The Sayings of St. Anthony the Great
Fr. James Early · April 5, 2011
Fr. James takes a break from his usual format and discusses The Sayings of St. Anthony the Great, inspiration for our Lenten journey.
Father James Early: Welcome to our study. We have completed our series on the Epistle to the Philippians, and since it is Lent, I thought we would do something special, something a little different. I told you last time that I had a surprise planned for you. The surprise is that we are going to be looking at the sayings of St. Anthony the Great.
Of course, these are not scripture, so if there are any Protestants listening to this, we do not elevate the sayings of St. Anthony to the level of scripture. Having said that, though, they are very important. It is not that they are unimportant. St. Anthony is obviously one of the most holy men who has ever walked the face of the planet, and he knew a thing or two about the spiritual life, so I thought we would look at his sayings. They are very concise, they are pithy, they are short, sweet, and to the point, and they are very good. Father Thomas Hopko has said that, in his opinion, at least, other than the Bible, this is the most important thing that we can read for the spiritual life. If he could just take two books to a desert island he would take the Sayings of St. Anthony, and he would take the Bible, of course.
We are going to be reading from the version of the Sayings of St. Anthony from a collection called, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the alphabetical collection. This a book that, if you do not have, you need to get. There are many translations and many versions of the sayings of the desert fathers, but this is my favorite. It is by Benedicta Ward, who is a Roman Catholic nun, an English nun. They are in alphabetical order, so you not only get the saying of St. Anthony, but you get the sayings of St. Macarius, St. Arsenius, St. Poimen, a lot of the great desert fathers, and it doesn’t take a long time to find them because you just go in alphabetical order. If you want St. Poimen’s sayings, you go to the P section, so it makes sense, and Anthony is the first one.
St. Anthony has 38 sayings, and my totally, crazy, ridiculous, unrealistic goal is to do 19 today, and 19 next time, or at least some of the 19. Now, you all know better, that’s not going to happen. And I know it deep down, but I have to throw that out as a goal anyway. We probably will not talk about every single one, but we will look at most of them. It’s like reading the Proverbs. They are just really short, sweet, and to the point. That’s the kind of thing I like. I don’t like to read 500 pages of something when you could say it in one page. These are short.
I will not spend time talking about the biography of St. Anthony, although it would be a worthwhile endeavor, but I will not do it, just for the sake of time. St. Anthony, the Great, of course, was one of the earliest monastics in the history of the Church, and his biography is very inspirational, in and of itself. The most famous biography of St. Anthony was written by St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Anthony. That’s a great read.
St. Anthony was a wealthy man, who gave away his money to the poor, and he went into the desert. He wanted to be a hermit, and he was for a while, but people kept flocking to him, so he would move further away, and more people would just keep coming to him. He couldn’t escape them. He finally locked himself up for 15 or 20 years, I forget exactly how long. He was a total hermit. The only contact he had with other people was people just giving him food through the crack in the door.
During that time he struggled with demons, he struggled with temptations, he struggled with everything, and then he came out and he was radiant. He literally shone with the light of Christ and was a great spiritual father to many, many people. He is often called the father of modern monasticism. He was not the very first person to live a monastic lifestyle, but after him things really got moving.
I encourage you to buy the book. I think I got this for $12 or $13 from amazon.com and it is a wealth of spiritual knowledge, so many great fathers. We are just scratching the surface by looking at St. Anthony.
So without further adieu, let’s go ahead and look at the first one. St. Anthony may not have been able to write, himself, at all. He almost certainly could not read and write in Greek. He could certainly speak Coptic, which was his native language. He might have been able to speak Greek, I do not know, but probably somebody else translated these into Greek. This is an English translation of the Greek version. There is also a Coptic version, and there are some differences. I have not read the translation of the Coptic version, but the general consensus is, based on tradition and modern scholarship, that these are authentic. There are some other things that are attributed to him that he most certainly did not write.
Let’s look at number one:
When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert, he was beset by akēdeia and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts do not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterward, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this, and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this and was saved.
