(6) First the Bad News
Abba Pambo was a disciple of Abba Anthony. Pambo himself becomes one of the great leaders among the desert fathers in the generation after Anthony, but here the young monk seeks guidance from his elder.
Anthony’s response is classic. He gives two warnings. The first is a correction. The second is a comfort. It’s a-first-bad-news, then-good-news word from Anthony.
First, he warns young Pambo to distrust his own wisdom in spiritual matters. The desert tradition emphasizes this over and over: it never turns out well when we appoint ourselves the ultimate judge of what is good, true, and beautiful. As Father Thomas Hopko often remarked, “He who chooses himself as a spiritual guide has chosen a blind man and a fool.” The human heart is too complex to think that I can see and solve all my problems. Performing spiritual surgery on myself is like trying to repair a broken boat at sea.
But we persist, hard-headed, sailing our own listing ships. We most certainly “trust in our own righteousness.” We are slaves to personal opinion.
To the five “solas” of Martin Luther perhaps we should add a contemporary sixth: Sola Ego. I, alone! Each person is a self-appointed authority on most every matter. Rarely do we listen, genuinely. All of life is a comment box. Each person is a walking text field, ready to defeat competing points of view in five sentences, with a mic drop… or at least a devastating emoji.
Christ has something to say to “those who trusted in themselves” (Luke 8:9-14). To them he tells the parable of Publican and the Pharisee. There, the one who walks away justified is the one who seeks God, not because she has all the answers, but because she has all the questions. Not because she has all the solutions, but because she has all the problems. The one accepted by God is not the one who is correct, but the one who knows she needs correction.
But in this word to young Pambo, there is a second warning from Anthony, the one that is more comfort than confrontation. This is the good news that follows the bad. The desert father tells Pambo, “Do not worry about the past.” Your past will not keep you out of the Kingdom.
Again, the words of Christ: “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Anthony is telling Pambo to trust his Lord. Are you too weak to walk into the Kingdom alone? Confess that. Then see that your confession will carry you along toward Christ, as with the wings of an eagle.
(7) The Logic Of The Cross
The spreading snares of evil are thick indeed. The logic of the fallen world is based on power. We have weaponized our tribal rivalries so that military strength — the capacity to out-brutalize our neighbor — is the defining feature of a nation’s standing in the world. Economic systems come and go, but always rewarding those who dare to win at the expense of the weak. To be female is to be an object of control. To be poor is to be ignored, and often worse. Wealth is worshiped. Beauty is idolized. And for most, both old age and sickness are tickets to invisibility.
The world is a place that rewards the strong, and grasping for strength is incentivized. To be subject to the will of another is considered less than truly human. We are driven to always climb higher than others in the hierarchy of coercion and control. JRR Tolkien gets it right. The rings of power in this world are many, and we are programmed to covet the one ring “that rules them all … and in the darkness binds them.”
Abba Anthony sees this, and groans. “What can get through such snares?”
“Humility,” is the answer he hears.
But in the first place, it is not our humility that will carry the day. This word from Abba Anthony points in the first place to the humility of Christ.
Christ did not grasp for power, even though he was equal to God. He did the opposite. He took the form of a slave, and was obedient in love even though it led to certain and humiliating death (Philippians 2:4-8). Christ chose poverty. Born into occupation. He had no home. No connections. No trust fund, or starter loan. He did not build a movement, but rather watched as even his closest friends left him abandoned and condemned.
In the fallen world, as Abba Anthony saw, either we are losing, or we are winning at someone else’s expense. But the good news proclaimed by the Church — the gospel on which we place all our hope — is that Christ identifies with the weak. This is the logic of the Cross. The Cross is the great statement that God chooses to stand with those who are losing. To suffer with them as the rest of the world, strong and successful, only offers its contempt and indifference.
This is good news because God is humble, and offers rest to the weary.
God does not consume his people. He says “Consume Me, rather than one another.”
God does not threaten. He invites.
“Christ did not come to make bad men good. He came to make dead men live.”
