, , ,


Ferial: 28 July 2012


Again, last night, I could not sleep.

Out here, in a patch of land surrounded on one long side by swamp, and on two other sides by harsh prairie, one reads and rereads small things, even outside of lectio.  And bits of sayings and writings of people long dead and clips from last month’s monthly magazines all converge in a confluence of racing questions.  Perhaps this is out of a meager diet.  Perhaps this is on account of the weekly dosage of Larium, and its all too publicized side effects.  Perhaps this is because of how a particular mind has come to be wired over too many years.  Who can really say?

Yesterday, I took it upon myself to finish the newly published ‘systematic collection’ of The Book of the Elders [Cistercian Publications, 2012], copying down in pencil into my Moleskine quotations that called to me across the span of time.

Yesterday, issues of The Tablet (a Catholic magazine from the U.K., in circulation since 1843) for May and June arrived here, at this outpost, a month late.  And there were bits, little news bites, from Rome and Surrey and Ireland and New York City, and an advertisement from Berkeley, California, that all caused me to pause and ponder and to begin drawing vectors, from this postmodern First World, back to the world of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, 1600 years ago.

And last night, I could not sleep, and under the mosquito net, the convergence rose up around me, my thoughts scrambling to make connections between cogent and tangential matters and to try to parse these associations: to test the web: to walk out, like a tightrope aerialist, along the dialectics between oppositions, and to find a calmness somewhere, out in the middle of all this tension.

And then, later last night, still up wide-awake with insomnia, I again grabbed my laptop and clicked on a podcast from Radio 4 on the BBC, the subject being Saint Thomas Aquinas.  And finally finding my mind relaxed, the end of his story came upon me suddenly, as the panel discussed the date 6 December 1273 – the web of ponderings went taught, the tensile pull of opposites became too much to dismiss, and now, after a day of more pondering, making tomato jam and baking bread, I am trying to make sense of what I am feeling:

Back on Sunday 6 December 1273, during Mass, Thomas Aquinas was struck dumb by ‘something’—an encounter beyond all description, and he shortly thereafter declared, ‘There are no more words.’  And he stopped writing.

He who had written over eight million words tethering Aristotle to Catholic teaching was at a profound loss.

Pressed to write by his colleagues, he simply said, ‘After what I have experienced, all my words are straw.’

He died the following year.  He was then quickly condemned by Rome.  He was later canonized, and is now venerated as the Angelic Doctor.

Something happened that Sunday, and it silenced the wordsmith and his great, rational, intellectual mind.

And last night, this struck me as a ‘Yes!’ moment, after the tit-for-tat vitriol, the back-and-forth sparring across the political spectrum, reported in The Tablet.  The candor of Aquinas and his bold decision to simply stop writing anything further called to my mind to the words1offered by elders to the monks under their tutelage out in the Egyptian Desert, that I had read earlier the very same day.

Out here: in the flood plain, in a cloistered monastery struggling day-to-day in what is deemed by the outsider to still be the ‘developing world’, away from Rome, away from London, away from Berkeley, California, and Washington, D.C.: out here, looking into the falling sun, past the purple mountain, to the West, towards the new self-proclaimed Jerusalems that in the end are no more successful in keeping the covenant or the commandments than old al-Quds or older-still Zion, City of David: out here, an American freely views his American Church far off on the furthest outer horizon, and, as such, his far-off view is stripped and uncluttered and uninterrupted by phone and Internet connexions: and the vectors from such distant games at realpolitik, with American-styled apocalyptic hyperbole and voiced predictions of doom (blowback from the heathens and the latter-day infidels), back to the wisdom left in aphorisms by holy women and men living lives as ‘living text’2 in the ancient desert south of Alexandria, on this ancient African continent… these vectors appear as bright and ass white, as jet trails from fighter jets streaking the dawning sky.


Aquinas put aside his investigations and eight million words, and said ‘all my words are straw.’

Origen said ‘all has a spiritual meaning, but not everything has a literal meaning…’

And out in the desert, Amma Synkletike said, ‘Children, we all know how to be saved, but, by our own negligence, we fall short of salvation.’ (Elders, 11.72)

And against all of the vitriol and rhetoric and drawing lines and taking sides in the world at this moment, I would posit that this wise old woman, this amma, is spot on.

We know.  We know better.  But we give in to passions, and we project our criticism outward instead of inward, and we fail.  And fall down.  I know better.  I give in to what rises in my heart.  I fall down.

