Desert Fathers

Let Us Eat the Phlegm

in her book, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Benedicta Ward translates the following story of our Christian desert teachers:

At a meeting of the brothers in Scetis, they were eating dates. One of them, who was ill from excessive fasting, brought up some phlegm in a fit of coughing, and unintentionally it fell on another of the brothers. The brother was tempted by an evil thought and felt driven to say, ‘Be quiet, and do not spit on me.’ So to tame himself and restrain his own angry thought he picked up what had been spat and put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Then he began to say to himself. ‘If you say to your brother what will sadden him, you will have to eat what nauseates you.’

In case you missed it, one brother coughed up phlegm onto a different brother who grew angry from being spat on. The spat upon brother chose to fight the internal battle of anger rather than say anything to the sick brother and possibly hurt him.

So he eat the phlegm.

My beloved denomination is sick. Many of us are spewing up all sorts of phlegm onto one another. We are become angry that someone would say something repulsive; that someone might act against the “code of conduct” and even the Book of Discipline - that someone might spread their “disgusting” theology. Too many of us become angry and choose to correct, embarrass or even reprimand another (always in the name of love).

I desire the heart (and stomach) to eat phlegm. I desire to address my inner conflict and anger knowing that is where the enemies last stand will be. Or in the spirit of another desert saying:

If anyone speaks to you on a controversial matter, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say, “Yes.” If he speaks ill, say, “I don’t know anything about that.” Don’t argue with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.’

The world will be at peace not when we stop fighting, but when humanity is at peace with ourselves. For that internal peace will guide our actions toward one another. We do not have a denomination in conflict so much as the people that make up the Church are not at peace with our own selves. How do we overcome the internal anger and conflict within? Eat the phlegm.

Starting the Spiritual Life

The more that I engage with the sayings of the desert wisdom the more I come to see how little I really know about the Christian spiritual life. For instance, I struggle with anger and I try really hard to say the right things. I do not want to offend my neighbor and I do not want to say things that do harm. Of course I fail at this, but I still feel that the “ideal Christian” would never say anything hurtful. And then I read this:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour. And thus I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God. - The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Pambo thought, right up to the point of his death, that self-sufficiency and not being a drain on anyone (by avoiding bread he did not make) was virtuous. He thought that never saying anything he was sorry for was a saintly. And then, right at the point of his death, he saw that this “ideal” way of living was in fact not the way of God at all. Receiving hospitality and seeking reconciliation are the very beginning steps of one in the service of God.

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It is faithful to seek reconciliation. It is not faithful to keep so quite as to never offend or to think all that you say is without flaw. It is faithful to receive the work of others. The deficient one is someone who has never asked for help.

I am reminded once again that American values are not Christian values. The pious self-sufficient individual might think they are at the pinnacle of heaven, but Pambo says they have not even begun to walk the mountain.

Three Monks and One Sees

Benedicta Ward’s book has this story:

There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found hims also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see hims who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water.’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. They he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Today there are two major camps in the UMC. One claims the importance of peacemaking (Conservatives) while others are claiming the importance of tending to the sick (Liberals). Both camps have a good and Biblical claim on their task, and both are making good on the call. However, we now find ourselves in a bind where both camps are failing in spirit and there is such a turbulence in the Church. Neither camp sees the value of being quiet and still. Both camps are righteous in their cause and pouring water out, baptizing the work they do. Neither camp can see, as they churn up water, that we are drowning.

Photo by  Haley Phelps  on  Unsplash

The flailing and hand waving and crying out all is in an effort to ensure we can all stay a float through these troubled waters. It is the wisdom of the third monk that we need. The one who elevates silence, stillness, patience. Of course we do not give any merit to such posturing as it is seen as irrelevant and useless (all the while forgetting that Nouwen cautions us to the temptation of relevancy and that prayer is being “useless”).

And so what is the local church and church leader to do? How can we harness the wisdom of the third monk? Perhaps we can at least recall Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Church leaders, there is nothing wrong with the wisdom of the third monk. There is nothing wrong with stillness, waiting and trusting. There is nothing wrong with not doing “something”. There is nothing wrong with trusting in the buoyancy of God.

Is that not our call?

Failing To Be In The Service Of God

There is a little book by Thomas Merton called The Wisdom of the Desert. It contains not only some wonderful reflections by Merton but also a short primer on the desert mothers and fathers of the Christian tradition. Additionally, this book contains some of the “sayings” of the desert saints. These sayings can be easy fairly straight forward but rarely are they easy to understand much less live out. For instance:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour.

Here is a desert father who on his death bed and he is recalling how he worked hard and spoke well. This is the sort of thing that we all might strive for in our lives. To be able to not be a burden, drain or freeloader but to be one who worked hard for their bread and earned it all. Additionally, to be someone who spoke their mind with clarity and such wisdom they had no regrets.

However, I cheated. This is not the whole saying. This is the last line of the saying:

And thus I do to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God.

Pambo understands, but apparently only on his deathbed, that being in service to God requires receiving the service of others and reconciling with neighbor. If we live the life we think we are supposed to live (i.e. self sufficient and without need to apologize) then we have failed to be in the service of God. We have failed to be agents of giving the gift of receiving another’s hospitality as well as failing to speak in any way that might upset someone so that we don’t say anything meaningful at all.

The western value of self-sufficiency and the Southern USA’s value on being “nice” are not Christian values. Beware of the false teachers in the world who say the things that look like they are of the way, but in fact lead to destruction. Self-sufficiency and “niceness” sound like they are good, but ultimately they get in the way of the values that lead to salvation - humility and repentance.