Lord, Help me to discover that special treasure that you have given me. May I experience the warmth of your spirit today and every day. Let me not spend so much time searching for the perfect place that I miss the refuge you have given me. Thanks for being there in all those unexpected places and remind me that I simply must still myself enough to see you. Amen

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The Secret

“A man who receives something from another because of his poverty or his need has therein his reward, and because he is ashamed, when he repays it he does so in secret. But it is the opposite for the Lord God; he receives in secret, but he repays in the presence of the angels, the archangels and the righteous.”

——Sayings of the Desert

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Perhaps the monk is thinking of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “When you pray, go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to your Father in private. He knows what is done in private and will reward you.” The wonderful thing about God is that he does not expect us to be showy in our worship of him, he just wants us to be real. Most of us, whether we admit it or not, like to be recognized for our successes and want our failures to be hidden and forgotten. Taking alms because of our personal poverty is not something most people would brag about. The way God asks for our devotion is completely counter cultural. Our culture expects praise and in response continued favors are given, but God operates differently. He gives quietly and diligently to those who call upon Him.

Perhaps all of us can pledge from this day forward to be aware of our tendency to be showy and strive to follow the teachings of Jesus. Our Redeemer teaches us to be humble and thankful for all that we have been given. He further asks us to share, with an open heart, all that he has bestowed upon us. Further we are to do without expectation of praise or reward. That is a tough challenge for those of us who carry the sin of Adam.

If we pledge to be people of prayer, we can strive to attain the mindset necessary to be such a person. We are given help to get there through the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, that dwells in us.


