Learning from the Fathers: Abba Makarios the Great

They said of Abba Macarius [the Great] the Egyptian that one day he went up from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria. As he approached the place he told his disciple to go on ahead.

When the latter had gone on ahead, he met a priest of the pagans. The disciple shouted after him saying, “Oh, oh, devil, where are you off to?” The priest turned back and beat him and left him half dead. Then picking up his stick, he fled. When had had gone a little further, Abba Macarius met him running and said to him, “Greetings! Greetings, you weary man!”
Quite astonished the pagan priest came up to him and said, “What good do you see in me that you greet me in this way?”
The old man said to him, “I have seen you wearing yourself out without knowing that you are wearing yourself out in vain.”
The other said to him, “I have been touched by your greeting and I realize that you are on God’s side. But another wicked monk who met me insulted me and I have given blows enough for him to die of them.” AbbaMacarius realized that the priest was referring to his disciple. Then the priest fell at his feet and said, “I will not let you go till you have made me a monk.”
When they came to the place where the brother was, they put him onto their shoulders and carried him to the church in the mountain. When the people saw the priest with Macarius they were astonished and they made him a monk. Through him many pagans became Christians. So AbbaMacarius said, “One evil word makes even the good [become] evil, while one good word makes even the evil [become] good.”

Learning from the Fathers: Avva Ammonas

Abba Anthony once prophesied to Abba Ammonas: “You have the capacity to make progress in acquiring the fear of God.” St. Anthony led Ammonas outside his cell and, showing him a stone, said: “Insult this stone and beat it.” Abba Ammonas did as he was told, without receiving any response or complaint from the stone. Abba Anthony said to him: “You are going to attain to the same measure of dispassion as this stone.” And this is what happened. Abba Ammonas advanced to such a degree of forbearance and goodness that he became completely oblivious to the existence of evil. Indeed, after he had become a Bishop, some people brought before him a certain virgin who had been deflowered and had become pregnant, along with the man who had debauched her, and said to the Bishop: “Your Eminence, impose a penance on them.” But he, making the sign of the Cross over the woman’s womb, ordered that she be given six pairs of sheets, saying: “Lest, on the way to giving birth, she herself or her child should die and there be nothing in which to bury them.” Her denouncers, seeing his generosity, said to him: “Why have you done this? Give them a penance.” The Bishop replied to them: “You see, my brothers, that she is close to death; so what can I do?” And, saying this, the Elder let her go, not daring to judge her.

Learning from the Fathers: Avva Poemen

Abba Poimen said that when a person succeeds in grasping the saying of the Apostle, “unto the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), he sees himself as being lower than all God’s creatures. A brother who heard this said to him: “How can I reckon myself lower than a murderer?” The Elder replied: “If a person attains to the measure of this saying, such that he acquires purity, and sees a man engaging in murder, he will say: ‘He has committed only this one sin; but I commit murder daily.’” [see 1 John 3:15 – “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”]

“Our culture has wrongly equated loving everyone with approving everything”—why and how this saying is wrong

A dear friend sent me this meme that apparently does the rounds of Facebook these days (I am not on Facebook myself so I learned of it from him). He also pointed to the basic problem of this saying: “The word that stands out is ‘approving.‘ Who is doing the approving? A generic someone? Me? Hardly. If the hand that struck the Savior did not wither but rather He went all the way to death for that very person who struck him (who is me), it is clear that it’s not a matter of approving or not approving but rather it is a matter of God’s love for us, of Him who gives us complete and utter freedom such that He will not bruise our freedom in order to bring us to repentance.

