St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

(16) A Shovel Full of...

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.”

Sometimes ancient wisdom needs no translation.

A contemporary example comes to mind. There is an elderly and beloved (and nameless) priest on the east coast who once related a similar story. The priest often walked from home to church, especially in warm weather. One Sunday morning, the priest passed by the home of a church member, one who rarely came to services.

On this Sunday, the absentee parishioner was preparing to work in his garden. He was keen to start spreading a fresh load of fertilizer delivered the day before. (This was fertilizer of the “organic” kind, let’s say. A bit malodorous.)

The man looked up and said, “When you’re at church today, Father, pray for me.”

The kind and gentle priest turned and said, “I will shovel that pile of horse sh*% at your feet before I shovel dirt on your grave when you die.” And with that he continued his walk to Liturgy.

It is easy to let ourselves off the hook. Easy to think that God will accept the minimum just as much as the maximum. Easier still is giving into spiritual paralysis. We might know that we need help, but we find it easier to drown in despair than to pick up a phone and schedule an appointment. We believe the gospel, but do we trust it? Belief is something we do with our head. Trust is something we do with our heart… and hands and feet and wallets.

But Jesus is clear. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Read these eight verses carefully.


“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace.  So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-33)


Jesus commands us to count the cost of discipleship  —  to realize with eyes wide-open just how much he requires of us, and to do so with the shrewdness of a general or venture capitalist. In this passage, Jesus does not describe discipleship in terms of the “birds of the air” or the “flowers of the field,” he uses the language of antagonism, renunciation, mockery, military aggression, surrender, and above all crucifixion. He didn’t say count the costs and add up the benefits. He just said count the costs.

Sometimes we need to hear the harsh word. It clears the cobwebs. Abba Anthony spoke such a word to his young brother. The AWOL church member heard such a word from his caring priest 1,700 years later.

We are not told whether the monk learned his lesson. We do not know whether he followed the elder’s advice “to make an effort” and “to pray to God” himself.

But the story turned out well for the Sunday gardener. He started going to church again.

When the man died, his priest chose to shovel dirt.

-Fr. Theophan

O Lord, teach me to pray, and you yourself, pray in me.  Make me always mindful of the Psalmist’s words:  “The earth is the Lord’s.  The fullness thereof.  The whole world.  And all who dwell therein.*” 
— Psalm 24:1

*the words spoken by an Orthodox priest when he
places dirt on the coffin, in the sign of the cross.

(17) A Sense of Wonder

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.'”

Father Thomas Hopko sometimes spoke like a desert father. He could spin your head with a sentence that was both obvious and profound, with a touch of paradox thrown in for good measure. One of his best was this:

“You cannot know God.  
But you have to know Him to know that.” 
— Fr. Thomas Hopko

As we struggle to love God and to love our neighbor  —  as we struggle to cultivate a deep and abiding spirit of repentance  —  we are constantly surprised by God. To experience his grace and mercy, especially as we learn more and more about own helplessness, is to try and swallow the sea. Our ideas about God crack under the pressure of so much love, so much tender care.

God constantly shocks and scandalizes the world. He chooses an insignificant nation for his chosen people. He remains faithful to them despite their recurring abandonment. He chooses the obscure and often the marginalized to be his actors in history. And then there is the Cross, the great act of divine submission. “He has put down the mighty from their throne, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away,” as Mary sings after Archangel Gabriel’s visit (Luke 2:52-53).

As the Christian learns over a lifetime to acknowledge her deep need for God and to accept with boldness and joy the free gift of God’s love, her old ideas about God give way to a sense of wonder. Love is a mystery. And as Orthodox we don’t break down mysteries, in the way we might break down a concept or a problem.  As Orthodox, we fall down before mysteries.  Our response is not to explain, but to worship.

St Gregory of Nyssa, brother of St Basil the Great, writes that “Concepts create idols. Only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees” (Life of Moses). As we experience God’s love over time, our sense of wonder grows. The god we thought we knew is the God we cannot know, but we had to get to know him to understand that, as Father Hopko would say.

This is why Abba Joseph earns the admiration of Abba Anthony. Joseph is an old friend and colleague of Anthony’s. They have labored long and hard together in the desert. Joseph is a desert father of tremendous wisdom. But when pressed to explain a passage of Scripture, Joseph does not try and shout down his younger brothers who offer their thoughts with confidence. Abba Joseph does not offer concepts. He offers wonder before the word of God.  “Abba Joseph,” says Abba Anthony, “has found the way.”

