Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Keeping Busy at the Tannery

St. Anthony leaves his cell in the morning and sees the whole world covered with the snares of the Demon. He is terrified. ‘Who then can be saved?’ he cries out to God. And the divine voice answers: ‘The humble one. And I tell you more: these snares will not even touch him.’

This same St. Anthony once prayed to God that He would show him someone who was better than he, who could serve as his example. He told Anthony to go to Alexandria; the first man that he met at the entrance to the city would be the one God had sent in answer to his prayer.
Indeed he did meet a man at the entrance to the city, and questioned him. Who are you? I am a tanner. And what do you do? I am busy at my tannery and serve my customers. But what are your works before God, your forms of self-denial? I have none.

But what do you do then? How do you spend your day? I spend my day working. And what do you do then? How do you serve God? Describe your day to me. Well, in the morning, after I get up, I place myself for several moments before the face of God, and I think that in this whole great city of Alexandria there can be no one who is as great a sinner as I. And in the evening, before going to bed, I again place myself in the presence of God, and again I think that in all this great city of Alexandria there is no one who is as great a sinner as I. such was the lesson God sent to St. Anthony.

Or there is the holy abbot Siso, on his death-bed after a long life full of struggles, interior combat, and the fruits of sanctity. The anchorites who were his neighbors and disciples have come to take leave of him. As he nears his end his face is illumined… Suddenly he is heard speaking to someone. And the elders ask him, ‘To whom are you speaking, Father?’ And he replies to them, ‘The angels have come to take me, and I am begging them to leave me here a little longer, that I may repent.’

And the elders say to him, ‘But you have no need to repent, Father.’ He answers, ‘I tell you truly, I have not even begun to repent.’ And they saw then that he had attained perfection. For ‘What is perfection?’ Isaac of Syria asked. And his reply was, ‘The depth of humility.’
Nicholas Arseniev, Russian Piety

Reflection – At the heart of the Orthodox spiritual tradition are the stories of the desert fathers, the first monks of the Christian religion, and the sayings passed down to us first in oral tradition, then in written collections.

The species of humility presented here may not seem like the most attractive model of holiness to us today. We are so used to the psychological language of poor self image, self-hatred, inferiority complexes and the like. Neurotic guilt.

It is easy—far too easy, really—for us post-moderns, with our sophisticated vocabulary and (supposedly) deep insight into the human psyche, to wave aside all this antique Christian stuff. And yet… the desert fathers established a way of life and a tradition of holiness and prayer that have endured for 1700 years, have laid down precepts and principles and practices that have helped hundreds of thousands to become translucently radiant with the charity of God, and monasticism shows no signs of passing away. Can Freud and his disciples say the same, really?

The best stance to take towards the writings of the desert fathers and their descendants is, really, humility. These guys (and gals) actually know something about God and how to get to God that we probably don’t. And it is this basic humility that is at the heart of it all.

The key thing is to live, able to say with sincerity, “I don’t know, I have it wrong, I need to repent, my brother and my sister are my superiors, and I am a very great sinner – the greatest one I know, anyhow.” It has nothing whatsoever to do, in its reality, with neurotic anything or complexes of any kind.

It is not complex at all, actually, but radiantly, divinely simple. And we need, really, to cut through our own psychological language and approach to these questions. Humility, virtually every saint, every monk, every wise person ever, has told us to be the absolute key and center of a vibrant, fruitful, beautiful, joyous spiritual life.

To live as a very small, little, humble person, in the midst of whatever responsibilities and charges and professional life, cares, etc., that one has (serving one’s customers in the tannery, so to speak) is the path to holiness equal, and in fact identical, to the hermit in the desert fasting and praying for hours, or the nun in her cell, or the priest at the altar, or the saint in the slums caring for the poor.

It is all about, and only about, opening one’s heart to the loving and radiant action of God, and the only way to open our hearts in that way is to humble ourselves, know our deep and total need for him, and cry out for his mercy and saving grace. There is no other path to holiness, and there is no other path but holiness to a happy, joyful life.

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