Exactly! This saying is wrong because it lacks the proper language in which such things as right and wrong, virtue and sin, have to be expressed. The proper language is Christ, our life. And it seems to me that at the heart of that language is the way Christ sees us.
Allow me to put it bluntly: the essence of spiritual life is to see the world as Christ sees the world. This is what it ultimately means to be like God. And when Christ looks at the human being, He sees Himself. He sees right through our sinfulness, through this soot that dirties us, and sees what we truly are: icons of Him, dust formed into divine resemblance.
So, loving everyone? First, I doubt that this culture loves everyone. If it does anything resembling love, it is self-pleasing and self-aggrandizing, which paradoxically always hurts others. Today’s love for all is showing its hurtful nature. Approving everything? Our relation with each other should never be a matter of approval. It should be a matter of true, self-sacrificial love. It is only that which takes down the distances between us, as the Incarnation did. What I am trying to say is that even looking at someone with distance of any kind means not to see them truly, for what they truly are. Sin is one thing, and the human being another. When we see sin in someone we don’t see that person accurately, truly. We look at our fellow human being with distance, not the way Christ does. This is what we are after: to see people as Christ sees them. Selflessly, self-sacrificially, lovingly. Do we do that when we offer approval or our “love”? This is the ultimate question here!

Be Christ to the christs!

A few days ago, when traveling in the same car with some fellow Orthodox clergy, as our discussion was passing from topic to topic related to our experience of the parish life, one of them has praised strongly a priest who has antagonized a lot of his congregation and has even alienated many of them because he, said this brother, “wanted to make them Christians out of pagans.” I didn’t say anything then because I think he would not have received any words of mine irenically, but would have only been hurt by them. Since this observation of his happened quickly and in passing from topic to topic, even if he were to read this blog, he would not recognize that I am referring to him, so I think I can now speak my piece without hurting him.

The phrase this brother used in order to express the priest’s intransigence, “making Christians out of pagans,” is problematic in many ways. First and foremost, there is no meaning one can assign to “pagan”, except non-baptized, that would not also fit the intransigent priest in a certain way, and indeed all people, including myself. If by “pagan” (word which, I find, is rarely useful and is always offensive these days) he meant someone who doesn’t live out the life of the commandments, it is certainly the case that to different extents we are all “pagans.” If by it my brother meant “one who does not know one’s faith properly,” we are again all pagans. No one “knows faith,” because faith is not something one knows or practices. This take on faith rewrites the ancient word into the modern definition of assent to the right statements. These “right beliefs-statements” are these days no longer mere expressions of a spiritual life worked out in discipleship to a saint, life authenticated by the experience of my elder, but “right statements” have become written information submitted to my learned intellect which is now the arbiter of right and wrong.

But this glaring improper use of “pagan” is not even the greatest problem with my brother’s statement. The greater problem is the spiritual attitude it expresses. Now if faith is life, experience, my experience of Christ in my elder, in me, and in all others (in this particular order), the question of discipleship is not “how does one teach faith?,” but rather “how does one merge his life with that of others, just as my elder has merged his/her own life with mine?” In simple words, the “program” of pastorship is not one of learned teaching, but one of symbiosis. What we are called to do is become the presence of Christ to others just as our elders have embodied Christ to us. And herein lies the answer to my brother’s misjudgment: Christ does not do this trenchant refusal of others, because He sees the human being in ways radically different from our own. To put it in a few words, in all people He sees Himself. And if we look at all people in Christ, we see Him in all, not pagans.

And my brother’s attitude is how we can be wrong with the “truth” on our lips.

Translation matters: 2 Corinthians 12:9

We Orthodox read this verse yesterday in the Apostle reading. As I was listening to it in church it struck me how much that particular translation didn’t understand St. Paul’s point, put forth particularly by the power of his language. For the KJV the verse reads:

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Other English translations have for that final verb “dwell,” “live,” or even “work”! But the verb rather means “tabernacle.” A more accurate translation of this verse would be:

Therefore I will rather boast most gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ tabernacles upon me.

Given the history of the last verb, the language here is that of the temple. The apostle sees the temple replicated in himself, in the presence of Christ within him. And this is the power of the language! Now the meaning becomes clearer, anticipated itself by the expression “treasure in earthen vessels” used earlier in the epistle (2 Cor 4:7). Just as Christ tabernacled in the temple, He now tabernacles in our human weakness. If we want to find Him within ourselves, we need look no further than our brokenness, failures, illnesses, mortality, struggles, and ultimately our own death. Our brokenness is the temple of God in the world; this is where He is well pleased to dwell. And He wouldn’t have it any other way.