And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

~~~John 14:16&17


Prayer

Lord, Grant me the courage and wisdom to seek the guidance of your Spirit that you have planted in me. As I come to rely upon the Spirit, I will have the ability to do in secret the works and prayer that are a part of my journey. Then, I will have the faith to know that the rewards you have given in secret are by far the greatest of all. Come, Holy Spirit.

Amen

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God and Visions

Some brothers came to find Abba Anthony to tell him about the visions they were having, and to find out from him if they were true or if they came from the demons. They had a donkey which died on the way. When they reached the place where the old man was, he said to them before they could ask him anything, “How was it that the little donkey died on the way here?” They said, “How do you know about that, Father?” And he told them, “The demons showed me what happened.” So they said, “That was what we came to question you about, for fear we were being deceived, for we have visions which often turn out to be true.” Thus the old man convinced them, by the example of the donkey, that their visions came from the demons.

—-Anthony of the Desert


I would be the first to admit that the monks of the desert left us some very fantastic and unbelievable stories if we took them as literal truth. The Desert Fathers, like Jesus, had sayings that fall into the same category as parables, and this is one of them. The parable belongs to Jesus, but the myth belongs to all of us. The Oxford dictionary tells us that a myth is a traditional story, either wholly or partially fictitious, providing explanation or embodying a popular idea concerning some natural or social phenomenon or some religious belief. These stories are mainly a collection of myths that illustrate the life and beliefs of the men who withdrew from society to better serve God and their fellow human beings. With that in mind let me make some observations about the Dead Donkey.

We cannot help but be fascinated when someone proclaims that they have had a vision about you or someone you love. These visions drive us toward this person. We will give money, spend timeTarot Reader and fight for the credibility of this person. They have, after all, opened a new vista of life to us. Our world is crowded with these sorts of folks that pander their livelihood from others by using fear and excitement. It seems harmless on face value. Who among us is not fascinated by the Tarot readers, palm readers and other super naturals that we see in the French Quarter of New Orleans or any other tourist destination?

At the heart of the saying was the nature and origin of any vision. The brother who came to the Abbot had two questions. Were these visions true and were the coming from evil sources? Anthony answered their question by telling them they he knew that their donkey died during their journey. The brothers knew that there was no earthly explanation that would explain how Anthony knew this event of their journey. Fascinated, they ask him how he knew about the calamity. He answered them quickly and bluntly – “The demons told me what happened.” What does this tell us about the nature of visions and why people seek them?

God did not create us to have supernatural visions, he created us to love Him, care for the Carpe Diemearth and live each day to the fullest. People who seek to have such visions about the affairs of others or the future are really trying to be gods. That is the ultimate evil. As I see it this desire is the real SIN of humankind; it is idolatry to want to know and see things that only God can see and know. There was an exceedingly popular saying a few years ago, “Carpe Diem,” which is Latin for seize the day. That is what God created us to do this day and every day.

Let us put behind the ideas that we can be as God is and validate the idea that we are the fulfillment of God’s plan. We get up everyday to be a part of his creation, and we live our lives knowing who he is and what he desires for us. Anything more than that is trying to take his place.


PRAYER

LORD, In these difficult dark days, we sometimes seek a power that is not ours. In seeking that power, we search in places that we were never meant to go. Help us to keep our eyes fixed on you and your grace and your blessings that you give us every day. It is because of those things that we can live no matter how difficult the day. Lord, guide us through this day and through these times with you at our side.

Amen

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The Internal Desert

When St. Anthony entered to the internal desert, the demons watched him dauntingly, saying, “O You young of age and mind, how did you dare to enter our territory, as we have never seen a human before you.” And they all started to fight him. He said to them, “O strong ones, what do you want from me, the weak; And who am I so that you all gather to fight me. Don’t you know that I am ashes and dust, and unable to fight the smallest in you.” And he lay on the ground, shouting to God, “O God, help me, and strengthen my weakness. Have mercy on me, as I sought after you. Do not leave me; and do not let those who think that I am something overcome me. O God, You know that I am unable to fight the smallest of these.” When the demons heard this prayer full of life and humility they fled away, and did not dare to approach to him.

—Sayings of Anthony of the Desert


There is hardly one among us who would not like to escape a, place, problem or Anthony-Saying-6-27-18person that seems to bring out the worst in us. The early Christian monks left the responsibilities, and perhaps liabilities, of living in the world and sought blessing in the remoteness of the desert. Escape from a place was only the beginning of the pilgrimage.

After Anthony had sold all that he had and escaped to the solitude of the desert, he found a new desert to conquer. That was what he called the internal desert. We can escape people, places, and things but eventually, we have to deal with ourselves. We must not deal with our utter hopelesInternal-Desertsness without God ‘s grace. The evil presence in the monk challenged him by saying that he could never defeat them. Anthony knew that this was so true. He did, however, know how to accomplish this victory. He prayed “strengthen me in my weakness.” With that prayer, the monk admitted that he was unable to overcome the evil that beset him but needed to acknowledge the dryness of his own spirit. He cried out for God to help him fight even the smallest of foes. The wonderful thing is that when he prayed this prayer of weakness, he found the relief that he sought. He moved into the “internal desert” which allowed him to rely upon God for his needs. As followers of Jesus, we must reach this internal desert reality. How can we know we are on the path to the internal desert?

  • The Jesus follower who reaches the internal desert admits fragility.
