Abba Anthony said to Abbe Poemen, "This is the Great Work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath."
He also said, "Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." He even added, "Without temptation, no one can be saved."
Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – Well, just a few more days of these desert father stories and then we’ll move on to something else (although I must say, based on the traffic stats I’m seeing since I started these stories, my readers like them as much as I do).
These are three separate sayings that all bring out more this spirit of humility I wrote about yesterday. I think that lurking in the minds and hearts of many of us is a certain picture of the spiritual life and what it should be that is really nothing more or less than an idol. Namely, the idea that spiritual life should eventually settle down into some nice little cozy affair—‘me and Jesus sitting in a tree, k.i.s.s.i.n.g’ sort of thing.
We are willing to acknowledge that our life in its earliest stages will have some degree of struggle and temptations and difficulty, but we all harbor this idea that it’s all supposed to get really easy at some point. And when it doesn’t, especially, we are tempted to cynicism or doubt: it doesn’t work! Prayer doesn’t work, the sacraments don’t work, Jesus doesn’t work.
Well, they don’t work to our specifications, it turns out. But that’s idolatry, to expect God to perform to our expectations and ideas. He doesn’t, he never has, and he never will on earth or in heaven. Spiritual life is not about finding some safe harbor in the world, not about attaining some kind of bogus ‘serenity’ that floats us above the sullied and frantic earth and its smelly people. It is about being set on fire by the love of God until we are all love, all compassion for the earth and its smelly people, and for our own smelly selves, too.
And so we have these little sayings from the great Abba Anthony about expecting temptation until the end, renouncing all efforts at self-justification before God, and putting no faith in one’s own righteousness. This is our work, the work of a Christian. God’s work is to pour His Spirit into our hearts so that we are aflame with love; our work is to keep ourselves very small and humble and poor, so that we don’t get in the way of that work.
It may sound a bit heavy and hard, and to some degree it is. But by the same token, so is a life spent in pursuit of riches or pleasures, a life spent building up the ego constantly. Choose your heaviness, working for food that does not last or food that endures to eternal life, but work we must, no matter what.
And then there is this luminous little phrase, ‘do not worry about the past’. That’s a great little thing—don’t worry about what has been. A monk—that is, a Christian whose heart is set on God and the things of God—lives radically in the present moment. What is happening now, and where is it taking us into the future? What is the call to love, now? What is the action of God, now? What is the work to be done, now? All of this is the proper concern of man. The past, once we have repented of what is amiss in it and done whatever restitution needs doing to whoever we have injured there, is to be a closed door for us, opened only by God at the day of the particular judgment.
And control of tongue and stomach—basic spiritual advice there, of course. The more we can watch what goes into our mouths and comes out of them, and make sure that there’s not too much moving in either direction, so to speak, the better off we all are.
And so we continue to sit at the feet of these monks, and let them teach us what they know about the spiritual life, which (it turns out) is quite a lot.