One of the main sources of our sins, one of the main reasons we sin, is because we are beset with what the fathers call thoughts. The Greek word is logismi. Some arise from within us and some come from without. Some are temptations of the demons. Everybody experiences these. They can be sometimes sinful. Sometimes they can be just horribly wicked. Sometimes they can be not necessarily sinful, but just pointless, or crazy, or stupid. For example, you are driving across a bridge, and all of a sudden something pops into your head and you think, “Gee, what would happen if I pulled over and crashed into the water?” A suicidal thought will occur.
I remember one time right after I graduated from college and I was about to go to work at a job that I really didn’t want to, but I kind of needed to because I had just gotten married and I had a child on the way, so I needed income. We got out of the graduation ceremony, and I was walking across this bridge across a major freeway in Austin and I thought, “You know, I think I’ll just throw myself over this bridge,” totally crazy, because I am not a depressed kind of person, I am not a suicidal person. I just stopped and I thought, “Where did that come from? What’s up with that?” Now I know. Now I understand it, because these kind of things, you don’t really read about if you are an Evangelical Protestant. You read about sinful thoughts and things like that, but you don’t read about the attacks coming from outside.
St. Anthony was attacked by these logismi, these many sinful thoughts, and he was beset by (and for all my Greek listeners, I apologize, I am probably not pronouncing this right) and the technical term is, akēdeia. What does that mean? The reason the author did not translate that into English is because it has many meanings in English. As you know, if you have done any study, which many of us have, the Greeks were very deep thinkers, and one Greek word often will contain several thoughts and several ideas, and you can translate it five different ways in English, at least. This word is used in the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. That is why when you go to a service in which that prayer is prayed, or if you just read different versions of it, different translations, there are different ways it is rendered into English. Sometimes this is rendered as futility, sometimes despair. Sometimes it is translated as sloth, or just laziness. You say, “O Lord and Master of my life, take away from me the spirit of sloth,” but sometimes it is despair, depending on who translated it. It is a very mixed up idea, but we have all experienced this, too.
The monks really struggle with this, especially around noon. Some of the fathers called it the noonday demon. After you have just eaten a meal, you are just kind of sluggish, and you start to think, “Oh, man, I am tired, I do not want to do my work,” and then that, in and of itself, makes you kind of down. You feel like, “Well, I am kind of upset about myself for being so lazy, and then I am upset at myself for being upset,” and it just builds upon itself. Have you had that happen? You beat up on yourself. The idea of sloth and the idea of despair are not far from each other, because unless you are a total lazy person, you do not like being lethargic, you want to be able to get up and do something, right?
Gary: I have had someone tell me that that is how the devil works, just pure and simple. The devil causes us to sin, and then the devil causes us to beat ourselves up because we do sin.
Father James: Right!
Gary: So then we are just in this spiral downward of sinfulness, and thinking there is no way out, because we are beating ourselves up. At some point we have to step away from beating ourselves up and say, “Okay, I am going to quit that now,” and confess, or do whatever it is, to get out of that cycle.
Father James: Exactly. St. Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind, pressing on toward what is ahead.” We just talked about that in Philippians a little while ago. Well stated. And he gets the solution right here. He gets tired of it, and he says, “Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts do not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction?” When he says saved, he could just mean delivered. “I want to be delivered from this. I want to move on. I want to get past it. How can I be saved?”
Then he had a vision. He went outside and he saw a man sitting at his work, getting up to pray, sitting down and plaiting a rope (that was one way that the monks made money, they made ropes), then getting up again to pray. The angel said, “Do this and you will be saved.” In other words, you will be delivered from this vicious cycle of, “Oh, I sinned, and now I am upset about sinning, and then I am upset that I am upset, and now I am sinning again,” and so on. “Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this and he was saved.”
