Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Company of Strangers

Abba Peter, the disciple of Abba Lot, said, One day when I was in Abba Agathon's cell a brother came in and said to him, "I want to live with the brethren; tell me how to dwell with them." The old man answered him, "All the days of your life keep the frame of mind of the stranger which you have on the first day you join them, so as not to become too familiar with them."

The Abba Macarius asked, "And what does this familiarity produce?" the old man replied, "It is like a strong, burning wind, each time it arises everything flies swept before it, and it destroys the fruit of the trees." So Abba Macarius said, "Is speaking too freely really as bad as all that?"
Abba Agathon said, "No passion is as worse than an uncontrolled tongue, because it is the mother of all the passions." Accordingly the good workman should not use it, even as he is living as a solitary in the cell.

The same Abba said "a man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God."
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I’m still on the desert father kick, firmly convinced that these stories which seem so remote and alien to us, voices from a far off time and place, actually hold the key to so many of our dilemmas and divisions and intractable problems today. If our hearts are not right, nothing in our life or in our world can go right, and the wisdom of the desert is all about how to get your heart right, how to heal the inner person.

For example, this story. It may seem funny to us to say that we should regard the people we live with as strangers, no matter how long we have lived with them. If you are a married person, this may seem almost ludicrous. You shouldn’t assume a familiar attitude with your spouse and your children? Absurd.

But, true. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, the old saying goes. And I think we have all seen domestic situations where contempt has flown in one direction or another, or both. It is not a pretty scene, in fact it is one of the ugliest dynamics that can happen in a family this side of actual abuse. When the members of a household decide that they know all about one another, and so don’t have to have any respect, any reverence, any humility before the other, things have gone badly wrong.

And of course flowing from this lack of basic respect and reverence, of knowledge of the deep mystery of the human person, a mystery that is never fully dissolved by the passage of time (we are always living, know we it or not, in the company of strangers), comes the uncontrolled tongue, the freedom to say just what you think of that other person and let loose with whatever judgments, criticisms, scorn, or whatever else pops into your head about them.

Both Scripture and our spiritual tradition are united in warning of the destruction that an unguarded tongue can do to ourselves and to those with whom we live. We hear in this story that it is the mother of all the other passions, and in fact in our bad use of words we can stir up anger, lust, greed, gluttony, pride, fear—whip ourselves into a frenzy of one sort or another.

Words can do great damage as well as great good, and we all have to take responsibility for our own use of them. It is always tempting, when confronted with passages like these, to try to wriggle off the hook in one way or another. I don’t think any of us can readily claim innocence in the use of our tongues for pure goodness sake.

So we can always flee to the spurious claim of justification. ‘Well, sure I let him have it – but he was wrong! He deserved it! He made me angry!’ But no: ‘he’ (or ‘she’) didn’t ‘make’ you angry. You chose to get angry in the face of some perception of disorder of some kind. We choose anger and recrimination over mercy and sacrificial love, and this is among the great spiritual afflictions of the human race.

There is disorder in the world, disorder in our nearest relatives and friends, disorder in those with whom we live. Yes, indeed. So what? I mean that question literally. There is disorder, and so… what are you and I going to do? Add to the disorder with anger and rage and violence verbal or physical? Become cold and hard and distant, which of course always works so well in fostering peace in a house?  Or work towards order? And the order of God—the only real order in this world—is the order of love and mercy.

And so this is the great interior battle of the monk, and of the Christian. To put one’s own heart in order, which means overcoming anger and the other passions, and to live with one’s own people in a spirit of great reverence and humility, not blind to their faults, but meeting those faults with great mercy and tenderness.

And that choice to always bring it back to our own hearts and the quality of our own love and mercy is a very deep one, one that makes us very slow, then, to hurl judgments and accusations and recriminations elsewhere. But we need a lot more people making that kind of choice in this world, and a lot less of the other, don’t you think?