A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went.
He took a sack, filled it with sand and cut a small hole at the bottom and carried it on his shoulders. The others came out to meet him and said, "What is this, father?"
The Abba said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – I haven’t had these on the blog before, and have wanted to for some time. The desert fathers were the first Christian monks, fleeing the dissolute and dissipated life of the cities of late antiquity and going into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to forge a way of life that would be wholly dedicated to God, to achieve a state of constant prayer and mastery of the passions, and to truly begin the life of heaven, as much as is possible, in our earthly condition.
There is much to say about these men (and some women) and the whole evolution of the monastic ideal from the 4th century onwards. The early monks of the desert lived primarily as solitaries, but as time went on it became clear that it was more healthy and fruitful to live in communities with a common rule of life under obedience to an abbot.
The early prodigies of asceticism, extremes of fasting and penance, gave way to the surrender of the will to the superior and the call to fraternal charity and mercy. Throughout the whole period of the fathers their words and deeds were passed on in the form of short stories and sayings. These were gathered into collections over time, and so we have the genre of Christian literature of the ‘desert father story’, pithy little windows into the heart of Christian life and prayer that are truly the primary source after the Gospels themselves of the spiritual theology of the Church. And this week on the blog I want to share some of my favorites of these.
This one, for example—such a striking image of the call to mercy and non-judgment. Our sins trailing out behind us like sand from a leaky bag and we either don’t see them, or seeing them don’t seem terribly exercised by them, and yet we are so harsh and hard with one another.
This is not moral relativism, of course, which is utterly foreign to the world of the fathers. The brother had, indeed, committed a fault (unspecified, we note). Nobody in this story is saying that his fault may actually have been a virtue or that ‘he’s just being a monk the way he wants to be a monk. Who am I to judge?’
No, right is right and wrong is wrong, and there is no breath of a suggestion that any of that is unclear. The essence of the matter is that we are all sinners together, and God is merciful to all of us, together, and so in our personal dealings with one another we are called to a deep and profound tenderness and gentleness, as God is tender and gentle with each of us.
And in that tenderness and gentleness, our primary responsibility is to watch the sand flowing out from our own bag and do what is in our power to remedy it, to clean it up if we can and weep over it if we can’t—not to aggressively point fingers at every else’s mess in some kind of rear-guard action of self-defense. ‘Sure, I’ve spilled a bit of sand, but look at that guy! Look at those people! They’re much worse than me!’ Why do that? Do we not believe in God’s mercy?
This is a common struggle of humanity, one which few are wholly spared from, and the ones who are, we tend to write down stories about them, like Abba Moses. But I notice that it is exacerbated in Internet culture these days, this tendency to constantly point the figure of accusation at that other group or that other writer or this type of Catholic or that type of ideologue.
Sinners, sinners, sinners! So we cry, our bag of sand leaking out all over our keyboards and touchscreens, intemperance and uncharity, name-calling and downright nastiness far too often being the order of the day.
My fellow bloggers (any who read this little bitty blog), let us look to our own sand a bit more and look to the faults or defects of others a little bit less, or maybe quite a bit less. While controversy and invective may increase traffic to a blog, it is really bad for our souls and bad for the cause of Christ in the world. What profit does it do us if we increase our reader stats and lose our soul?
The desert fathers, in their solitude and seclusion, have a true word of life for the busy and hyper-connected world of today. And that word is to indeed prefer nothing, choose nothing, do nothing, but seek to please God and be one with Him, and we are one with Him when we are in His mercy and extend that mercy to one another.