The simple solution is, work and pray. Work and pray. The greatest things in life at the simplest things, don’t you think? The Christian life is really simple. Work and pray. Some of us tend to think that work is a bad thing. “Oh, man, I hate to work. If I could, I would just sit around and study.” Sometimes I think, you know, that I would study and I would become a great scholar, and I would write all these books. Of course, then the thought creeps in that people would think I was this great guy, and people would invite me to speak at their retreats, and I would just be this world-renowned speaker, and that is the devil, pure and simple.
But you know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” What if I didn’t have a job? Even if I could make money, I would get bored. God created us for work. It says in Genesis, before the fall, that God created a man and put him in the Garden to tend the garden. Not to sit around and think beautiful thoughts and write books. I don’t know if he could even write, but the point is, work is a God-created thing. It is part of our vocation, and even if we are not a “minister of the Church,” an ordained minister, we are all ministers. We are all ministers of Christ Jesus. We minister through our work, and there are many ways that we do this, and we could spend all day talking about this, but when we work, whatever God has put in our path to do, when we do that, and we do it well, we do it to the best of our ability, that is our ministry to God. At least, that is part of it. We are called to love the Lord our God, and to love others as ourselves, and part of loving others as ourselves, is doing the very best we can in our job. We work with integrity. We work with efficiency. We work with quality. We do our absolute best.
I listen to Dave Ramsey, the Financial Guy, on the radio all the time and he always says, “You know what? When you are at work, work!” There’s a radical idea. Wow. Amazing.
Working and praying are the two main things we are called to do as Christians. Yes, we are called to evangelize, we are called to minister to the poor and all that, but that is part of working. That is part of our prayers. Our prayer spills out into service for others. Service for others is working. When I say work, I don’t just mean your job. We do work in the church, as well. I just love the beauty and the simplicity of that. You could sum it up in three words: Work and pray.
Sometimes we can be caught up in this despair that we talked about, this akēdeia. In my secular job, I mean, there is no such thing as a secular job, but in my non-church job, a lot of the time I sit at a computer all day long, and I type numbers into a spread sheet. And I think, “Oh, this is boring.” But, of course, I do get to listen to some cool podcasts and audio books, so that helps.
But I still try to do the best I can, because I have to remind myself that these numbers I am typing in this spread sheet are read by principals and assistant principals and teachers, and these teachers are using that information to improve their teaching, and to help kids, so that kids can learn to read and write and do arithmetic, and all the other things they need to do, to give them a chance in life. Everything we do matters. All of our work matters. So let’s work and pray. It is as simple as that.
Let’s go to the second one:
When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor, and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper, and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself. These things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”
Isn’t that great? I love that. What is the point in questioning God? Yes, there is a lot of injustice in the world, and should we do what we can to fix that, to minimize that, to reduce it? Yes, of course, absolutely. But, we can sometimes get so caught up on this other group, or these other people, or this other country, or this other situation, that we can get mad at God, and lose our own salvation, or forfeit our own salvation. I don’t like the phrase, “Lose your salvation.” I prefer the phrase that we forfeit it, because we forget about our own souls, we forget about our own prayer lives, we forget about our own study of the scripture, our own relationship with God. That is what is first and foremost.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit,” but another translation, another version of the saying is, “Attend to yourself. Save your own soul and thousands around you will be saved.” Yes, we need to do what we can to help the world. Our young people right now are collecting hygiene kits for Japan, to help the people who suffered through the tsunami and the earthquake and that is a wonderful thing. Yes, we should do that. But we also need to not forget about our own selves, because Jesus said, “Let the light shine through you, and others will see your good works and praise your Father who is in heaven.”
We get so busy with other stuff outside of us that we neglect our own salvation. It is okay to wonder why these things happen. “Why are some people rich? Why are some poor? Why do some die young? Why do wonderful, beautiful people die young?” We have had to ask this question recently. Yet others live on forever, or seem to live on forever, (laughter) nobody lives for ever, of course. But again, those kinds of questions, if we take them too far, can lead us away from God, and we lose focus on our own salvation. Michael?