Against rushing to judge and rushing to give pronouncement, Origen, who gave so much, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans, during the persecutions, and at the hands of his own warring Church, writes this simple warning, within the first book of his De Principiis:

An end or consummation would seem to be an indication of the perfection and completion of things.  And this reminds us here, that if there be any one imbued with a desire of reading and understanding subjects of such difficulty and importance, he ought to bring to the effort a perfect and instructed understanding, lest perhaps, if he has no experience in questions of this kind, they may appear to him as vain and superfluous; or if his mind be full of preconceptions and prejudices on other points, he may judge these to be heretical and opposed to the faith of the Church, yielding in so doing not so much to the convictions of reason as to the dogmatism of prejudice.  These subjects, indeed, are treated by us with great solicitude and caution, in the manner rather of an investigation and discussion, than in that of fixed and certain decision.  (I.VI.1; emphasis added)

In reading, yesterday, tales and sayings from the desert, I found myself wondering how the praxis and precepts of the desert would work in the tempests found today.

Against the impulses of our world:

A brother asked one of the elders to give an opinion on a hypothetical question.  ‘Suppose I see somebody doing something, and I describe it to somebody else,’ he said.  ‘In my opinion, I am not passing judgment.  We are only talking [about it], so it is not slander, even in the logismos.’  The elder said, ‘If you have a passionate impulse, then it is slander.  But if one is free of passion, it is not slander.  But it is better to keep silent so that evil not be increased.’  (Elders,9.25)

The world again is drawing out lines around human persons and their personalities and their identities (sexual and political and otherwise).  In the desert, in the past, porneia, for example,was any sex act or thought or spirit, directed towards a male or a female, by a male or a female.  And chastity for laity was as valued as for professed religious, within the fellowship of the orthodox.  And with chastity honored, the focus of possible proclivity was of no consequence.  And with the fellowship, attention was not given to the actions and professions of those not within the fellowship.

But to judge such a wanton person, even among the professed, or such a wanton act committed by a fellow Christian was seen by the holy as an equal if not greater sin:

An elder said, Judge not the one who indulges in porneia even if you are chaste [yourself], for in so doing, you too transgress the law—because he who said, “Do not indulge in porneia” [see 1 Cor 10], also said, “Do not judge”’ [Matt 7:1].  (Elders, 9.15)

A brother who sinned was put out of the church by the priest.  Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, ‘I too am a sinner.’  (Elders, 9.2)

Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen, ‘Tell me how I can become a monk.’  Said the elder to him, ‘If you want to find repose here and in the age to come, say in every situation, “I, who am I?” and do not pass judgment on anybody.’   (Elders, 9.8)

An elder said, ‘Should somebody sin in your presence in any way, judge him not but regard yourself as more sinful than him.  You see the sin, but you do not see the repentance.’  (Elders, 9.19)

And two more of particular worth:

There was a great elder living in Syria, in the region of Antioch, who had a brother living with him.  The brother was prone to criticize if he saw somebody tripping up.  The elder often reproved him on this score, saying, ‘My son, you are really going astray and only losing your own soul, for nobody knows a person other than the Spirit who dwells within him [1 Cor 2:10-11]; for many people frequently performing many evil deeds in the sight of folk repent in secret before God and are accepted.  We know the sin, but God alone knows the other good deeds they have done.  There are moreover many who, having lived their whole lives badly, are found repenting in the hour of death, at the end, and are saved.  There are also sinners who found acceptance through the prayer of holy ones.  This is why one person must not in any way judge another, even if he sees with his own eyes.  There is one judge: the Son of God.  Everyone who judges another is found to be an ‘antijudge’ and an ‘antigod’ to Christ, for he has usurped the status, the honor, and authority that God the Father gave to him, becoming a judge superior to the Judge.’  (Elders, 15.122)

If instead of drawing lines of focus around others we drew lines of focus around ourselves… If I…

This ‘losing your own soul’ was so paramount a concern in the desert.  It was as well to Yves Congar, and his two supreme moments, when each of us has the opportunity to connect with the Divine: the final moment, at our judgment, when we have left this particular living world around us, and the very next moment, when we have the opportunity to imitate Christ in how we encounter our neighbor.

