Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resurrection and Charity

Resurrection Sunday – April 5, 2015

THEODORUS THE ASCETIC said, “The patriarch Abraham offered hospitality to everyone who passed by his tent, even the bad-mannered and undeserving. Because of this, he also entertained God’s angels. If we practice unconditional hospitality, we may welcome not only angels, but also the Lord himself. Jesus told us, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40). It is good to be kind to everyone, especially anyone who is not able to repay you.”
[Bernard Bangley, By Way of the Desert, p. 373]

The final spiritual practice in the Wisdom of the Wilderness series is charity. For some of us, charity is a weak word, a word to be avoided. Actually, charity is love in action, self-giving, and the generous offering of oneself for another.

Of course, today is Easter, the day on which we remember and celebrate Resurrection. Resurrection entails far more than the historical event of Jesus’ raising from death. It is also more that “what God does for me.” Christ is alive not only for me, but for every person and every living thing. Resurrection means that Christ is alive in the world, and that within other humans we can find the risen, living Christ. Thus, I am invited to see others differently . . . each person on the planet is someone for whom Christ is somehow alive.

Because life in the desert was harsh and demanding, the Monks of the Desert made much of offering hospitality to others, especially to strangers. Their lifestyle may have been austere, but they believed that love of God compelled them to offer charity to those who came to them.

They believed that in opening themselves to others, they were entertaining Christ himself. In fact, there are numerous stories from the tradition of the Desert Christians in which dreams and visions revealed to these holy men and women that in entertaining strangers, they had, in fact, encountered Christ.

A couple of centuries later, Benedict of Nursia made this the byline of his Rule of Life: “Greet the stranger as you would Christ.” To this day, Benedictine monasteries keep their doors open to wayfarers and other strangers who pass their way. I have been in monasteries to see this happen myself . . . hitchhikers and vagrants who wander in off the highway, given a place to stay and a meal by a monastic community always alert to the presence of “Christ among us.” I watched the beauty of this kind of expansive charity right before my eyes.

Such charity and hospitality is entirely consistent with the nature of God. I have come to experience that fundamentally, God is endlessly self-giving. For me, that is the essence of mercy. It is also entailed in grace. God’s self-giving never depletes God, that is, God gives from a never-ending source.

That self-giving nature of God is behind the Resurrection, which offers the life of God endlessly to the world . . . Jesus alive always and everywhere.

So one of the ways I am invited into Resurrection and into the life of God in the world is by offering myself. In other words, as I give of myself freely and generously, as God has given to our world, I extend charity (love in action) to others and to the world.

In this sense, Resurrection is never a private consumer product to be held onto, but is always to be shared, given away.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Our Sins Run out Behind Us"

Holy Saturday – April 4, 2015

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So he got up and went.

He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?”

The old man 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.

[Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 138 – 139.]

Abba Moses was a former robber, who gave up his life of marauding and thievery to live as a monk dedicated to God in the desert. A formerly vicious man, late in life Moses became known for his compassion. To others, he seemed to embody God’s generosity and mercy.

Scetis was one of the large monastic communities in the desert of Egypt. It became something of a hub for monastic activity during the period of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (3rd – 5th centuries). Life in community, while lived in some solitude, also included a great deal of interaction. These desert monks were known for their austerity and ascetic lifestyles. Moral failures or grievances against the other brothers or sisters would have been difficult to hide or cover up.

So someone in the community committed a fault. We’re not told what they did – or did not do – in the story. But the community called together a council to deal with this wayward brother. And they invited Abba Moses, who lived outside Scetis, to be a part of the council that would decide the fallen monk’s fate.

Moses, though, refused to attend the council, and though the others waited for him, he would not come. Finally, the convener of the council sent a special envoy to solicit Abba Moses’ attendance.

Our Abba found a water jug that had slight cracks and holes in it. He filled it with water and walked to the council. When the others saw him carrying the cracked jug, they wondered what it meant.

The wise one said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them. And yet today I am coming to judge the sins of another.”

This is a form of teaching by enacted parable. It was common among the Hebrew prophets (see Jeremiah and Ezekiel), and it was one of the ways Jesus taught.

Perhaps you would read the story again, and find the parts of yourself that identify with the various characters in the story . . . the one who committed a fault . . . those who convened the council to judge another . . . the Abba who went with a leaky jug . . . those who said no more to the wayward brother, but forgave him. What is your experience of each of these persons or groups?

Or maybe the story would cause you to give some consideration today to the sins that run out behind you, that you have not yet seen. This might include a prayer that would ask God to help you to see something about yourself that you have not previously seen.