Michael: I have been doing the hygiene kits, and yes, we are called to go ahead and do the hygiene kits, but we are not called to spend endless times asking, “Why did the earthquake happen?” It is an opportunity for us, though, to obey, and to provide alms, but beyond that…
Father James: It is an opportunity for us to work out our own salvation. I am not going to say that is why it happened. The question is not why do these things happen, the question is: What are we going to do about it? We express our love for God, and for His created people, His humanity, by reacting to these situations in a positive way.
Father Tom Hopko says you should read through these at least once a month. That is a little ambitious, maybe, but I would at least read through them once a year. I have read through all 38 of them. I tested it. I sat down with a clock and I read through them, and I do not read fast. I am not the slowest reader in the world, I am an average reader, and it took me 15 minutes to read through all 38 sayings, fairly slowly, so you can do it, too.
The third one:
Someone asked Abba Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” (Good question. Very important question) 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.”
The first one is what the fathers in general, the desert fathers, and the other fathers, for example, in the Philokalia, call the remembrance of God. One of my favorite quotes from the Psalms is in Psalms 15 in the Septuagint when David says, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be moved.” I will not be shaken. Remember that God is there with us, God is watching us, God is sitting beside us, God is everywhere present and He fills all things.
It says in Psalm 139:7, “Where can I go to flee from your presence?” And the “long, poetic” answer is, basically: Nowhere. He takes 20 lines to say that, which is nice, I love poetry and everything, but the answer is: Nowhere. God is always there with us. God is there watching us, helping us, encouraging us, and if we keep that in mind, and act accordingly, we will be saved. I think if we really keep that in mind, we will act accordingly. If we are about to do something wrong and we realize God is right there watching us, even though we cannot see Him, then we are not going to do that thing, and it is also an encouragement to us. So always have God before your eyes.
The second one is obvious: “Whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.” Of course, in order to carry out that command, you need to know what the Holy Scriptures say. You need to read them, don’t you? I’m preaching to the choir, because everyone in here is a great biblical scholar, (laughter) or at least trying to be. Everyone in here loves the Bible and is reading it.
I remember when I took chemistry at University of Texas at Austin in my freshman year, the professor said, “Here’s your first assignment: #1: Buy book. #2: Read book.” (laughter) This is a 500-page chemistry book that if you dropped on your foot you would be out of commission. So, yes, buy the book. We all have the Bible so we can skip that step, but read the book. Then the third thing is: Do what book says. Anthony?
Anthony: It seems like in the messages that I have heard in the Orthodox communion, very rarely is there a message on reading the scriptures, but outside Orthodoxy there seems to be a stronger emphasis. I know in the liturgy we do read the scriptures often, but when I ask any Orthodox people, “Do you read the scriptures?” they say, “No, that is just not part of out practice,” or “We are not supposed to,” or something like that. Do you know why? Is it that in our altar messages, we don’t have as much of an emphasis?
Father James: Now I know what I am going to preach on next week. (laughter) Actually, I did give a sermon on this one time. I guess that are two answers to what you asked. Part of the reason it is not really preached on from the pulpit in the Orthodox parish, is because we stick to the lectionary. As a priest, I do not have the freedom just to say, “Well, I know the lectionary says St. John’s gospel and Ephesians, but I am going to preach on Genesis, or I am going to preach on a topic about scripture.” There is a passage in Romans 15 that comes up once a year about the scriptures, but we can work that into our sermons, yes, and I will see if I can work it into next week, which is on service.
Read Chrysostom, or if you read any of the fathers, even into the 19th century, the Russian fathers. You really got me riled up, you pushed my button there, so I feel a sermon coming on right now, (laughter) but I am limited to ten minutes. Uh-oh, somebody’s leaving already, (laughter) there is a string of people leaving us, internet people, and I hear all these “off” buttons being pushed on the internet. (laughter)
Right now I am reading through a book called The Arena, by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. He is a 19th century Russian father. He spends the first 50 pages saying, “Read the gospels, read the Epistles, and do what they say.” The Orthodox Church has always believed, and always believes, in the importance of the scripture, and it has been preached on. I think maybe in the last 100-150 years, in popular usage, it has fallen away. Although, when you read Chrysostom, he says, basically, “Hey, you dummies, you don’t know the Bible from your foot. Read the daggone Bible.” I’m paraphrasing, of course. (laughter) That is my Southern American paraphrase of Chrysostom.
