(11) Sins Against the Body
There is a sense in which this is obvious. If you live in the desert, you will not be tempted by chocolate cake, bad drivers, or Netflix. Unless you have an unusual obsession with sand, extreme heat, and scorpions, then there is little that you will hear, see, or say that will lead you to curse your neighbor, as Abba Anthony says. The only temptations are those from within, those patterns of thinking that lead us to forsake love of God and love of neighbor.
But let’s poke at this a bit. Abba Anthony has more to relate here than just the eccentricities of desert living.
The word for fornication in the original Greek is porneia [por-NEE-uh]. In Scripture, and in the literature of the early Church, porneia refers specifically to a sexual relationship between two people who are not married.
But if you live in solitude anywhere, most certainly in the desert, then porneia in this specific sense is not really a possibility. It takes two to tango, as they say.
So what’s going on?
There is a more general sense of porneia that is useful as a focus. To our modern ear, the term “sin against the body” is almost exclusively understood in a personal and private sense. We suffer from a long history of thinking that the body is somehow something “less than” the rational and spiritual parts of who we are. This is the lingering attraction of the heresy of gnosticism, according to which the body (as material) is something less valuable and more corrupt that the soul (as something spiritual).
But we reject any form of gnosticism, as Orthodox Christians. And we have done so since the very first centuries of the Church. (Gnosticism keeps rearing its ugly head, though. But that’s a reflection for another time.)
Worse than a sin against my personal body, however, is a sin against the (capital-B) Body to which we all belong through baptism. The worst sin is any sin that threatens to break the Body of Christ. The most damaging sin is the one that breaks apart the Church, the communion of believers.
And here is where Abba Anthony really strikes gold: in this more general sense, ALL sin is porneia. In other words, all sin is something that threatens to break apart the communion of baptized believers.
Abba Anthony is reminding us that there is no such thing as a private sin. There is no sin that is not a sin against all our brothers and sisters, whether it is the theft of money or the theft of another’s beauty in the silent confines of thought.
Even in the desert — even if you have been alone there for 40 years — every sin is a sin that damages the whole Church. When I fail to love God and to love my neighbor with all that I have, not only do I take several steps away from God, I also walk away from the essential and life-giving solidarity in Christ which I share with all members of the Church.
This is why the prayer at the end of confession asks God, not only to grant forgiveness of sin, but also to reconcile and unite the repentant Christian once again to Body from which he has separated himself.
And this also is the power of God’s love for us. When I turn to God in repentance, God is quick to erase the distance between where I am, and where he is. But he is also quick to erase the distance that I have managed to create between myself and all my brothers and sisters.
Christ, who welcomed the sinner and dined with publicans and harlots, enter my desert and overwhelm my sense of shame and separation with the healing power of your love. Just as the thief gained paradise in a single moment, remember me as well when you come into your kingdom.
(12) Donkeys, Demons and Discernment
This is a bizarre little story that might lead us to shrug our shoulders and say, “What happens in the 4th century, stays in the 4th century.” A story with donkeys and demons might have made sense to desert dwellers 1,700 years ago. But is there a word here for North Americans in the 21st century?
At the heart of this saying is the monastic virtue of discernment. Very simply, discernment is the gift of distinguishing between what is true and false. In his biography of Abba Anthony, St. Athanasius the Great (in 360 AD) relates that Anthony was for certain a person famous for his discernment, and pilgrims often traveled great distances so that Anthony might help them see the difference between truth and delusion.
Such is the case, for example, with the brothers in the story. They come to Anthony “to find out from him if [their visions] were true, or if they came from the demons.” Notice the possibilities according to the brothers: EITHER the visions are true, OR they come from demons.
The surprise in this story is that Abba Anthony, as usual, dismantles our usual assumptions. Anthony tells the brothers about his own vision, by which he learns of the death of the donkey. Where does Anthony receive this true vision? Surprise… from the demons! (Remember, Anthony has the gift of discernment. If he says that his vision comes from demons, then he speaks the truth.) The brothers then realize that true visions are not necessarily without risk. True visions might also come from the demons.
OK, so what does this mean, honestly? Do we really believe in “demonic truths”? Is there such a thing as knowledge which is dangerous to possess?
I think the answer to this last question is most certainly yes. Think about technology. Technology is neutral, neither good nor bad. Technology becomes good or bad once we decide to use it in one way or another.
As knowledge grows, we can build bigger bombs and more deadly surveillance networks. We can perfect gene editing. We can increase the accuracy of genetic testing. Cloning is a perennial object of investigation. And medical research in general is driven by a hunger to prolong life by any means necessary.
