The first catholic epistle of the Holy Apostle Peter instructs the faithful to “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), and it is true that we must love one another. In fact, St. John records it in his Gospel as nothing short of a commandment from the Lord, who said “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It is imperative, then, that we love one another. It is not optional. The loveless life is a graceless life, one that is unredeemed and ultimately unchristian. However, when we talk about loving one another, we often forget that love is often called upon to make sacrifices peculiar to itself; by this I mean that love, by its nature, desires closeness, joy, happiness, filial feeling, loyalty, devotion…but in fulfilling these (and by no means is this an exhaustive list), love sometimes has to rebuke, reprove, and correct. Did St. Paul love the Thessalonians any less for having to reprove them? In the Apocalypse, does not Jesus himself reprove the Churches? And who would suggest that He does so out of malice or maliciousness, and not out of his deep and abiding love for the sheep of His fold?

So the commandment to love one another, even as He loves us, must be remembered in this light; often we hear that we need to “speak the truth in love” and that is absolutely so. However, very often, this is just an excuse to avoid confrontation, possible hurt feelings, and as an excuse to keep from exercising our responsibility to love in this way. And so it is that sometimes, lest we be accounted puffed up and prideful, we will avoid these situations entirely, saying that it would be judgmental or uncharitable to say clearly what is the truth. But let us take a lesson from the Desert Fathers:

It was said concerning Abba  Agathon that some monks came  to find him  having
heard tell  of his great  discernment.  Wanting to  see  if he would  lose his
temper they  said  to him  'Aren't  you that   Agathon who is   said to  be  a
fornicator and a proud man?' 'Yes, it  is very true,'  he  answered. They
resumed, 'Aren't you  that Agothon who is always talking  nonsense?' 'I am."
Again they said 'Aren't you Agothon the heretic?' But at that he replied 'I am
not a heretic.' So they asked him, 'Tell us why  you accepted everything we
cast you, but repudiated this last insult.' He replied 'The first accusations
I take to myself for that is  good for my soul. But  heresy is separation from
God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.' At  this saying they were
astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.

The great desert father, Agathon, would not consent to being called a heretic; heresy, he says, is separation from God. Even though he showed mercy to others and accused only himself of great sins, he nevertheless took heresy and heretical teaching very, very seriously.  Abba Agathon understood that the slightest deflection of the truth would lead one into a plentitude of errors. And so we must also understand this, and not shrink away from making out boast in the Lord and His Church and its eternal truth–which is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Let us be unafraid to love our fellow Christians enough to reprove them in their errors…not in some kind of crusading, arrogant, condescending way, but honestly, frankly, and without compromising the Truth for the sake of appearing charitable. Because charity that doesn’t hurt a little, that doesn’t cost us anything, isn’t charity at all.

(Abba Isaiah) also said ‘When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will,  he then allows  it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.’

It strikes me every year as we pull out the Lenten Triodion on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, marking the beginning of the Lenten season, how much rebellion, how much hopeless self-will I continually pursue.  Being the unrepentant hedonist that I am, I continually complain and grumble over every little misfortune that comes my way, and yet, all too often I forget to bless and thank God for even the great things he has done for me (to say nothing of learning to actually thank Him for even my adversities).  Like a petulant child, I spend large portions of the year neglecting Him, forgetting Him, and relegating Him to my often-unused prayer corner and Sunday mornings.

Picking up the Desert Fathers always makes me realize something else about myself, something else that I’d rather forget, ignore, and lock up in a box under my bed.  Today, Abba Isaiah reminds me that it is God’s pity which sends misfortune and disaster upon the rebellious man, so that that man will suffer the pangs of desire for that which he ultimately does not want, so that he will come to himself, and realize that what he truly desires is God.

To come to one’s self is an important concept.  The Gospel tells us that, while lying in the mud with the swine and coveting their food, the Prodigal Son “came to himself” and realized that he would be better off even as a servant in the house of his father.  With the Sunday of the Prodigal coming up this weekend, reflecting on such an understanding of the suffering of rebellion takes on a much more poignant meaning to me.  Have I come to myself?  Or am I only dimly walking about in the shadows of death that permeate the world—that highlight the darkness of the world that I carry within me?

Lord, have mercy upon me, and show the light of Thy countenance upon me, revealing to me that which causes me to separate myself from Thee, that I may bring this brokenness and lay at Thy pierced feet.  Amen.

“Why do you fast?”

March 18, 2008

A boy once approached his father, ‘Old man, why do you fast?’

The father stood silent, bringing heart and mind together, and then:

‘Beloved boy, I fast to know what it is I lack.

For day by day I sit in abundance, and

all is well before me;

I want not, I suffer not, and I

lack but that for which I invent a need.

But my heart is empty of true joy,

filled, yet overflowing with dry waters.

There is no room left for love.

I have no needs, and so my needs are never met,

no longings, and so my desires are never fulfilled.

Where all the fruits of the earth could dwell, I have

filled the house with dust and clouds;

It is full, so I am content—

But it is empty, and so I weep.

 

‘Thus I fast, beloved, to know the

dust in which I dwell.

I take not from that which I might take,

for in its absence I am left empty,

and what is empty stands ready to be

filled.

I turn from what I love, for my love is barren,

and by it I curse the earth.

I turn from what I love, that I may purify my loving,

and move from curse to blessing.

 

‘From my abundance I turn to want,

as the soldier leaves the comfort of home,

of family and love,

to know the barrenness of war.

For it is only amongst the fight, in the

torture of loss, in the fire of battle,

that lies are lost and the blind man

clearly sees.

In hunger of body and mind, I see

the vanity of food,

for I have loved food as food,

and have never been fed.

In weary, waking vigil I see

the vanity of sleep,

for I have embraced sleep as desire,

and have never found rest.

In sorrow, with eyes of tears I see

the vanity of pleasure,

for I have treasured happiness above all,

and have never known joy.

 

‘I fast, beloved child, to crush the wall

that is my self;

For I am not who I am, just as these passions

are not treasures of gold but of clay.

I fast to die, for it is not the living who are

raised, but the dead.

I fast to crucify my desires, for He who was

crucified was He who lived,

and He who conquered,

and He who lives forever.’

 — Desert Fathers.