I think, Anthony, in any church there is a gap between what we should do and what we really do, regarding the scriptures. But yes, in Orthodoxy, we need to do a lot better about impressing the importance of reading the scriptures and knowing them. That is why I do this Bible study, so people will come and learn the scriptures, but I cannot get some people to come over, no matter how many times I beg and plead. So yes, there needs to be more of an emphasis on that, absolutely. Ignorance of the scriptures is not an Orthodox dogma. For somebody to say, “Well, that is not a part of our church. We don’t really read the Bible,” that’s a bunch of bull. I mean nonsense, yes. (laughter) Justine?
Justine: Father John […], when I was growing up, it was said the reason why Orthodox don’t read the Bible is because Orthodoxy was established before the Bible was written. We use the Bible to learn from, and to learn about other things that went on, but the service, itself, was established before.
Father James: That is true. For the Evangelicals, the Bible is everything, as you know, so that might be part of it, too. For us, it is important. It is not everything, though. We have the liturgy, we have the saints, we have the fathers, so that may be part of the reason, but we should not discount the scriptures. Kenneth?
Kenneth: I don’t know exactly the history of Orthodox lands in terms of literacy, but I think a big part of it is that, from the point of view of Catholic versus Protestant, spiritualities, and imaginations, you could not have most people reading the scriptures in private until the 1500s because they had to have the printing press, because otherwise you couldn’t even have your own private Bible. I think that is part of it, and that is why icons were always so important, because those were the scriptures in images, although you will find people like St. Jerome, one of the Latin fathers saying, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Obviously, people would learn the scriptures, but they would not have the resources to read them in their homes, so they would have to learn them through the services, and that is why the services are made of scripture quotes, because then people memorized them. St. Anthony probably could not read, but if I recall his vocation, wasn’t it from being in the liturgy, hearing one of the gospel messages? I know most writers, up until recently, this is just my experience, but I know that the Catholic Scholastics, for instance, pretty much had the Bible memorized. When they were citing things in their writings, they were not looking it up, they just knew that that’s where it was, because they had read it so many times.
Father James: True, but we don’t have that excuse anymore about not being able to read. Steve?
Steve: Just to reiterate what he is saying, most of the world did not become literate until the 19th century, and the icons and what was handed down when they went to liturgy is what they learned, and that is how they maintained the scriptures, what they learned from the homilies they received, and from the icons. A mother could take her child to the icon and explain to the child that scene, that saint, and what took place in scripture, without ever having read a word.
Bible study participant: As a convert who was raised in the Protestant church, going back multiple generations, my great-grandmother came from French Huguenots, so there was, for me, converting to the Orthodox Church, that absence. From my perspective, I converted in the Serbian church, then went Greek, and now Antiochian, and there is a dearth of people who talk about reading their Bibles and spending time doing that. I found it curious because we are given the fasting calendar with suggested Bible readings for every day on it. It is provided right there.
But I kind of gave it up, myself, because that became part of my culture, that you just get it on the weekends, and then I stopped, and I am just recently going back to it. But in defense of Orthodox not reading the Bible, you can read the Bible every day, hours a day, but without the history and the church fathers keeping it in focus, it can go in a thousand different paths, and everybody interpreting for themselves, and arguing over what this means and that means, and I have seen a lot of danger in people grabbing the Bible and interpreting it, and taking off with it, as well. For me, I am studying more with the focus of the Orthodox Church and the history of the fathers keeping me more on track, if that makes sense.
Father James: It does, but in this day and age now, we have plenty of resources. You can download podcasts and listen to preaching and teaching. That is why I do this class. Father Lawrence Farley, If you have been to my classes even one time, you’ve heard the name of Father Lawrence Farley at least 50 times. Father Lawrence has a whole series of biblical commentaries which are patristic. He doesn’t quote from the fathers all the time, but he uses patristic thinking. He is informed by the fathers. You can read a little bit of the Bible, and his commentary on it, a little bit more, and his commentary, and it is broken up into small bite-sized chunks.
