Recently, I found myself remarking that things in the Catholic blogosphere have been getting so bewilderingly toxic that I could literally post nothing but the text of the Nicene Creed and reasonably expect at least three people to reply something like “Just like a LIBERAL/CUCKSERVATIVE. Your AGENDA is RUINING the Church! !!”
I was half-joking then, but I’m fully serious right now. Instead of working to be conformed to the image of Christ in love, I see Catholics of every age, political persuasion, and background tearing each other apart across the vast reaches of cyberspace. It’s disheartening. It’s saddening. The law of love our Lord laid down for us is nowhere to be seen.
The following ten anecdotes and stories aren’t really rules–they are windows into the truly radical nature of the spiritual life that should give us pause, especially before we hit the “reply” button. Culled from the ancient Sayings of the Desert Fathers & Mothers, these ten glimpses into the extraordinary lives of the fiercely holy men and women who pursued union with God in the deserts of Egypt and the ancient Middle East teach us how to transcend the ultimately petty boundaries that divide us.
In the desert, there were no political parties, no gay Vatican conspiracies, no agendas, no rad trads or progressives. Just a human being standing alone before God, answering for no sins but their own.
1. Listen – even to people you don’t like
Abba Joseph said to Abba Nisterus, ‘What should I do about my tongue, for I cannot control it?’ The old man said to him, ‘When you speak, do you find peace?’ He replied ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent and when a conversation takes place, it is better to listen than to speak.’
2. Judge no one – even if they’re wrong
There was at that time a meeting at Scetis about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, ‘In this sack which contains much sand, are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.’ The Fathers stood up and said, ‘Truly, this is the way of salvation.’
3. Flee anger – at all costs
Abba Isidore said, ‘One day I went to the market place to sell some small goods; when I saw anger approaching me, I left the things and fled.
4. Keep an open mind – and have patience no matter what
A monk used to say that there was a certain old man who had a good disciple. Through narrowmindedness he drove him outside with his sheepskin. The brother remained sitting outside. When the old man opened the door, he found him sitting, and he repented saying, ‘O Father, the humility of your patience has over- come my narrowmindedness. Come inside and from now on you are the old man and the father, and I am the younger and the disciple.’
5. Always maintain perspective
The same abba Xanthias said, ‘A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.’
6. When unsure how to react, keep it simple
A brother who shared a lodging with other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, ‘What should I do?’ The old man replied, ‘Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others.’
7. Remember how powerful your words are, and make them count
He [Abba Poemen] also said, ‘If man remembered that it is written: “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned,” (Matt. 12.37) he would choose to remain silent.’
8. Don’t take yourself too seriously
He [Abba Poemen] also said, ‘If you take little account of yourself, you will have peace, wherever you live.’
9. Seek to gain your neighbor, not alienate or win over them
He [Anthony the Great] also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’
10. Strive above all things to maintain true humility (and keep quiet about it)
Abba Isidore said, ‘The heights of humility are great and so are the depths of boasting; I advise you to attend to the first and not to fall into the second.’