Finally, you may want to allow this story to illumine your relationship to someone who has been tangled up in their own darkness or brokenness . . . their “fault”. As you are connected to this person – who may or may not have committed some fault – what is God’s invitation to you in relationship to him or her?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Carrying the Weight of Another Person

Good Friday – April 3, 2015

AN OLDER MONK AND A YOUNGER MONK were in Cellia. The older suggested that they live together. The younger refused, saying, “I am a sinner, Abba. I must not live with you.” But the older monk insisted. The old man was pure in heart, and the younger monk did not want him to discover that he sometimes had sexual cravings.

The older monk said, “I will go away for a week. When I return, we can talk about this again.”

Seven days later, the younger decided to test the older by saying, “While you were gone, I was strongly tempted. I went into town on an errand, and I ended up in bed with a woman.”

The older monk asked, “Are you penitent?”


“Then I will carry half the burden of this sin with you.”

The younger man responded, “Now I know we can stay together.”

[Bernard Bangley, By Way of the Desert, pp. 146 – 147]

Most people feel that their own sin is so unique, so dark, so despicable, that no one else would understand it, much less stand with them in it. I suppose this is part of the self that lives in perpetual shame, that feels “I am bad, I am a mistake” . . . never able to be freed from that compulsive, shaming lie.

But what a gift it is when, in the context of community-life or relationship, we can be in the presence of those who do not shame us, those who do not insist on keeping us locked in our shame. Instead, these persons know themselves and know the human condition well enough that they are not overcome by their own darkness, nor by our darkness. They love themselves and they love others with such expansiveness that their love can only be said to have come from God. In fact, their love IS love of God.

The wise and stable elder monk said to the novice, “I will carry half of the burden with you.”

In other words, “I’m not frightened by your sin. I’m not afraid to hold your lust and desires within me. Your darkness will not scare me away.”

A handful of times in life, I’ve felt that someone was walking alongside me who loved me deeply and unreservedly enough, that if I confessed my darkest self to them, they would say, “Let me have some of the burden. I will carry it with you.”

Of course, today is Good Friday, and on this day we are reminded of another, whose life and death said, “Here, I will carry your darkness for you . . .”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Self-Control that Is Mindful of Others

Maundy Thursday – April 2, 2015

ON A FEAST DAY IN CELLIA, brothers gathered to eat a meal at church. One of them told a server, “I do not eat anything that has been cooked. I only eat salted food.”

The server called out to another, “This brother does not eat cooked food! Bring him some salt.”

One of the brothers told the one on the restricted diet, “You would have done better to eat meat alone in your cell today than to have had this announced in front of everyone.”

[Bernard Bangley, By Way of the Desert, p. 355]

The spiritual practice of self-control reminds me that my own will and desire is not the defining context for life. Certainly it is one context for life, just not the only one.

The story of MY life is always lived out in the context of the story of OUR life . . . whatever the “our” may be for you and me. “Our life” may include family, church, community, and work . . . but it also includes “our life” as a human family, who you are and who I am as a part of the larger human race.

Because the way I live my life always takes place in the context of the larger “our life,” I cannot make decisions that only impact me. All my choices also impact others, both those near me and those I don’t know.

Self-control, then, invites me to live, decide, and relate mindful of the connections I have to others, to “OUR life.” If I make decisions that are entirely self-serving, I may do harm to someone else in the wider community, even if I don’t intend to do so.

In fact, my personal definition of spirituality says that the spiritual life is about a deepening connection with God that makes a difference in who we are with God, self, others, and the created world.

In the end, “my life” always exists within the context of “our life.” And further, “our life” exists within the context of God’s story or God’s desire for the world.

If my vision is limited to “my life” – whether my food is salted or unsalted – then my vision is too small.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Healthy Balance of Solitude and Community

Wednesday of Holy Week – April 1, 2015

AMMA SYNCLETICA said, “We should always be discreet, remaining a part of the community rather than following our own desires. We are exiles from the world. We devote ourselves to faith in God. We have no need of the things we have abandoned. In the world, we had status and a wide variety of food. Here we have a little to eat and not much of anything else.”
[Bernard Bangley, By Way of the Desert, p. 3]

I am highly introverted by nature. I prefer a corner of the room and a good book to a lot of conversation. Often, I’m slow to respond in conversation or when asked for my opinion. My opinions do not form by speaking them – as with many extraverts – but by thinking about them, slowly letting them gestate within me.

[I once heard a young adult talk about dating someone who was high introvertly. She said that in the course of normal conversation, he would go silent . . . then several days later, he would pick up the conversation from that silent point where they left off. She, being an extravert, became very frustrated, thinking, “We’ve moved on since then!” But he, as an introvert, was simply processing and reflecting before putting himself out there. I don’t think the relationship lasted all that long!]

I know something of this tension. I have close friends who are extraverts, who want to talk things out and have conversations about important issues. They need that interaction. I, on the other hand, find myself wanting to find a quiet place to reflect, to meditate, to listen for some solitary wisdom.

