A brother committed a fault. A council was called to which 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 sack, filled it with sand and cut a small hole at the bottom and carried it on his shoulders. The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, father” The Abba 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.
—–Abba Moses of the Desert
If I were to say that we live in a judgmental world, it would be a surprise to no one. We are surrounded by people who make judgments on everything from the call of a referee at last Sunday’s football game to the right of someone to call themselves an American. People very neatly set up boundaries that give them permission to judge, and we just love being in the seat of judgment. From that seat we are a notch above everyone else, and it sure feels good. Jesus said: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Abba Moses took the saying of Jesus very seriously. He was so mindful of his own sin that he knew he couldn’t possibly sit in judgment of another. His lesson of the sack with the hole in it drives home an important point. We don’t see our own sins very clearly, how can we clearly see the sins of others? Our lives consist of a series of successes and failures that make up our journey towards God. Just as the monk didn’t see that going to a meeting of judgment was appropriate, we need to begin to get a glimpse of what is the true calling of the Christ follower. Our present age conditions us to see ourselves as far more the judges of the world rather than the light of the world.
The symbol of the leaky sack is to remind us that sins are not always seen by those who commit them and our sin is never far away from us. We do leave a trail of sin in our daily walk. That trail, however, is covered by grace that come from God’s love for us. We, in turn, need to understand grace so that we might fully receive such a gift and pass it on to others. That is the lesson of the leaking sack.
Oh Lord, why does the wisdom of forgiveness escape us so readily? It seems so very difficult to empty ourselves of the baggage we carry. This baggage blinds us from the reality of our own weaknesses and frailty and drives us to a life of false righteousness. Help me, Lord, to tend to my own sin and allow me to live into a peace with You and my fellow sinners.
Someone asked Abba Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” The old man replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”
—–Antony of Egypt
This statement begs the question, how do we always have God before our eyes? God is before our eyes when we worship and pray. The monk is telling us that our lives should be bathed in worship and prayer. In these practices we can find the face and heart of God.
The Psalmist writes, children sing -“the Bible is a lamp unto my and a light unto my path.” The monk advises that this simple instruction is one of the keys to pleasing God. Today’s world seems to have neither light nor path. Antony steers us to the lighted path of Holy Scripture.
Monks call this one stability. Our transient, temporary society is floundering for lack of stability. Marriages crumble, jobs are abandoned, work goes unfinished, all because we are not willing to commit ourselves to being in for the long haul. Pleasing God requires that we develop stay power – the type that settles us in long enough to walk through the valley that precedes the mountain.
The words of this monk of old can take us a long way today.
Lord help me to know how to live this day. May I have the unction to keep you before my eyes in the midst of the many distractions of this life. Help me to look to the scriptures when confusion and disarray come my way. Let your scriptural light- light my way. Allow me to find peace in the place that you have provided for me. In finding that peace, I then can become a blessing to others.
There are certain kinds of trees which never bear any fruit as long as their branches stay up straight, but if stones are hung on the branches to bend them down they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul. When it is humbled it begins to bear fruit, and the more fruit it bears the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints; the nearer they get to God, the more they see themselves as sinners.
—–Dorotheos of Gaza
Paul called himself the chief, or first, of sinners. Isaiah said, “We are all sheep that have rebelled, and gone our own way, and God has laid our sin upon the shoulders of the messiah.” (My paraphrase) When we can come to grips with these three factors: we are all primarily sinners, we will go our way and Jesus took ours sins upon himself, we will begin the process of becoming humble. Without the humbling of our souls, we will never do the true work of God. On our own we can become legally righteous and live a “punch list” sort of Christianity, but the spirit of the ONE who went to the cross for us will never be the pervasive force in our lives.
A great deal of energy is expended to avoid pain and difficulty in our lives. We shield our children and consequently ourselves from the reality of the world that surrounds us. These activities in and of themselves are not harmful or sinful. They can, however,r lead to a false sense of accomplishment and safety that does not challenge us to meet the powers of this world and find the victory that comes when we do. We are given battles, our souls are weighed down, our branches are pruned, but all of these things make us stronger in our reliance in God. Most importantly, we are reminded that we are fatally flawed without our reliance on Him.
Coming nearer to God, as the monk says, is a matter of acknowledging our sins and living with them and not being controlled by them. We will never know the true power of God until we recognize our weaknesses. If we are to bear fruit in this life we must don the garment of humility that weighs down the arms of self-sufficiency that so naturally dominate us. Such an action will bring humility to our souls and spiritual productivity to our lives.