  • The Jesus follower who reaches the internal desert puts aside accomplishment.
  • The Jesus follower who reaches the internal desert admits sin.
  • The Jesus follower who reaches the internal desert speaks to God.
  • The Jesus follower who reaches the internal desert knows the difference between suffering and abandonment.
  • The Jesus follower who reaches the internal desert knows the devil is real.

Let us strive to make this journey to our internal desert and never forget –

LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER.


PRAYER

Lord, as I journey to the desert of my heart help me to see the things that hold me back May I learn to recognize weakness and know that is in my weakness that God is strong.

AMEN

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Diversity of Work

Once St. Anthony was asked, “What good work shall I do?” And he answered. “All works are not equal, the scriptures said that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. And, Elijah loved quiet, and God was with him. And, David was humble, and God was with him. What therefore you find that your soul desires in following God, that do, and keep your heart.”

—-Abba Anthony of the Desert

All followers of Jesus feel the need to work to achieve the tenants that Jesus revealed. Many times, we ask ourselves the nagging question – Where do I fit? Often we come to the conclusion that our work is not good enough. May-23-post-1We all search for that “work” that all Jesus followers must do. Many of us were trained from a very early age that we must discover the “way” to follow Jesus and be a part of his work. The Abba tell us that there is not just one work but many works that meet that goal.

 

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:28

The monk and the apostle Paul tell us that God has given us what we need. Anthony pointed to three very well known epic biblical characters and the diversity of the work they performed. In doing so, he quickly says that God was with them all. He used the hospitality of Abraham, the silence of Elijah and the Abba-Anthony-May-23humility of David to accomplish the work of the God. They were all different, maybe radically so, but  God was with them. He created them and He used them. Paul in his Corinthian letter sets forth the concept of gifts for ministry. The message is, not all ministry is the same. We are designed by God and equipted by him.

Paul strongly points out to a very diverse and sometimes very divided church at Corinth that there is a place for all. Even more importantly, there is not a superior way of serving God. We are all equipped to be up to the task. The key is for us to embrace ourselves as God has equipped us and serve as we are gifted. Perhaps just as important is to relish in the way God has created us.

God has blessed you just as you are created. Please don’t allow the world to convince you that you have nothing to offer, or that your gift is not worth sharing. God is the one who determines such things. There are many people in the church and outside of the church that will be more than happy to devalue you so that you will not even try to offer your service.


Prayer

Lord, I know that you have created me as a person of great value. Let me discover that I have something to offer and my offering will be blessed by God.

Amen

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Virtue

Many desire virtue, but fear to go forward in the way that leads to it, while others consider that virtue does not even exist. So it is necessary to persuade the former to give up their laziness and to teach the others what virtue really is.

—-Abba Isadore of the Desert

Virtue-Ghandi

Virtue is behavior, particularly moral, that conforms to a very high standard. Today’s Christian, just like the desert monastics of the past, seek to live a life of high standards. Today’s world gives mixed signals about what this world should look like. On the one hand, we preach freedom of expression without any limits. Others would tell us that we must exercise restraint in all our relationships and dealings with others. I believe that in order to reach the highest standards that are possible for a man who lives on this earth, we must believe that God’s grace guides us every day.

The wise Monk advises us that there are many around us that do not believe that there is any such thing as exemplary Virtue-1behavior. With that negative approach, we are destined for failure. We must take the high ground, so to speak, and allow ourselves to be open to the wonderful reality that God can and does make virtue possible for each of us. Let us not live in the state of discouragement, defeat, and despair. The Apostle Paul in his writings tells us to “press on to the mark.” Abba Isadore gives us some sound advice and a mission.

The Abba tells us that our role is to persuade others that marching on to a life of higher standards is not only possible but doable. Let me tell you a story about virtue. There was once a man who felt very defeated. He felt that God had abandoned him and indeed the entire world seem to be against him. That is really a bad place to be, so he prayed and prayed but seemed to get no results. Through fate, he found himself in the presence of a young boy possessing the virtue that only a child can have. He was encouraged by the young boy who told him that life was good and there was hope and this changed his life. That boy, without knowing it, modeled virtue to this man who was discouraged and defeated. The man began to think, if he could do it, we can all do it. We can achieve through God virtue and excellence and move on with our lives.

Our calling is not only to live with high standards and virtue but to persuade others that God wants them to live in the same way. I am not talking about being self-righteous but just being a person who expresses the love of God and the purity of God in every way possible. That’s our challenge and mission to show God to other people and to do so absent of self-righteousness. If we can achieve that, then others will see the virtue of God in us and strive to make it so for themselves.


Prayer

Oh Lord, give me the determination to muster up all the strength in my being and discover that virtue does exist. I cannot, on my own, live life up to such a standard but with you, I can reach that high goal. Help me not only to reach it but to have the courage and determination to share that discovery with others.

Amen

Virtue-1-31-18

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The Contemplative Harvest

Eckhart-1-10-18

For over a decade I have sought to establish a life as a contemplative in a very busy world. The first inclination for anyone who strives to live a contemplative life is to withdraw. My study of the desert mothers and fathers reveals that the overwhelming majority of them were hermits. Does that mean that we have to become hermits to be contemplatives? Is it possible for us to become hermits? Is it really necessary to become hermits? Most importantly, is it right to become a hermit? How then can we become contemplatives in the world in which we live? Let unpack those ideas.