So we just don’t have any excuse. I’m sorry, I mean, yes, we do need the fathers, and we do need the history, and we do need the icons, and we do need the liturgy. We need it all. But we can’t say, “Well, 100 years ago nobody could read, so I don’t need to read the Bible.” Sorry! Ehhh! That’s not going to work. Especially in this day and age, with all these teachers out there, and you turn on the TV, and there are all these people saying, “Well, the Bible says…. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Well, no, it doesn’t. I’m sorry. It may say that and you may be taking it out of context. We need to know what the scriptures say, but from the Orthodox tradition, so we can not be led astray by guys on Channel 14, for example.
We need to move on, I’m sorry, if you have any more on that, we’ll talk about it later. Oh I forgot one other thing. You pushed my button, Anthony, so we spent half an hour talking about the scriptures, which is good. “In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” Notice he doesn’t say, “Do not leave it.” I think sometimes God puts us in a place for a reason, and we have something to do there. There is a purpose for our being where we are.
I spent the first 12 years of my married life moving 16 times total. Being a missionary, I was constantly moving around. You kind of get this restless thing going on. “Okay, it’s been two years. It’s time to move, it’s time to do something different.” But, no it isn’t. I think that there is nothing wrong with looking for a new job, or looking for advancement, but if it doesn’t come to us, let it go. Maybe it’s not the right time. I am having to learn that lesson myself a lot, through the last several months. When God wants us to move, he will make it clear. It will happen. We won’t have to go shaking the bushes and begging and pleading. It will come. It just comes.
Let’s move on to the next one. I’m sorry, but I want to at least cover more than three (laughter) out of 38. We’ll be doing this forever, like most of my studies. Number four:
Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen (Poemen means shepherd, or pastor. He was a great father in his own right, and he has a lot of sayings in this book), “This is the great work of a man, always to take blame for his own sins before God, and to expect temptation until his last breath.”
How about that? Two lines, and lots, and lots, and lots of wisdom in there. Take blame for your own sins before God. Not the devil made me do it. Not so and so made me do it. When you go to confession, just as a related side note, don’t confess somebody else’s sins (laughter). “Well, Father, my husband, he just does this and that, and because of that I got angry.” Ten minutes on your husband’s sin and two words on your sin. No.
Bible study participant: You haven’t really heard that, have you?
Father James: Oh no, no, I’m just speaking (laughter) entirely hypothetically! It could happen, you know. (laughter) Bit nobody in this room would ever do that. Nobody listening to my podcast on the internet, none of the five people listening to it. Anyway, yes, own up to it. Forgive me, this may sound sexist, but, “Man up.” Take blame for what you have done, and maybe for a little more, too. Oftentimes when something happens, we tend to excuse ourselves and say, “This conflict, or this breakdown, or this sin, could not have happened because of me, clearly.” But we need to at least say, “Well, it might have been what I said,” or “It might have been what I was doing.”
Then also, related to that, “Expect temptation until your last breath.” To be alive is to be tempted, at least, to be living the Christian life. If you are not trying to live for God, there is no point in tempting you, because you are already in the enemy’s camp. When we put on the mantle of Christ, when we put on the garment of Christ, the baptismal robe, and we are baptized, and we join ourselves to Christ, we are also putting a target on our chest.
You know those signs we used to put on each other in junior high? KICK ME. “Hey, what did you do that for?” “Well, it’s the sign on your back.” Or they just wouldn’t tell you and keep doing it. We are putting a KICK ME sign on our backs, saying, “Hey, Satan, come kick me.” And he’ll do it. It’s like Father Joseph said in the sermon, he is not always very creative. He doesn’t have to be because we keep falling for the same thing over, and over, and over, and over. But if we expect temptation, if we go into if forewarned, then that is forearmed. We can pray ahead of time and say, “Lead me not into temptation.” That’s part of why we say the Lord’s Prayer so much. Easy to understand, hard to do.