Lord, give me the wisdom to know the need and marshal the courage to accept the garment of humility that my sinful soul so badly needs. By accepting the garment, I am allowing you to lead me in the direction of spiritual humility which blesses me and those I encounter. Lord, this day I ask my arms to be drawn down by confession of my sins, so I might be lifted by your grace.
Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this; ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’
–Sayings of the desert
There is not one among us who does not long for the day when all of our trials and tribulations will be behind us. We spend great amounts of time and effort to build for ourselves perfect utopian lives and somehow we always fall short. The monk thought that if he could just overcome his passions, then life would be grand. Much to his, surprise his elder monk told him that his quest was not the ultimate goal of the Christian journey. Without temptation the soul makes no progress. Temptations are the building blocks of spiritual fortitude. They are the spiritual formation tools of God.
Paul tells us in his Corinthian letter: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” The assertion is that in the midst of our greatest trials we can rely upon God to strengthen us. If we take on this way of thinking, we need not fear being left to our own devices or becoming overconfident in our own victories. Our strength, our power, come from God who is always with us no matter what we face. The divine escape window is our greatest hope.
When the monk said that he was at peace without an enemy, he faced the danger of being presumptive upon God. With such a presumption we could perhaps begin to think that we have arrived. People who have arrived no longer need help on the journey. The Christian journey is one of learning, endurance, and always striving for new and better ways to follow God. Our passions, our trials, our setbacks, are all part of the glorification process. Learn to pray the prayer of escape rather than the prayer of perfection and you will draw closer to perfection each day.
Lord it is very tempting to ask you to remove all obstacles from our lives and then fool ourselves to think that we are doing much for you. Remind us that in our endurance we learn who you are and what you do for us. Teach us today that trials are a normal part of the journey. They are special points that bring us closer to you. In our trails we learn what Jesus endured for us. Protect us this day and give us the window of escape.
- Prayer (instrument-rated-theology.com)
- Prayer Places (discoveringandsharinggrace.com)
It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am John, your brother.’ But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying. ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him, saying, ‘Forgive me.’
——Abba John the Dwarf
If you think that you can never be totally angelic while you are still living and breathing, you are undoubtedly right. Living as one who is free from the cares of the world does not mean neglecting the duties of this life. John got the crazy idea that he could live as an angel and informed his brother and went off to follow that path. The idea failed! He returned and wanted back in immediately. The brother was not so anxious to receive him, because he knew the concept of being angelic came from his own ego and not from God.
We should be ever aware that we all have feet of clay who are put on this earth as stewards of God’s gifts, and we should never take it upon ourselves to be more that God has created us to be. Work, our work, God’s work is our responsibility. Not one among us can say that we have never dreamed ourselves out of the toil of human existence but we are awakened soon to the world in which we live. We, like John, need to experience, that awakening and ask for forgiveness when we come to such a crossroad of life.
Heavenly bliss is saved for heaven.
Lord help me to keep my focus on you while I toil though the tasks of this life. Keep me free from the temptation of the evil that leads to rejection of your plan for me. Cover my sins with your grace and fill my heart with the joy that comes from knowing you.
It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His Abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.’ Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’
—-Sayings of the Desert
On face value this saying seems a little farfetched. Most of us who live in the 21st century want things to be logical and reasonable. The very idea of watering a dead stick daily for three years and having to travel a huge distance every day to get the water is beyond belief. Here’s the point, -if the story is a fable, it points us to a miracle wrought by obedience. If it’s true it still reveals a miracle that is wrought by obedience. John’s mentor calls it the “fruit of obedience.”
We are all called to obedience to the tasks that we are given. Most of us fight the very idea of being obedient to anything. After all, we live in a very freedom loving world and none of us wants to give up any of that freedom -not even for God. We give up our freedom for the gift of marriage and other relationships in our lives, so why not make one of those relationships with God and His church. Just as Abba John found the great blessing that awaited at the end of his road of obedience, we will find our reward only if we are set to the task.
In what way is God calling YOU today?
Lord give me the insight to recognize the things that I am called to do. Lord give me the humility to put self aside to perform tasks that sometimes seem unimportant to me. In doing so you help me to find the greater blessing that comes in the form of the fruit of obedience. Amen
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.’