And, secondly:

Abba Timothy the priest said to Abba Poemen, ‘There is a woman in Egypt who plays the harlot and gives her earnings away as alms.’  In response, the elder said, ‘She will not go on being a harlot, for the fruit of faith is apparent in her.’  Now it happened that the mother of Timothy the priest came to visit him, and he asked his mother, ‘That woman, did she go on playing the harlot?’  ‘She has even increased [the number of] her lovers,’ she told him, ‘but she has also increased her almsgiving.’  Abba Timothy went to Abba Poemen and reported this to him, but he said, ‘She will not go on playing the harlot.’  Then the mother of Abba Timothy came again and said to him, ‘Do you know that that woman, the harlot, sought to come out with me so you might pray for her, but I did not agree to it?’  On hearing this, he reported it to Abba Poemen, and Abba Poemen said to him, ‘Then rather do you go and meet her.’  Abba Timothy did go; he met her, and she wept copiously when she saw him and heard the Word of God from him, sorrowing for her sins.  ‘I am quitting harlotry from now on,’ she said to him.  ‘I am going to devote myself to fear of God.’  She immediately went and entered a monastery for women and was mightily well pleasing to God.  (Elders, 13.18)

I read this the other day, and found myself in a haze wondering if such a woman, with such a recent past, even with a conversion, would be allowed entrance into a monastery in my world today.

Do we allow for the harlot as does Abba Poemen, or do we only see the surface as Abba Timothy and his mother?  This distinction seems to be at the core of imitating Christ.

In the desert, some sixteen hundred years years ago, robbers and murderers repented, converted, took voluntary hardship and exile, and grew to become abbas, holy men, who are still venerated as saints to this day.  What chance would they have in my world to prove their mettle?

Today armed with our copies of the Catechism, we think we know.  Perhaps, we do.  But in the very manner of arming ourselves in such a fashion are we not positioning ourselves to lose our soul (see above, 13.18)?  Have we forgotten this critical aspect of our salvation: complete humility and non-discriminating forgiveness?  Do we reach for the Catechism instead of moving deeper into the Gospel?

We draw lines, we make exceptions, we release ourselves from having to follow our compassion as it pushes us beyond.  We resist the call.  We select.  We choose.  We do not receive everybody with equity.  And thus, according to the desert, we fail.  We sin.  I know I do, despite the best of my intentions.

A brother asked [Abba Poemen], ‘Utter a saying for me.’  The elder said to him, ‘Toil at manual labor as much as you can in order to provide for him who is in need from it, for it is written, “Sins are purged by almsgiving and by acts of faith”’ [Prov. 15:27a].  ‘What is an act of faith?’ the brother said to him.  ‘An act of faith,’ the elder said, ‘is to live in humble-mindedness and to perform [deeds of] mercy.’  (Elders, 13.7)

[Abba Hyperechios] also said, ‘Imitate the publican lest you be condemned with the Pharisee [see Luke 18:14]…’  (Elders, 15.68)

{Abba Daniel] also said, ‘Do not be malicious towards anybody, or you will invalidate your toil.’  (Elders, 11.23)

An elder said, ‘A person who does not receive all people as equal but makes distinctions—such a person cannot be perfect.’  (Elders, 21.62)

It seems to me that this discretion is a life’s work, and that such work is wrapped up in my final judgment [Matt. 25: 31-46], and in my personal collaboration with my God in realizing with any hope the kingdom of Heaven.

How do I move to greet the prodigal?  Do I run without any withholding of love, like the father in Luke 15?

How do I approach the bloodied traveller: like the priest, like the Levite, or like the less-than-chosen Samaritan in Luke 10?

This morning, at Mass, in Jeremiah 7: 1-11, God, through his prophet, warns those coming to the temple who put their ‘trust in lying words’, but do not act appropriately to the alien and the marginalized, who profess and who perform all the rituals, but as hollow men.

How do I treat the heretic, the nonbeliever, the atheist, the fringe elements in our society?  How can I evangelize if I refuse to engage?  And when I engage, how do I?  And when I evangelize, how do I?

There was an elder living at a place in the desert and, some considerable distance from him, another person: a Manichee who was a priest, or rather one of those whom they call priests.  When he went to visit one of his coreligionists, nightfall over took him at the place where the elder was.  He was on the horns of a dilemma, wishing to knock, enter, and sleep at his place.  But he knew the elder was aware that he was a Manichee and thought he would refuse to receive him.  However, constrained by necessity, he knocked.  When the elder opened the door, he recognized him and joyfully welcomed him in.  He encouraged him to pray; he refreshed him and assigned him a place to sleep.  Coming to himself in the night, the Manichee said in his astonishment, ‘How come he has no suspicion toward me?  This is indeed a man of God.’  He came and fell at his feet, saying, ‘I am an orthodox from this day,’ and thus remained with him.  (Elders, 13.12)

In this world, how do I place my self?  How do I place others?

In the end all words and all action and all unction is “straw” unless bridled to a loving merciful heart.

