The brethren came to Abba Anthony and said to him, "Speak a word: how are we to be saved?" The old man said to them, "You have read the Scriptures. That should teach you how." But they said, "We want to hear from you too, Father." Then the old man said to them, "The Gospel says, 'if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.'" (Mt 5:30)
They said, "We cannot do that." The old man said, "If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck." "We cannot do that, either," they said. So he said, "If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil," and they said, "We cannot do that, either." Then the old man said to his disciple, "prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers."
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – There are so many of these desert father stories and sayings that shine a bright light on the spiritual life and its ways, that I am sore tempted to just keep on with them for a little way yet. I have done quite a bit of ‘controversy blogging’ in past weeks, which is fine too, but sometimes I think we can’t really resolve any of the tough issues of our times and the matters that divide and confuse us because we are not building our lives on solid spiritual principles. This is the great genius and contribution of the desert fathers—to elaborate for us what those principles are.
This story, again showing the touches of humor that are frequent in the desert corpus, highlights the attitude of soul that brings the spiritual life to a grinding halt faster than anything else. Namely, ‘I cannot do that.’
Forgive your enemies… I cannot do that. Take a little time each day to pray… I cannot do that. Give alms to the poor... I cannot do that. Control your temper… I cannot do that. Uhhh... fast a little? I cannot do that. And so on and so forth. There can be an affliction of soul that truly makes us spiritual invalids, and makes it impossible for anyone to give us any help or spiritual counsel.
No, just a bit of corn soup and prayers is all that can help the invalid soul, the person who refuses to exert any spiritual effort whatsoever. The truth is, we have to be fighters if we are going to be Christian, have to have a bit of spirit, some fire in the belly, some degree of enthusiasm. The person who meets every challenge of the spiritual life with a plaintive ‘But it’s hard! Why does it have to be so hard?’ is in a truly lamentable condition, one which only God can deliver them from.
Now it is true that we in this matter there are heresies on all sides, and we have to pick our way carefully to stay on the path of orthodoxy. Pelagianism is the heresy that says that if we just try really, really hard, we will be able to live a life pleasing to God. Semi-pelagianism says that God’s grace is necessary, but he withholds that grace until he sees us making the first efforts unaided. Quietism is over on the other side, saying that everything is God’s grace to the extent that all we have to do is be passive and let God do it all in us. Jansenism is a truly demonic heresy in which (in its popular expression) God withholds his grace and love from us unless we are already in a state of purity and goodness.
The fact is, grace is needed for the slightest effort in the spiritual life, and we cannot even begin the journey to God, cannot even make the first steps of living the Gospel unless he graces us, helps us. But grace is given, this grace to make those first steps is always available to us, because God loves us and wants us to be holy. And because that grace is given to us preveniently (that is, before our efforts kick in) we can cooperating with it and confidently take on the challenge of the Gospel.
In a sense it is true that ‘we cannot do that.’ We cannot. God can. And God does, in us. The power is in us, not because we’re such fabulous creatures (although we are, actually!), but because we have a Father in heaven who loves us and who gives us the power to do all these things, all these beautiful Gospel acts.
The one who says, not just in an occasional bad mood (who doesn’t have those?) but habitually, ‘I cannot do that’ is really sinning against faith. God is real, God is here, God is with you, with me. We can do it, the Gospel that is. It is difficult, it requires prayer and constant recourse to God to do it, but with that constant help from Him, we can do it.