—Abba John the Dwarf
Prayer and closeness to God is important to all believers. We have been taught for centuries that silence is a very good 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 . Their journey was to escape those things 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. Work and prayer are the heart of the monk’s calling. The well-meaning visitor simply wanted to engage the monk through his compliment. He had no sense of the way of truly engaging 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, 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.
Lord help me earn 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 is crowds you out. Amen
A Brother said to Abba Mateos, ‘Give me a word.’ He said to him, ‘ restrain the spirit of controversy in yourself, in everything, and weep, have compunction, for the time is drawing near.’
—-Abba Mateos of the Desert
The wise Abba tells us to refrain from controversy. Our world is wrought with controversy, because it appears as though we thrive on our divisions. Governments, families, and churches all seem to have a great need to live in a state of conflict. Many people think that this postmodern world is the cause of this state of affairs, but here we see this man of the desert approaching this subject fourteen hundred years ago. He describes controversy as a “spirit,” which says to me that it is a real driving force that wraps itself around us and produces negative results.
Abba Mateos’ advice to his fellow monks, and to us, is for us to have compunction. Which means we have a guilty conscience.We must allow our moral compasses to guide us in the situations that are given to us. Ultimately, it is our choice how we react to any event, statement or accusation. The challenge is to act as though the time to face our God was near. Mateos calls us to be in peace with those that disagree and hold to other beliefs. The compunction, moral code, of the Christian is to have a spirit of harmony. Just as Christ reconciled the world by suffering the cross we, as His followers, are called to stay away from controversy and to embrace His love. Let us strive to develop a spirit of compunction instead of a spirit of controversy.
Lord help me this day, and all the days that you give me, to be a person of peace. Let the Spirit that dwells in me guide my action to be your actions. Block out the temptations that lead me to become arrogant and mean, and to assume that my way is better than your way. I commit myself to live as though you were watching my every move.
Abba Sisoes says: Seek God, not where God lives.
It is one thing to make a pilgrimage to the desert to find God. It is entirely another to be open to finding God where we are.
Then we become what the challenge of the moment summons us to be. Then Abba Sisoes’ word of spiritual advice—to seek God and not simply the trappings of the spiritual life—becomes real, becomes true.
Life is not an exercise in spiritual gymnastics. It is one long, unending attempt to put on the mind of God wherever we are, whatever happens to us on the way. We are not here to pray our way out of life’s challenges. We are here to grow through every one of them into spiritual adulthood.
The shrines and special prayers and holy pilgrimages along the way are spiritual oases meant to build our strength for the rest of the way. They are not God; they are simply signs that the God who made us is with us. It is that relationship that counts far beyond any particular devotion.
Abba Sisoes held the secret of the really spiritual life. However faithfully we have cultivated a favorite devotion, he warns us, we are not to allow ourselves to be beguiled by any of them. Each and all of them have only one purpose. They are meant simply to point in the direction of the consciousness of God at all times and in all places.
Abba Poeman asked him weeping, ‘Give me a word that I may be saved.’ But the old man replied, ‘What you are looking for has disappeared now from among monks.’
— Abba Macarius the Great
Sometimes it can be stunning how many things have disappeared from a church or a culture. As a United Methodist I am keenly aware of my church’s decline over the past 40 years. The decline has been steady and damaging. The recent Pew Study finds: “The decline of Christians in the U.S. has corresponded with the continued rise in the share of Americans with no religious affiliation (religious “nones”).” Upon hearing this news many that are predicted the fall of Christianity in America. We Americans are so short sited that we assume that such a time of decline has never happened before. Do not misunderstand, American Christianity has some deep wounds.
I am always astounded at the “back door” messages that I receive from my study of the fathers and mystics. Abba Poeman goes to the great monk and seeks a word of salvation, and the great monk says that such words have disappeared from the community. I can just imagine the discussion about the good old days and how they wish to return to that wonderful time during the social hour of the monastery. Additionally, I hear the cry that monastery will soon have to shut its doors because of a multitude of troubles.
Hard times are not exclusive to our era; they have plagued the church throughout its existence. The answer for such woes is always the same, ”work and pray.” Those of us who believe that God will be faithful are compelled to do the work of the church as if we believe He is faithful. We must never neglect our prayer and even ramp up our prayers in this time of need. In taking these simple steps, we have opened the way for God to give us understanding and maybe growth.
- To the Holy Mountain (christianitytoday.com)