Poemen said about John the Short that he asked the Lord to take away his passions. So his heart was at rest, and he went to a hermit and said, ‘I find that I am at peace, with no war between flesh and spirit.’ The hermit said to him, ‘Go and ask the Lord to stir up a new war in you. Fighting is good for the soul.’
Usually this blog follows the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark in tandem. Today it takes a rest and presents just two stories about the desert fathers and mothers. These come froma rich tradition dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries and the Egyptian desert.
The first is printed above. It reminds me of the story of a Zen master who had been served for years by a woman from a nearby village who brought him food. She fell in love with him and suggested they might make love. He said that no sap was to be found in such a withered branch as himself. At this she became furious and said she would serve him no more, ‘I thought I was tending a flame of holiness but now I see it’s merely ashes.’ The fact that he wasn’t even tempted invalidated his celibacy.
Poemen’s story of John the Short has a robust wisdom. Giving up our troublesome humanity is not the gospel way. We do not fit ourselves for heaven by disabling ourselves for the earth. Rather we are to enjoy our humanity as given by God, fighting against the impulse to evil, by faith and discipline. We may have to cut off our hands but we must not deaden our souls. Faith pitches us into the arena not the terracing.
The second story is this:
In Scete once a brother was found guilty of a sin. The other brothers were called to pass judgement on him but AAbba Moses refused to come. They sent to him again saying, ‘The assembly of monks is waiting for you.’ Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said, ‘What does this mean, abba?’ He said, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’ They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.
I should remember this story every time I get into a pulpit or a fit of self-righteousness.
These great stories are a treasure house of wisdom and can be found in:
The Desert Fathers, by Benedicta Ward published by Penguin