Wisdom

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 So the two went away to see hims who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles.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?

Be Good To The Imposters....

Who likes an imposter? They are fake and phony. They are a shame and a con. Of all the people in the world, those double-crossing pretenders are among the worst.

I think we can all agree.

Among the worst types of imposters are those who use their fake-ness in order to freeload off the hard work of others. We all know the type. They are everywhere, and the last thing you want to do is encourage the behavior. Which is why I don’t give money to anyone who I know is faking it. They are taking advantage of the welfare of others and, if I had my say, we would eliminate all welfare everywhere.

There is a Talmudic teaching about the potential risks of freeloaders on the welfare system that instructs the faithful, “to be good to the imposters, for without them our stinginess would lack its chief excuse.” (source).

Ouch.

The great thing about this teaching is how it calls us to pay attention to where the source of the sin or problem is. The one who is stingy, needs the freeloader in order to justify being stingy. For without the freeloader the stingy person would not have an excuse to be stingy and they would need to become generous. And if there is anything a stingy person does not want to become it is generous. So if you want to remain trapped in being stingy, then you better be kind to the freeloading imposter.

Be good to the one who angers you, for without them your superiority would lack its chief excuse.

Be good to the one who wrongs you, for without them your resentment would lack its chief excuse.

Be good to the one who you hate, for without them your hate would lack its chief excuse.

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.

How Do We Treat The Demons?

Over the past couple of years I have found a new life by reading and studying the wisdom of the desert Abbas and Ammas. There are many stories and "words" in this wisdom and I am not the first to explore this vast landscape. Through my studies I have come to see there is at least one thing that distinguishes that desert Abba/Amma from the student. And it is in how they each relate the the demons. 

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti -  Kimbell Art   Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti - Kimbell Art

Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS  Museo Nacional del Prado  ©   By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS Museo Nacional del Prado©

By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

Demons was a word to describe the different temptations these early hermits encountered. The demons tempted them to eat, drink, fornicate, wander, etc. There were as many demons as there were people who were tempted to abandon their quest of Love for God and all. 

Beginners would do, perhaps as we all might do, seek for ways to banish the demon. It makes sense that if you see a demon that you would want to banish and destroy it. Beginners would soon discover that the demons were too powerful to defeat. 

The more seasoned monks turned from trying to defeat the demons to tolerate them. It was a fact of life that temptations would come and it was a matter of keeping their rule of life that one could tolerate the existence of the demon. This is a significant turn in the life of the monk as they moved from desiring the death and destruction of the temptation to learning to keep it at bay.

However, the Abbas/Ammas took the next step. They did not tolerate the temptations they learned that the temptations were the way to love. That to disengage with the temptation or to even work for its destruction meant that the monk never experienced the Grace of God. 

This three fold movement - destruction, tolerance, embracing - requires a deep dedication and devotion to love even the most vile and evil. This does not mean the Abbas/Ammas delighted and let the temptation/demons do as they pleased. Abbas/Ammas fought with the demons all the time. It was in the fighting with the demons that the teachers came to see what the demons have to teach each of us. 

There are temptations in your life. There are people and forces in your life you may even call demonic or evil. And to be sure, there is evil in the world. There is evil in the world that is to be confronted - slavery, hate, enslavement, war, etc. These early monks were talking less about social evils as much as they were talking about the evils that come into our hearts. The desert wisdom is not clear on what to do in the face of injustice, Jesus had much to say about that. The desert wisdom is much more directive on what to do in the face of the demon of the soul. Do we desire it dead? Tolerate it's existence? Or can we cohabitate with it?