It has taken me long years to know the wisdom of Amma Syncletica’s admonition to remain a part of community “rather than following my own desires.” There are many times when I’m tempted simply to follow my own desires, or what I sense to be God’s desires for me. It is my growing edge to remain in community, to stay in relationships, even those that challenge me and are difficult for me.

German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his spiritual classic, Life Together, wrote beautifully about this tension. He encouraged those who love being with others to beware of too much community . . . and those who love being alone to beware of too much solitude. The extravert needs solitude and the introvert needs community. Both are necessary for a growing life in God.

Wherever we fall on the introvert/extravert scale, we need to nurture the virtue and the wisdom of the other path.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

You Can't Outrun Anger

Tuesday of Holy Week – March 31, 2015

A BROTHER became tired of his community and the behavior of others often annoyed him. He decided, “I will go off somewhere by myself. Then I will neither talk nor listen and shall be at peace. This anger I feel will depart.” He went out into the desert and made his home in a cave.

One day he placed a water jug he had filled on the ground. It rolled over, spilling its contents. He filled it again and it fell over again. When this happened the third time, he became enraged, took hold of the jug and smashed it against the rocks.

Calming down, he realized that anger had mocked him. “Here I am by myself and anger has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever we live, we need to work at being patient with God’s help.”

[Bernard Bangley, By Way of the Desert, p. 110]

The brother in this story could be any of us. The impulse to move away from difficulties, troubles, and struggles lives within us. We see our own interior landscape (anger, for this brother), and believe that if we lived in a different place, worked with other people, or were free of current responsibilities, we would be free of that which lives within us.

Of course, this thinking is an illusion. The root of our difficulty is never “out there” as much as it is “in here,” within us. It may be more convenient to blame our situation. It may feel better to blame our current state on someone else around us. But our first task, as humans growing into God and becoming the persons God created us to be, is to attend to our own inner life. That includes seeing ourselves and our own dark shadows for what they are.

Most always, though, it is far easier – and more pleasant to our fragile egos – to blame someone else for our problems than to take the difficult look within ourselves.

One gift of living in community – that is, in close relationship to others – is that someone always seems to put their finger right on the emotional spot where I am most tender.

Or to say it another way, there always seems to be someone around who, knowingly or unknowingly, can pull my triggers and get a reaction from me.

When someone else puts a finger on a tender emotional place . . . or when another someone pulls my trigger . . . I am given an opportunity to see something of myself that I may not have noticed previously. For just a moment, the curtain on my inner life gets pulled back just a bit, and I’ve invited to take a peak at myself.

I said above that this is a gift, though rarely does it feel like a gift. The gift comes, though, when with intentional reflection and prayer, we begin to see our own interior. We see the emotional reactions that live within us. And we slowly stop blaming others for our reactions; rather, we begin to open up these parts of our lives to God for healing.

This brother in the desert found a teacher in the water jug that kept tumping over. God used the jug to teach him that the issue was not “out there,” with other persons or things, but rather lived within him. The brother put it this way: “My anger has mocked me.” And he said, “I am here by myself, and anger has beaten me.”

As he says in the parable, “Wherever we live, we need to work at being patient, with God’s help.”

Monday, March 30, 2015

Unable to Have a Fight

Monday of Holy Week – March 30, 2015

Two old men had lived together for many years and had never fought with one another. The first said to the other, “Let us also have a fight like other people do.”

The other replied, “I do not know how to fight.”

The first said to him, “Look, I will put a brick between us, and I will say, ‘It is mine,’ and you say, ‘No, it is mine,’ and so the fight will begin.”

So they put a brick between them and the first said, “This brick is mine,” and the other said, “No, it is mine,” and the first responded, “If it is yours, take it and go” – so they gave it up without being able to find an occasion for an argument.

[Benedicta Ward, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, p. 37]

This is one of the classic stories from the Desert tradition, quaint and almost too good to be true. Two old men who had lived together for many, many years did not know how to have a fight. I’d venture to say that even those who have lived in close proximity for a short period of time find this story hard to believe!

These men seem to have no attachment to things, no deep-seated anger, no sense in which they expected others to bow to their own self-identity.

I suppose it is so hard for me to believe this story or believe these men . . . because I can’t image life without some frustration of MY agenda, without some violation of MY rights, without some way that other people impede MY own notion of what life should be like.

Surely we could agree that these two brothers did not arrive quickly or easily at this place where fighting was impossible for them. Most likely, they did a great deal of inner work before living together. Each of them realized that life did not revolve around them, that “my life” takes place in the context of “our life” . . . which happens in the context of “life with God.”

Perhaps, today, I just need to shut up, get out of the way, and leave you with the story . . .
invite you to meditate on the story . . .
encourage you to find yourself in the story . . .
locate what appeals to you in the story . . .
and to ask you to listen for God’s invitation in this beautiful ancient tale.