Do we have to become hermits to be contemplatives? The initial evidence would certainly point us in that direction. Not only the desert monastics, but Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross and many other well-known contemplatives were hermits. Many of the modern contemplatives we study like Richard Rhorr, Thomas Merton and others have spent extended periods of time each year living as hermits. Almost to a person, these contemplatives would say that being a hermit is not a prerequisite for being a contemplative. Being a contemplative involves developing a lifestyle that allows us to be quiet and alone wherever we may find ourselves. The outer noise does not negate the inner silence. We can develop a contemplative state of mind regardless of our circumstances.

I would also venture to say that it is impossible for the overwhelming majority of people who read these words to even consider being a hermit. For most of us, it is impossible to spend 40 days living in the solitude of a hermitage. We have responsibilities and obligations that are very important that we must keep. God would not want us to abandon our families, jobs, and churches to live an isolated lifestyle. For many of us that would consider life as a hermit, it would not be a calling but an escape or maybe even an abandonment of our responsibilities. I cannot see any real evidence that God says that the only truly set apart contemplatives are living in a hermitage somewhere at the edge of the world. As a matter of fact, such a life would be the wrong thing for most of us to pursue.

I like the concept presented by Eckhart that contemplation is that soil that brings forth the harvest. As Christians, we are told by Jesus that we are the light of the world and we know that without light there is no life. Our Lord further tells us we are the salt of the earth and our presence both preserves and flavors the world. The harvest of the contemplative is to make a difference.

Let me make a few suggestions that might allow us to be contemplatives and people of action.

My contemplation journey has been greatly influenced by some key elements. They are:

  • Reading

My slow, attentive, mindful reading helped me make a profound connection with the words of the Desert Monks, Merton, Julian of Norwich and others. This mindful reading allows me to hear and cherish each word.

  • Writing

Several years ago I began to write my thoughts on this blog and other places. Since then, writing has become a practice that relaxes me and enables me to express those feeling that God has presented to me.

  • Solitude

I found solitude to be an essential prerequisite to any contemplative period. Time alone in silence, even in a not so quiet place, became a respite for me away from the busy life I am leading. Solitude for me is being able to shut out the noise that surrounds me and be at one with myself. I found it relaxing, calming, and most of all, healing.

  • Detoxing from the media

One thing I find necessary is that I must take some time each week when I don’t keep up with the 24/7 news. It may be a morning or evening when I read or write with no interference. These media fasts allow me to be more positive and responsive to the needs around me.

  • Retreats

To deepen the contemplative process I make it a practice to go on retreat at least once a year. This is a good opportunity to get away from everything and spend some time in surroundings that are more conducive to opening up richer thought processes. Even when it is just a long walk in the park, I have managed to mentally reach a better place.

  • Meditation practice

A time of pure silent meditation is a very important practice for the contemplative. The practice of Contemplative Prayer is a deep well of spiritual refreshment.

  • Work

The monks of the desert advocated the concept of work and prayer. I have found that physical labor and practicing creative arts are avenues to the contemplative life. Whether I am working on a woodcraft project or restoring a rusted old tool, I am in communication with God. My work practices are some of my richest times of contemplation.

Contemplation can reap a rich harvest that creeps up slowly, unannounced and unexpected and brings such blessed peace.

Solitude


PRAYER

Lord help me to plant the seeds of contemplation that will bring the abundant spiritual harvest.

Amen

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Silence and Focus

Abba John the Dwarf was very fervent. Now someone who came to see him praised his work, and he remained silent, for he was weaving a rope. One again the visitor began to speak and once again he kept silence. The third time he said to the visitor, ‘Since you came here, you have driven away God from me.’

—– sayings of the desert

Prayer and closeness to God is important to all believers. We have been taught Silent Prayerfor centuries that silence is a very vital avenue to a close relationship to our Creator. Today we exist in a world of clutter, noise and interruptions. The men and women who went to the desert felt very much the same about their world. Their journey was to escape those distractions to have a deeper and closer relationship with God. People who don’t observe silence have a difficult time understanding and respecting those who do. This saying deals with that issue.

Abba John the Dwarf was focused in his work and prayer, the calling of a monk.(a Christian) The well-meaning visitor seemingly wanted to engage the monk through his compliment. He apparently had no sense that the way to truly engage the Abba was to join in his work and silence. In that apparent void was the presence of God. The continual “noise” drove God away. Through our conversation, our constant chatter, we crowd out the presence of God. Our challenge is simple. We must give God space in our lives. Don’t insist that God comes on your terms but rather take time to be silent enough for Him to sit beside you.

Prayer

Lord help me learn this lesson from the desert. Silence my lips and let me feel your presence. In my silence you fill the void instead of me filling my life so full that it crowds you out. Amen

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Sins Run Out

leaking_bucket_RBK01026_edited-1A brother in 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 him, saying, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you”. So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, “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. 

—-sayings of the desert

I do not believe that comments are necessary on this story. Let me offer this prayer.

Lord help me to understand the nature of the grace that you offer to me. May I not waste my time trying to figure out other people’s sin and faults but know that their forgiveness is already been secured. Let me offer my forgiveness in the same manner as You.  Amen

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