Lest we think that Abba Joseph is a simpleton who actually has no ideas worth sharing, it is important to remember that Abba Joseph is the subject of one of the most famous passages in “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.”


Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” 

- from Abba Joseph of Panephysis, Saying 7


Abba Joseph knows what he is talking about.  But to know that, he had to realize that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

-Fr. Theophan

Who is so great a god as our God! You are the God who does wonders (Psalm 77:13)!  Help me to let go of the tame and lifeless explanations of who you are that sit like idols in my mind, and call forth wonder in me at the mystery of your boundless and steadfast love. Make us all flame, O Christ who illumines our souls and bodies!

(18) The Healing Art

Some brothers were coming from Scetis to see Abba Anthony. When they were getting into a boat to go there, they found an old man who also wanted to go there. The brothers did not know him. They sat in the boat, occupied by turns with the words of the Fathers, Scripture and their manual work. As for the old man, he remained silent. When they arrived on shore they found that the old man was going to the cell of Abba Anthony too. When they reached the place, Anthony said to them, “You found this old man a good companion for the journey?” Then he said to the old man, “You have brought many good brethren with you, father.” The old man said, “No doubt they are good, but they do not have a door to their house and anyone who wishes can enter the stable and loose the ass.” He meant that the brethren said whatever came into their mouths.

There is no commandment that says “Thou shalt not talk too much.”

But maybe there should be.

Not because talking too much is, in itself, a bad thing. I have the blessing of knowing many people who are articulate, thoughtful, and wise. Full of experience. People who teach me a great deal. I would gladly pay to sit and hear them talk and share.

The problem with talking too much is that it limits listening. And almost always we communicate love to others, not by what we say, but in how we listen. Even the words that mean the most to us are often spoken by others who first took the time to hear our story. They speak to us in the second place, having first listened and understood us.

Dr. Albert Rossi is a clinical psychologist who teaches pastoral theology at St Vladimir’s Seminary.  He has a wonderful definition of listening. He calls it “love, delivered.” Allowing another person to tell his story  —  especially to explore grief, or to reflect on loss  —  creates a space in which that person can clean wounds and confront trauma. Listening is a healing art. It delivers love, because it communicates a willingness on the hearer’s part to be vulnerable and to enter the distress of the one who suffers.

In human communication, the mouth and ears cannot operate simultaneously. And so the one who talks too much is simply incapable of delivering love. Honestly, when surrounded by people who talk too much, you might as well “loose the ass” and join the wall of noise.

We know that Jesus listened. Jairus, the hemorrhaging woman, the centurion, the father of the epileptic son, the Canaanite woman, the ten lepers, Legion, Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, blind Bartimaeus, the Wise Thief, Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus  —  so many examples in which Christ first listens, and then heals the physical, social and spiritual pain of others.

And Christ can listen, no doubt, because his own words are short and sweet. When asked how to pray, Jesus gives us the Our Father (about 50 words). The longest parable? The Prodigal Son, at 391 words in Greek. Final words? “It is finished.” Even if you judge Christ by his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), you have to concede that it would take less than 15 minutes to hear what Jesus has to say. He could change a life by speaking a simple and timely word  —  “Drop your nets” or “Come down from the tree” or “Come and see.”

The old man in saying 18 speaks a critical word about his traveling companions. But in these words, don’t hear judgment or condemnation. Instead, hear sadness. The old man has discovered that his younger colleagues may be “good brethren,” but they are not on the path to becoming elders. He is saddened that listening is foreign to them. They do not aim to deliver love to a dying world.

-Fr. Theophan

Master who speaks through a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), give me ears to hear that I might understand (Mark 4:9).  And so that I might love.

(19) God Speaks... Do I Care?

The brethren came to Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.” Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also'” (Matt. 5.39). They said, “We cannot do that.” The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.” “We cannot do that either,” they said. So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,” and they said, “We cannot do that either.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.”

Get a copy of the Bible. Find a comfortable place to sit. Place the Bible in front of you. Hold it.  Rest the Bible on your lap.

Look at the Bible. Take three breaths, long and deep. Then say this to yourself, out loud.