But in the end, new technology is either kept in check by the good guys through limited and moral use, or it is exploited by the bad guys for the sake of money, power, or reputation.
If a thief learns the location of unsecured gold on his way to Vespers, the thief is likely to change his evening plans.
If a recovering addict overhears a conversation about where to find abandoned heroin, the probability of her relapse increases dramatically.
If a securities dealer accidentally learns that a drug company will win FDA approval, he will be tempted to make an inside trade that grabs a handsome but illegal profit.
Are these “true visions” from the demons? The one with discernment will know.
(13) A Little Bit Mary, A Little Bit Martha
The theologian Vigen Guroian was recently asked to offer a one-word definition of Orthodox Christianity. His response?
There are a thousand examples of balance to which one can point. I’ll pick one. Canon law. (Hold on. Don’t fall asleep. I promise to be brief. Plus, you can say you learned something about … well, canon law. It will count as a lenten podvig!)
We have hundreds of disciplinary “rules” in the church, starting with Holy Scripture and including what feels like countless council proclamations. You know some of them: no animals in church (Trullo 88), no one who marries an actress can be ordained (Apostolic 18… what?!). And often these canons are held up by some as invariant standards, as if one’s eternity is at risk if you don’t obey every guideline to the letter of the law.
This is silly, and often an abuse. The problem is not the canonical literature itself, but in how it is received by Christians. The key is a single canon, known as Trullo 102, from the Quinisext Council of 692. In part it says:
“It behooves those who have received from God the power to loose and bind, to consider the quality of the sin and the readiness of the sinner for conversion, and to apply medicine suitable for the disease, lest if he is injudicious in each of these respects he should fail in regard to the healing of the sick man.”
Trullo 102 goes on (and on). But the point is beautiful. Trullo 102 is the canon that helps us understand all other canons. Think of it this way.
Trullo 102: Hey Christian! Why are you reading this big book of church rules?
Christian: Well, if I don’t know the rules, I might break them, and be condemned.
Trullo 102: No listen to me. The Church is a hospital, not a courtroom.
Christian: What do you mean?
Trullo 102: You are not guilty. You are sick.
Christian: So how do the rules help me?
Trullo 102: The canons are not rules. Canons are spiritual medicine.
Christian: How do I use them to get better?
Trullo 102: No self-medication! These are guidelines for your spiritual fathers to apply.
Christian: How will they know how much medicine I need?
Trullo 102: If they know you. They know the dosage. So make sure they know you.
The pastor (bishop, priest, abbess, youth pastor, chaplain) is an image of Jesus Christ, the “Physician of our souls and bodies” as we sing at the Liturgy. And the pastor, because he or she knows the patient, will know whether to apply the church’s vision of discipleship either strictly or more gently. Spiritual guidance is a medical art, not an algorithm.
Abba Anthony shows us this kind of balance. He knows when he must lead his brothers in arduous prayer, and when he must allow them to engage in holy play. Otherwise the brothers will break like a hunter’s overused bow.
And of course, an Orthodox Christian is a “Christian in balance” because Christ himself invites the baptized into a holy rhythm of work and rest. Starting with his first word, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:7), Christ opens to us an upward spiral of preparation and fulfillment. We feast and we fast. We confess and we commune. We worship and we minister.
Christ invites us to work and to pray, just as he does. He urges us to seek the Kingdom, promising that all else will be added, as we need. Jesus encourages us to be a little bit Mary, and little bit Martha (Luke 10:38-42 , and John 11:1-44 ).
(14) A Touch of Holy Friday
The young monk is a wonderworker. Abba Anthony admires him, calling him “a ship loaded with goods.” But Anthony foresees trouble. “I do not know if he will reach harbor,” the desert father says.
Anthony notices something in the brother that troubles him. Could it be pride, in one so young yet so accomplished? Seems likely. Recall the end of the story. The brother is so overwhelmed by his failure that he insists on needing ten days to complete his repentance.
*** Really, really important reminder: you only need a single moment to repent. ***
But the monk does not accept this. He insists on something epic. Nothing less will do. He claims to need ten days to make “satisfaction” for his mistake - so large in his own eyes is his own sin. Ten days, no doubt, filled with continuous vigils, fasting, and prostrations. Feats of strength, full of self-hatred. Tears and dark thoughts, shame that suffocates. The young monk does not trust in God’s infinite and unchanging love. He trusts in his own efforts, and in his own assessment.
Repentance is not a ten-day achievement. Healing may take a lifetime, but heaven is waiting right now to welcome us home. It is the gift of God in a single moment. Remember “The Wise Thief,” the arresting hymn of Holy Friday Matins:
“The wise thief didst Thou make worthy of paradise in a single moment, O Lord.