The way through the snares is to make Christ’s humility our own. To stand with him as he stands with the weak. This is humility born, very simply, from love. Love that says, “If I can’t end your suffering, I will stand with you in the midst of it. I will not abandon you.”
Christ, you come to us as both victim and redeemer. Priest and sacrifice. Offerer, and offered. Tear down the dividing symbols that I use to elevate my will, and to lower the value and dignity of others. Replace fear with love, by any means necessary.
(8) With Meat On My Breath
I was once told the story of an admired parish priest in Russia. He lived in the late 1800's in a town near St. Petersburg. The residents were civil servants of some high degree or another. The parish was well-heeled, full of the cultured and finely-dressed, and the priest was a gentle and prayerful pastor.
Something troubled the priest, however. It was Great Lent, and it was obvious to him that the parish family was divided. There were factions in the town, and the competing groups were vicious to one another. Terrible rumors were spread. There was much gossip and slander. Friendships were shattered. Reputations were destroyed.
All the while, the people kept up appearances. Since it was Great Lent, the people were careful to fast just as they were supposed to. No meat of any kind. No dairy, cheese, or eggs. No vodka, and only a little wine on Sundays. No theater, no concerts, and no dinner parties. On the surface, their fasting was perfect.
But inside, they were devils, full of venom and hatred for their neighbor. And the good priest was devastated.
One Sunday morning, a few weeks before Pascha, the priest stood at the church doors, welcoming his parishioners. He carried with him several long braids of kielbasa. And as the townsfolk approached, the priest took violent and giant bites of the sausage, chewing each one loudly, just inches from their stunned and sickened faces.
The people were scandalized! How could our pious priest break the Lenten rules so flagrantly, they murmured indignantly. And on a Sunday too! Has he lost his mind? Should we tell the bishop?
When it was time for his sermon, the priest rose and said just one thing. “With meat on my breath, brothers and sisters, I am keeping this fast better than you. I am eating a pig, but you eat one another.” And with that he returned to his place in the altar.
The townsfolk in the story lack the discernment spoken of by Abba Anthony. Fasting has no value in itself. Fasting is a tool. One that is there to help us discover our deep need for a Savior. This does not mean that we can discard the guidelines given to us by the Church. Instead, we are to remember that fasting is an instrument which the Church in her wisdom gives us so that we might uncover and address our failure to love both God and neighbor.
As Archimandrite Meletios Webber writes in Bread & Water, Wine & Oil, “If you are going to say something nasty about someone on Holy Friday, you may as well say it with a pork chop in your mouth.” Fasting is of no value if we refuse to repent of anger. In fact, fasting may just make things worse, compounding our hardness of heart with denial and hypocrisy.
Jesus speaks this word about fasting: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
And finally, notice that Jesus does not say “if” you fast. He says “when” you fast. It’s not an option. But neither is it to be done without prayer and discernment. It is better to eat a cheeseburger each day of the Nativity Fast than it is to consume our brothers and sisters as we approach the Chalice on Christmas morning.
(9) Getting Out of God's Way
A blind man lives in my neighborhood. But his blindness does little to slow him down. He walks to town each day, covering several miles. He has errands to run. A life to live. He knows the territory very well. And this intimacy with his many pathways is the key to his success.
However, I could easily disrupt my neighbor’s routine. Tomorrow, I could scatter a thousand golf balls across the sidewalk. Or maybe one cold winter’s morning I might ice down the crosswalk near his home. Or I could menace him with my new drone, pestering my neighbor with a series of flybys and brushbacks.
What could be more cruel? And if the criminal code in Massachusetts is silent on the matter, you can at least be sure that this disgrace would stir up God’s divine wrath. Leviticus 19:14 actually condemns this kind of shameful trickery: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”
Us: [being obnoxious in the back seat]
God: Don’t make me stop the car!
The world for ‘stumbling block’ in Greek is skandalon, from which we derive our word scandal. To scandalize someone, in the Old and New Testament, is to put a stumbling block in his way. It is to trip him, to deny his forward progress.
Christ uses this same word in his condemnation of those who misuse authority: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).
Abba Anthony emphasizes this same warning from Christ. God calls each person into the Kingdom, and it is a terrible sin if we cause our brothers and sisters to trip by putting hazards and stumbling blocks in their way.