Next one. Number five. This is a good one, too. This is somewhat controversial, I guess, among some people:
He also said, “Whoever has not experienced temptation, cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even said, “Without temptations, no one can be saved.”
The question is: What about “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved?” Without temptations? Father Tom Hopko gives lectures on this topic. You can go to the website of St. George Cathedral, in Wichita, our cathedral, where Bishop Basil’s seat is. You can go to that cathedral website, and if you look around long enough you can find lectures in mp3 format that you can download and listen to. It is called “Orthodoxy Alive 2008.” Father Hopko was there, and he spoke about this. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough time, and he only did about 7 of the 38 sayings, but he did talk about this one, and he points out that the Greek word is peirasmos. It can mean temptation in the sense of being tempted to do what is sinful, but it can also just mean testing. The Bible makes it completely clear. St. James, among others, says this, that God never tempts anyone to sin. God doesn’t put somebody else’s $500 bill out here on the table that they left and say, “Hey, why don’t you steal this?” God never does that.
But sometimes God tests us, as with Job, for example. God tests us. The word translated as temptations could also be testing, so you could read this as, “‘Whoever has not experienced testing cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without testing, no one can be saved.’” That puts a little bit of a different spin on it, right? Because St. James tells us at the beginning of his epistle, “Consider it pure joy when you fall into various trials.” When we fall into testing or trials, when God puts us through the ringer, so to speak, or tests us, and lets difficult things come upon us, why should we consider that blessed? What does St. James say? Why should we consider it pure joy? It’s for our purification, and it develops patience and endurance and character.
Bible study participant: Christ was tempted. Why should we think that Satan would treat us different than Christ?
Father James: Christ said that if it is good enough for the teacher, it is good enough for the disciple. I am paraphrasing. He didn’t say good enough. He said that if it happened to the master, it will happen to you, as well. So yes, we need that for our faith to grow, and for our patience and endurance to grow. Gary?
Gary: I’m missing something. I don’t see the reason for a controversy here. I’m thinking I’m missing something, because why wouldn’t you be tempted? One of the first things Father Matthew told me that really stuck with me when I was going through the catechumen process, and the baptism process, was that up to that point, the devil hasn’t really seen you as a real threat, and now he does. Now the devil is going to be after you. It was after I became baptized in the Orthodox Church that I started seeing my sins more, and being more aware of them.
I am thinking of the faith and works thing. If you are going to believe in Christ, once you start believing in Christ, you cannot help but be tempted. You are going to be aware of temptations that you didn’t even think about before. There were things that entered my mind before that I never viewed as temptations, that now I do. If somebody would do something to “make me angry” I never saw that as a temptation before. I just saw that as the way life was. Now when something like that happens I say, “That is a temptation the devil is sending me to make me angry.” Sometimes I succumb to it and sometimes I don’t. But the point is, before I started having this stronger belief, I didn’t even consider that a temptation. So I think the two things just go hand in hand. If you are going to believe, you are going to be tempted.
Another thing that I heard about demons that really hit home with me is, where would you expect to find fewer demons? In a monastic atmosphere, right? There is a lot of praying there, a lot of holiness. Or perhaps in the church. But there is a saying among monastics that a city like Houston doesn’t need many demons, because the world takes care of that for them. All you need is one or two just to keep things stirred up, and then the world will take care of the rest for you. But in a monastic setting, you need many demons, because there is a battle being fought there, and so you need a lot of demons to offset the good that is taking place.
Father James: I was just reading a book about World War II, and when they would bomb someplace, they would bomb an industrial center, because there are a lot of weapons being made, or where there is a lot of military activity, like a military base. They wouldn’t go bomb a farm, for instance. I mean, what’s the point? “I killed a cow. Woo-woo! I bombed some grain.” I guess there would be advantages to that, too, to cut down on the food. But a monastery is a center of weaponry being built against the enemy, if you want to think of it that way, in military terms.