By the wood of Thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.”
In the end, the young monk was only given five more days to live, not ten. Was he reconciled to his loving Father? The story is silent on the question. But this we know: only the “single moment” of the wise thief was needed for the young monk, and for anyone, to accept the gift of forgiveness that God offers freely.
Anthony weeps for his young friend. Maybe the elder knows that the monk will be too proud to accept the basic fact of his need for God’s love and mercy. Maybe Anthony knows that his spiritual child will underestimate the power of divine mercy, and overestimate the power of his broken will.
There is no distance I can create that God cannot step across in a single moment, so long as I sit still and call on God to find and gather me.
Every day is Holy Friday. Every day is filled with ten-thousand moments in which forgiveness is offered to me. Countless invitations to breathe the air of paradise.
Will I chose to accept even a single one of them?
(15) Remembrance of Death
Thoughts are not sinful. If I suddenly have an angry urge in response to hurtful words, that first experience of anger is no sin. According to the monastic fathers, sin is the result of dwelling on the thought, of entertaining it. If I do not ignore the thought on its first appearance — if I do not “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) — then I begin travelling down a road that leads to sinful behavior, either in my own mind or through action.
Over nearly 2000 years, monastic women and men have worked out a system of learning to turn away the unloving thoughts that constantly assault us. It is not a complicated system. Essentially it is a holy rhythm of prayer and service (called Orthodox Christianity!) that aims at helping us to live in the present moment, always aware of the loving presence of Christ in our midst. It is a discipline of prayer and work that strengthen our “watchfulness” over the constant cascade of thoughts the flow from the ever-active mind.
The monk corrected by Abba Anthony is far from this ideal of watchfulness. He cannot suffer insults. He is so easily carried away by thoughts of anger and self-regard. He hungers for control over his image in the community. No doubt the same thing happens when he hears words of praise from his brothers. His head swells, and he dwells on how life will be so grand when surrounded by people who honor him. He does not control his thoughts, his thoughts control him.
Watchfulness, the monastics counsel, is strengthened by mindfulness of death. Each one of us will someday die. And far from a morbid fixation, remembrance of death is a key that unlocks a gift of great value. Remembrance of death puts so much of our usual striving into perspective. If we do it right, we are better able to sort the silly from the significant, the short-term from the eternal. The one who remembers that death is our common lot is strengthened to focus on daily life. She is empowered to ignore the past and the future and to focus on today, the one thing over which she has some influence.
A friend of mine, Father Sean Levine, recently offered an eloquent reflection on mindfulness of death. He wrote in response to the results of the election last month. Regardless of who you voted for, God calls each of us to be mindful of this day — not of yesterday or tomorrow. Today is the day when you can make a difference, in love. Mindfulness of death will help you.
His post follows below.
A rare post; I am usually submerged in 4 graduate classes (Marriage and Family Therapy) and counseling clients. I have, of course, been thinking about all the hysterics over the election, and it occurs to me to offer this recommendation.
In Orthodox Christianity, “remembrance of death” represents one of the most powerful antidotes to the sorts of attachments that lead to either worry and fear or elation and optimism stemming from any relationship to/with the illusory things of this world. Remembrance of death comes to us from the Fathers not as an option, or as some nifty spiritual gizmo that we can either add to our cafeteria-style repertoire of spiritual practices or leave aside. Rather, remembrance of death represents the Orthodox Christian posture toward every and all life circumstances. The impermanence of this life registers as a primary category of reflection.
Thus, I recommend this: find the nearest cemetery. Introduce yourself to a gravestone of choice, and apologize for the interruption. Complain long and loud, or celebrate long and loud about the outcome of this election. Whatever the person buried there tells you to worry about, worry about that. Whatever the person buried there celebrates with you, get elated over that. If nothing comes from beneath the dirt by way of either affirmation or challenge, then drop it, realize that in a few short days, you too will inhabit a small plot of ground somewhere and that none of this will matter, and get on with living in the moment.
I have to finish my midterm exam for Advanced Theory, a Key Competencies in Marriage and Family Therapy assignment, and an assignment for Psychopathology. But before I do that, I sit here gaze fixed on a picture I acquired on the “Death to the World” website of a skull upon which these words have been written:
“What you are, I once was. What I am, you will surely become.”
The Reverend Sean Levine is a Major in the United States Army, in which he has served as Chaplain since 1996. Deployed twice in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan, Father Sean is now involved in the Army’s Family Life training program.
Read more about him here: