This week three brief sayings from the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, on the devotion to the life in Christ and the extent of true prayer which it enables.
The first two sayings are drawn from perhaps a little known Father of the Desert, Abba Elias. In its saying number 3, we have the following, recorded in The Alphabetical Collection of The Sayings of the Desert:
Abba Elias the minister said “What can sin do where there is penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?”
There is a two-fold aspect to this brief saying by Abba Elias. On the one hand, “What use is love where there is pride?” Love is an easy thing to feign and easy thing to make up and show and in display, but love is fundamentally an act of self-sacrifice. How can there be true sacrifice of the self in a heart that is infected with pride, fundamentally the love of self?
So in this brief sentence, really in only half the sentence, Abba Elias gives the lie to the notion that a prideful heart shows forth love truly. If we are to love our neighbor, to love the other authentically—which is the charge of every Christian—we must begin by cutting down the pride which separates us from true love.
This calls to mind what is probably the most famous saying by our Father, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved.” Without the true peace, the true humility of the Spirit of God, love cannot flow forth in the fullness God requires.
But in that initial saying by Abba Elias, we also have the great hope, which is the other side of that observation: “What can sin do where there is true penitence?” Pride, yes, may remove from us the depth of a real love. We may not sacrifice self if we are bound up in self.
And yet, Abba Elias makes clear if there is true penitence sins loses its power. The sin which causes pride to well up in us is cut down at the very moment real penitence, real repentance, and our response to change comes to fruition in the human heart. Love will blossom where penitence is shown. In our humility, love will emerge. Sin which traps us away from all that God calls us to be. This very sin loses its potency in repentance before Christ.
What is important then is that we engage in a life of such a genuine and authentic repentance, the repentance which strips sin of its power, which enables us to combat pride, and to discover real love. This is the devotion to the life in Christ to which every human person is called.
And it is this which brings me to a second quotation or saying, by Abba Elias, recorded as the eighth and final of his sayings in The Alphabetical Collection of the Desert:
A brother who followed the life of stillness in the monastery of the cave of Abba Sabba came to Abba Elias and said to him, “Abba, give me a way of life.” The old man said to the brother, “In the days of our predecessors they took great care about these three virtues: poverty, obedience, and fasting. But among monks nowadays, avarice, self-confidence, and great greed have taken charge. Brother, choose whichever you want most.”
This remarkable little saying reveals a critical aspect to the spiritual life. The life in Christ is a life in exercise of the freedom that God bestows on every human creature. There are set before us the ways of life that God has provided, that have lived for centuries as authentic means of encountering God as Trinity. There are also the ways of death, the ways occasioned by our sin, our pride, our forgetfulness, our passions; ways equally known to us through centuries of examples in the spiritual struggle.
Abba Elias points out that in the past, dedication to virtue, to obedience, humility, poverty, fasting, those great virtues by which the Ladder of Paradise is climbed have been at the forefront of monastic attention and indeed at the forefront of all Christian attention.
And yet today, and it is always today, just as much in his day as now in our own—today these seem to have given sway to greed, lust for power, self-confidence, avarice. But we are creatures bound up in the freedom of God. And so says Abba Elias, “Choose whichever you want most.”
Is the desire of your heart above all else to follow avarice, greed, and pride? If so, follow this. See where it will lead you. The Church knows the outcome. But if you wish the ascent that leads to true life, in the resurrected Savior, that path is equally laid before you, says the great Abba.
Now it is your turn. Christ has given the means, given the ascetical road, by which His kingdom is obtainable by every human person. Sin has also reared its head. Now choose which you want most. Christ will never impose His life, nor His kingdom on a person who does not wish it. Human freedom is a created aspect of our being cherished by God and integral to salvation and all that is bound up in it.
Now choose what you want most. If such power is given to human freedom, the ability to follow one way of life or the other, the great hope which comes in the Christian life is that—simply by following the true path Christ has put before us, despite the fact that we will labor in it, struggle, and often fail in its realization—there is at its core the transforming presence of God himself.
The ascent to holiness is marked out by Christ’s presence, sanctifying and making holy the one who struggles in that journey. So while our freedom is an essential ingredient, in attaining to the spiritual life, and to true growth, it is Christ Himself, and the power of God, present in the Holy Spirit, which makes that ascent into something possible.
It is not simply just another act of our freedom and our human power. But when we struggle authentically in the Christian life, it is God, Himself, who works the struggle within us, transfiguring broken human reality into a thing alive in His own power.
This is the message of a third and final saying of the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers that I would like to present today. Unlike the previous two which were drawn from the sayings of Abba Elias, this comes from the sayings of Abba Joseph of Panephysis, and it is a saying to which I often find myself returning.
The subject of this particular saying is a certain Abba Lot, another great Father of the Desert, about whom a number of sayings are also collected—but here we see Abba Lot approaching Abba Joseph from saying number seven:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?”
Now I must interrupt the reading here to make a little note. The saying makes no indication that Abba Lot is incorrect, nor that he is despondent or in error. He, presumably, truly does pray. He truly does fast. He truly does meditate and keep the Office he has been given. He is not presented as someone who is whinging or whining, but someone who is accurately and honestly giving an account of the spiritual life as he is keeping it. The difficulty, the problem is not in what he says, but in his belief that this is the extent of such a life.
And it is precisely this on which Abba Joseph responds, returning now to the saying itself:
“What else,” Abba Lot says, “can I do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
The ultimate response to Abba Lot’s query is not to suggest other ways in which the spiritual life can be lived, other practices, other means. It is not, in fact, to say anything at all.
But it is for the elder monastic to stand in the presence of the younger, to reach his hands towards Heaven and to be visibly transfigured by the light of God. The life in Christ is a life permeated by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. Our freedom enables this life, and without our freedom—the freedom to follow Christ, rather than our own will, rather than our own sin—without this freedom, the life struggles and falters from its beginning.
But if in true humility, we follow Christ, we follow the life set before us by the Church, then what happens within us is not simply an intellectual transformation. It is not simply a collection of acts and activities, but is a real transfiguration, a real change into a holiness of life. This we see in the great illumined Saints—as Abba Joseph says, “If you would, you could become all flame.”
If we would, we too could attain to this transfiguration in our lives. What is required of us is precisely what is proclaimed by Abba Elias and Abba Joseph, that turning of the will, that desire to follow Christ, to choose the better lot that is set before us, and in this life, this freely lived obedience to God, the transformation of our person, the transformation of our sin, the transformation of all the cosmos.
Through the prayers of our Fathers among the Saints, Elias and Joseph, and all the Saints, O Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us. Amen.