I guess the reason I said it was controversial is because I was thinking back to my days when I was a real biblical fundamentalist. It says without temptations no one can be saved, and of course, I would have said, “Well, the Bible says, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you shall be saved.” Yes, you will, but…
Bible study participant: It depends what you mean by being saved. That is the big difference, because our view of being saved is to put on the likeness of Christ, which is his nature. We have to do it through his grace. So we have to believe in him, through his grace, so we have to have his grace, but we have to put it on.
Father James: Yes. All right, let’s do a couple more. Number six:
Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” (That’s a very general question, isn’t it? You could think of all kinds of things: Get down and give me 50 pushups! But he knew what he meant, he meant to be saved.) He said, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”
Again, short, sweet, and to the point. Easy to understand. I’m 4 for 4 on understanding what he means, but I’m 0 for 4 on doing them, to put it in baseball terms.
“Do not trust in your own righteousness.” Again, we cannot earn our own salvation. The Bible says, “There is no one righteous, no not one.” In and of ourselves, we are not righteous. We are only righteous to the degree that we have taken on the righteousness of Christ and progress in it through faith, and through God’s grace.
“Do not worry about the past.” We were talking about that earlier. Akēdeia. Worrying about the past is part of that. Worrying about the past is just a way to take us out of being in God’s presence right now. Worrying about the past doesn’t do any good. I guess the only possible benefit it could have is to not repeat your mistakes. But that is not really worrying. I always quote this, and I’ll quote it again, St. Paul said, “I forget what is behind, and I press toward what is ahead.” It doesn’t mean he was just a total amnesiac about his past. He remembered he was the chief of sinners. He said, “I persecuted the Church of God,” but the only reason he remembered that was to not repeat those mistakes again. He did not worry about whether God had forgiven him, or that kind of thing.
“Control your tongue and your stomach.” Sounds easy to me, doesn’t it to you? No, very difficult, but absolutely essential. The stomach part, again, that is something that growing up as a Babtist was not emphasized, no offense to those listening. But we need to control our eating. That is why we do all this fasting.
One more, okay? I’m going to make it through seven. That’s not quite 19, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it through 19. Actually, let’s do three more, and we’ll do them very quickly, I want to get through nine of them:
Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said, groaning, what can get me through from such snares?” (In other words, how can I be delivered from the snares of the enemy?) Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”
Humility. One of the fundamental virtues. Humility. That is what we need to cultivate.
He also said, “Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment and they are far from God.”
What I take from that is, you can fast like crazy, you can eat one bread crumb a day, maybe have two on Sunday, drink only water, you can pray five hours a day, you can do a million prostrations, you can limit your sleep to ten minutes a day, but you could still be bitter and angry. In fact, I would be very bitter and angry if I did all those things. (laughter)
The point is, the ascetic efforts that we do, the works that we do, the fasting, the prayers, the services, the five-hour long services, those are not the end in themselves. Those are a means to the end. We need to do those things, yes, but probably with some moderation for most of us. And we need to also, through those, cultivate our relationship with God. Father Hopko says that there are a lot of people who are interested in the Jesus Prayer, but they are not interested in Jesus. They are not interested in prayer. They want to learn the Jesus Prayer, they want to see the uncreated light. They want to do all that. They want a clairvoyant elder from a mountaintop somewhere. But they don’t have a relationship with God, and so there is no point.
Number nine. Oh, this is so important. This is one of my favorites. If I had to just have three of these things, this would probably be one of them:
He also said, “Our life and death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”
Our life is in our brother. How do we show love toward God by showing love to other people? Don’t say, “Oh, I love the Lord, but….” There is this Peanuts cartoon I love in which somebody says, “Well, I love humanity, it’s just people I can’t stand.” (laughter) That’s not going to work. When we see another person, we see Christ. Indirectly, yes. Tarnished, yes. Very much so, in my case. But each person is an icon, or an image, of Christ, and when we show love to that person, we show love to Christ by extension.