This is one way of hearing Christ’s commandment to “pick up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is always in the first place about gathering our personal spiritual baggage and moving in the direction of the Kingdom. But if I don’t pick up my cross, if I am just standing around in life while my cross is lying on the ground, then sooner or later someone will trip on my unattended chaos. If I don’t deal with my sins — if I don’t seek the help and healing I need — then I am not just hurting myself, I am also creating risk for others.
And if others have tripped on my spiritual litter — on the cross I fail to carry — then they will cease moving towards the Kingdom. They will be idle. And so their crosses will also then clutter the ground like a bunch of spikes on the highway. Others around us trying to follow Christ will not stand a chance.
Essentially, if we do not pick up our crosses and follow Christ, we are in the way. We prevent Jesus from gathering his children. We prevent his love from transforming the lives of others. We arrest their forward movement into the Kingdom. To pick up my cross is to get out of God’s way. It is to get out of my neighbor’s way as well.
The surest way to scandalize my brother is to ignore my many crosses, leaving them abandoned by the roadside.
The surest way to gain my brother, and so gain God, as Anthony says, is to clear my brother’s path by attending to my own need for Christ’s love and mercy. The cross on my back will no longer be a threat to the unsteady feet of the weary who are also seeking the Kingdom.
(10) A Touch of the First Century
This reflection will be published on Friday, November 25, but as I write, it is now late in the afternoon on Thursday, November 24. A wonderful Thanksgiving Day is drawing to a close.
We started the day by celebrating the Divine Liturgy. We then moved to the fellowship hall for a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner. Liturgy was attended by 32, and the dinner by 25. There was so much life and laughter.
In many ways, our Thanksgiving Day celebration at Saint Nicholas resembles the experience of the early church. In the first and second century, the eucharistic liturgy was celebrated in the context of a small feast. Christians would gather at the house of a local landowner, and the elders of the community would lead the faithful in the prayers of consecration, and a meal would be shared by all, whether rich or poor. Week in and week out. Believers in the community would not only pray together, they would enjoy an extended time of fellowship.
For certain, our familiar coffee hour on Sundays plays a similar role. But coffee hour mainly serves a different, more practical purpose. Coffee hour helps us to continue breaking the fast that precedes communion. Without coffee hour, the fast would continue in practical terms for another hour or so, until one returns home.
Coffee hour can be a time of fellowship, absolutely. But coffee hour is often focused, and somewhat short-lived. We each have places to go and schedules to resume. We visit briefly with friends, but rarely is coffee hour a place where new relationships are forged, or where casual relationships and deepened and strengthened.
We come closer to the vision of Christian brotherhood when we are able to celebrate as we do at Thanksgiving. Today at Saint Nicholas so many set aside, not just a few hours, but in essence the whole day. Simply to pray together, and to be together. To rejoice, and to enjoy the company of fellow believers without much concern for resuming the schedules we have put on hold.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Psalm 133:1)!
Abba Anthony reminds his disciples that returning to the monastic cell for prayer is critical to maintaining the inner peace given by the Holy Spirit. The cell is a personal room of prayer and rest. Without the cell, the monk will lose himself in the cares of the world. His peace will be destroyed.
For us, celebrating the Liturgy is our cell. (Even when it feels like hard work!) But not just the Liturgy. What restores peace is communion with Christ, followed by communion with one another. Unhurried, and open-ended.
Coffee hour is important, to be sure. It is a ministry of mercy and hospitality that is at heart of parish life. But missing in the experience of most parishes is the sense of “feast” that, in the early church, attended every celebration of the Liturgy. Perhaps someday we can set aside a Sunday for an extended time of fellowship. Think of a parish picnic after Liturgy, waterside by Derby Wharf. Or during the cold months of winter, we could organize open houses, members of the parish playing host to one another. And think of doing this regularly — the more often, the better.
The joy of this day is a taste of the joy of the Kingdom. If it’s good once or twice a year, it is a beautiful thing for every celebration of the Liturgy. The first century tells us so!