“In front of me is a book of many pages.  On these pages are divine words.  The words of God, the One who made heaven and earth, and all that is in them.  This book describes God Himself, born as a human being.  His words and actions, exceeding all value.  More valuable than gold, or power, or comfort. These words set forth what is best for human beings when it comes to living life and treating others.”

(Are you in a hurry? Do this. Look at the Bible and say: “This is what God thinks.” And place a hard emphasis on the word *GOD* when you say it.)

Take another deep breath. Now ask yourself this question, aloud.

“Do I believe this?” Do I really believe this?

If the Bible is crafted by the same Person who made billions upon billions of galaxies …

If the Bible is fashioned by the same Person who weaves such beauty into creation as calculus, a baby’s laughter, or the mind of Shakespeare … 

If the Bible is the breath of the very Person who breathes life into you and me …

If the Bible you hold in your hand is this …

Shouldn’t it make your knees tremble, even just a little bit?

Abba Anthony is stunned that his brothers take Scripture for granted.  Scripture makes Anthony drop to his knees, moved at the same time by its majesty and intimacy. But Scripture barely registers as a minor concern for the others.

But set aside all that. Don’t think about Abba Anthony, or his brothers.

Set aside a quiet moment, and ask a question.

Do I accept what God says?

When Christ speaks a word, does it rise to the top of my list of things to do?

Do I believe that I should ask my enemy to sit at my table and share a meal?

Do I believe that, like Christ, I should seek out the powerless and the rejected? Spend time with them?

Do I even really know how to find the “powerless and the rejected”?

Or do I not care at all?

-Fr. Theophan

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes. Your hands have made and fashioned me.  Give me understanding that I may learn your commandments.
— Psalm 119:12, 73

(20) You're Doing it Wrong

A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, “If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.” The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, “Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.”

I can’t now unsee the monk in the meat suit, beset by dogs and birds. No doubt a cloud of flies as well. 

After a few good shivers, we might then breathe a dismissive sigh of relief and say “Well, thank God my aspirations do not include moving to a monastery.”

Well, not so fast. Time and again in the pages of the New Testament, to follow Jesus Christ is to choose the path of renunciation. Discipleship is not compatible with embracing the general emphasis in the fallen world on self-regard and rational self-interest. Faith dies when our vision is flattened so that only cold stones from the earth carry significance and value. 


Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Mark 10:15).

Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33).

Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36).

And he (Matthew) left everything, and rose and followed him (Luke 5:28).

Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mark 10:28)


The question is not whether the Christian is called to renounce the world, but rather when and where.

St. John Climacus in “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” sets forth 30 steps to guide the young monk on his journey toward sanctity. Written in the sixth century, “The Ladder” is a book of profound influence, second only to the Bible, as is often said.  It has been used by countless men and women over 1,500 years in the effort to “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14).

And guess what step 1 is, according to St. John of the Ladder.


Renunciation is not the last step, the one we can delay until we are “all in.” It is the first step, the one we must begin with. Put another way: followers of Jesus Christ are called to be all in, all the time.

OK, well what exactly must we renounce? The simple answer is everything, potentially. After all, Christ did not even count his equality with God as something to be held on to, but he emptied himself, and took the form of a servant, and even gave away his own life (Philippians 2:6-8).

But more important than what, is how. If the “how” of renunciation is kept in view, then the question of what to renounce just unfolds naturally. The question of what to renounce (and when) loses its scariness and fades into the background.

St John writes, “The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense, that begins with fragrance but ends in smoke. He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone, that always moves in the same way. [That is, revolves around itself, is self-centered.] But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and, like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire” (Step One, par. 13).

Love of God is the key that unlocks the vault of the human heart. 

And this is what the young monk is missing. He keeps back enough to take care of his needs. For a monk, this is a failure of nerve. He hears the anxious call of the world more loudly than the loving call of God, and so his renunciation is of a superficial kind. Abba Anthony warns him that it is only a matter of time before the demons tear away his heart, just as the wild animals ripped apart the meat.

The biggest struggle for many is accepting that God calls us, not because we are bad and he wants us to behave, but because we are his beloved and he desires to share his life with us. And what God offers  —  the peace of divine fellowship, the joy of the kingdom   —  is so much richer and life-giving than the pig food over which we salivate as prodigals in a far country (Luke 15:11-32).

-Fr. Theophan

 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
— Hebrews 12:28-29