And such love, by its very loving, defies the rational and the conventional [John 8: 3-11]:

An elder said that there was an elder living in the desert, serving God for many years, and he began beseeching God, saying, ‘Lord, assure e that I have pleased you,’ and he saw an angel saying to him, ‘You have not become like the greengrocer in such and such a place.’  In wonder, the elder said to himself, ‘I am going to the city to see him.  In what kind of activity has he been engaged in that it surpasses my activity and the drudgery of so many years?’

The elder set out and came to the place of which he had heard from the angel and found the man sitting, selling vegetables.  So he sat down beside him for the rest of the day, and as the man shut up the shop, the elder said to him, ‘Brother, could you put me up in your cell tonight?’  Full of joy, the man welcomed him.  So off he went into the cell, and as the man was making preparations for the need and refreshment of the elder, the elder said to him, ‘Of your charity, brother, tell me your way of life.’  As the man was unwilling to speak out, the elder persisted at length in his request, so the man reluctantly spoke [of it], ‘I only eat in the evening.  When I shut up shop, I only take what I need for food; the rest I give to those in need, and if I welcome one of the servants of God, I spend it on them [sic].  On rising at dawn, before sitting down at my place of work, I say, ‘This city, from the smallest to the greatest, shall enter the kingdom of God by virtue of its just deeds; I alone shall inherit chastisement on account of my sins.’  Then again, in the evening I say the same thing before going to sleep.’

On hearing this, the elder said, ‘This is a fine activity, but it does not deserve to pass my drudgery over so many years.’  Now, just as they were going to eat, the elder heard some people singing songs, for the greengrocer’s cell was in a populous location.  ‘Brother,’ the elder said to him, ‘since you so wish to lead a godly life, how is it you stay in this location?  Are you not disturbed when you hear them singing these songs?’  ‘I tell you, Abba,’ said the man, ‘I have never been troubled or scandalized.’  On hearing this, the elder said, ‘Well, what are you thinking in your heart when you hear these [songs]?’ and he said, ‘I am thinking that they are all entering the kingdom.’  The elder was amazed on hearing this, and he said, ‘This is indeed the activity that surpasses my toil of so many years.’  He prostrated himself, saying, ‘Forgive me, brother; I have not yet attained this stature,’ and he retreated into the desert again without having eaten.  (Elders, 20.22)

Do I rush to scoff like the abba, or do I join the simple greengrocer ‘thinking that they are all entering the kingdom’?

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis et totius mundi.

Totius mundi still means the whole world.

And in the supreme moment defined by Congar, Christ’s calling us to care without discretion, to follow, to sit with prostitutes and lepers and swindlers, and to try to imitate Him: to love enemies, to forgive, to not judge, to not worry about splinters in the eyes of others but about the plank blinding our own eye, to not condemn the woman or man caught up in porneia, but to forgive them and to offer them the path to be free, again and again, seventy seven times seven, if need be.   In the supreme moment of the next moment in our encounter with the Other, “all has a spiritual meaning” and, to borrow from Rabbi Heschel, all “assumes almost cosmic proportions”.

Beyond the bickering and the vitriol of the present political world and the present politicized Church, the desert still calls.


The next day—The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012:

During this morning’s Mass, Saint Paul speaks through his Epistle to the Ephesians:

… [W]alk worthy of the vocation in which you are called.  With all humility and mildness, with patience, supporting one another in charity.  Careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  (4: 1-3)

I pray that it is in such ‘humility and mildness’ and with ‘patience, supporting one another in charity’ that the divisions within our Church may be healed, and not with a victor’s justice sought, by any or either side.

The ‘unity of the Spirit’ and ‘the bond of peace’ depend on it.  With a victor’s justice, I verily fear there will only be loss and desolation [see Luke 15, and the signification to be found in the one lost lamb above and over the known ninety-nine].

The superior ends his homily with a caution to his brethren:  to remember that they are not a collection of individuals each seeking a separate salvation, but that they are a community, one body, one body in Christ, and that their salvation is interdependent, based on generosity and on compassion.

Abba Antony} also said, ‘Life and death depend on our neighbor, for if we win over the brother, we win over God, but if we offend the brother, we sin against Christ.’  (Elders, 17.2)


1Hearing ‘a word’ is central to the spiritual pedagogy of early monasticism.’ – Tim Vivian, translator, “Introduction” to the Life of Antony, CS202 (2003)

2 ‘A father was a father precisely because he was a living text, because by his way of life he expressed the meaning of Scripture.’ – Jeremy Driscoll, The Mind’s Long Journey to the Holy Trinity: The Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus, p.7 (1993)