Wisdom

Expect Peace After Only Eight Years

Benedicta Ward translates this story:

A hermit who was anxious went to Theodore of Pherme and told him all about it. He said to him, ‘Humble yourself, put yourself in subjection, go and live with others.’ So he went to a mountain, and there lived with a community. Later he returned to Theodore and said, ‘Not even when I lived with other men did I find rest.’ He said to him, ‘If you’re not at rest as a hermit, nor when you’re in a community, why did you want to be a monk? Wasn’t it in order to suffer? Tell me, how many years have you been a monk?’ He said, ‘Eight.’ Theodore said, ‘Believe me, I’ve been a monk for seventy years, and I’ve not been able to get a single day’s peace. Do you expect to have peace after only eight years?’

We have an anxious church that is seeking peace. It is a church that asks how long must we wait for the peace we say we all desire. If a single monk, Theodore, did not have peace after seventy years, then what makes a denomination of 3 million think that we can have peace after just fifty years?

We can split the denomination, I understand it has happened before. I understand that growing by dividing is possible. I understand there is harm being done. However, what makes us think that the split that the UMC is facing will be THE split that brings us to the peace we long for? What makes us think that any denomination or church could ever be at peace?

Maybe the peace we say we long for is just the excuse we cling to in order to divorce ourselves from one another.

How long must we wait for the peace we desire? Longer than we have tried - if we have ever started. A split will not bring us the peace we think we will get. Fights will continue, just read the Bible. Do we think that this is the generation that will arrive at the peace the church says it desires?

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.

Failing to Acquire the Fire We Desire

A few times a year I hear some variation of being on fire. Someone might say, “I was on fire for God after that experience.” Or perhaps giving voice to an aspiration one might say, “I want to be on fire for God.” Of course there is the idea that the church is too lame/boring/irrelevant and if only it were “on fire” then all would be right with the church. We talk about being on fire in all sorts of ways with the understanding that there is something overwhelmingly positive and admirable about being on fire.

However much we might long to be on fire, it seems that too many of us are not. How is it that we can desire something so deeply, so often, and so intensely but rarely acquire this fire we desire?

Photo by  Siim Lukka  on  Unsplash

Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

Amma Syncletica is one of the few desert mothers that we have some writings of. She puts her finger on perhaps why we are not on fire as often as we might desire:

“In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to life a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said, Our God is a consuming fire - Hebrews 12:24). So we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and heard work.” - Becoming Fire, Edited by Tim Vivian.

This saying has multivariate meanings to be sure but one of those is the pain, tears and work that is required on our parts to help foster the ignition of fire. Some of the smoke of practicing the disciplines is that they do not “produce” anything or that we might even feel silly doing them. Praying to God does not seem to make anything happen and we might even feel like it is magic thinking to talk to an ineffable and immeasurable God. So just as we begin to step away from the work of kindling the fire.

in our efforts to fully immerse ourselves in the waters of life, we might overlook that if we want to be on fire for God, that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for water-soaked wood to catch fire. Jesus had to go to the desert. The disciplines are often practices that draw us into emptiness (fasting, sabbath, giving, serving, etc.). The spiritual life might be thought of trying to dry us out so to catch fire. No wonder we are unable to acquire the fire we desire. Immersed in waters of business and novelty we are unable to dry out and catch the flame.