A brother who followed the life of stillness in the monastery of the cave of Abba Saba came to Abba Elias and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a way of life.’ The old man said to the brother, ‘In the day of our predecessors they took great care about these three virtues: poverty, obedience and fasting. But among monks nowadays avarice, self-confidence and great greed have taken charge. Choose whichever you want most. (74. “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”)
During Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are to be the common practice of the Church. The Ash Wednesday text of Matthew 6:16, 16-21 are a reminder to us. These words of Jesus reflect the very nature of God’s Son and the call to all who are to follow.
The ancient words of Abba Elias should be no surprise to us. And yet, look around. Where in the Church do we find these three virtues celebrated? What does God expect from us after all? How are we going to minister and reach our culture if we don’t fit in? But the invitation of being a disciple is not about fitting in. Could we not as easily say, “...among the [clergy/laity/Church/disciples/etc] nowadays avarice, self-confidence and great greed have taken charge” ?
In teaching on the Abbas and Ammas of the ancient deserts, Roberta Bondi notes how humility is what is “countercultural” in their day. I cannot help but think it remains true in this day! Dr. Bondi writes, “Part of the power of humility comes from its letting go of the need to look good in the eyes of ourselves or of others (55, “To Love As God Loves”).” There is nothing easy about humility but it is precisely what Abba Elias is pointing at when he speaks of the three virtues. And while there are plenty of teaching of the desert which are applicable only realistically to monks, this, I do not see as one of them.
In his sermon on the “Circumcision of the Heart,” John Wesley echoes the abbas and ammas, that “...Circumcision of the heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity. Humility, a right judgement of ourselves, cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our own perfections…” And he continues, “...we are not sufficient of ourselves to help ourselves; that, without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing but add sin to sin…(165, “Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons,” Schmul Co.). It is no coincidence, that this sermon follows Wesley’s sermon on “The Means of Grace,” where he focuses on some (though not all) the means of grace which allow the Spirit to work freely in us. Those very same virtues of Abba Elias, they are found as well in Wesley’s means of grace.
So let’s consider the other side of Elias’ list of virtues of the “modern monks” of his day. Evagrius, another of the Abbas of the desert, identified avarice as being a passion for attachment. It is not the sin of greed, but that as I mentioned in my previous post on attachment, an item as become identified with our very self. We fear giving anything away as we are losing part of our self. Next we can compare self-confidence with the passion of vainglory. This is a sin of self-deception, that we are so in need of praise and recognition, “...that our actions are determined by our need (75, Bondi).
Finally, from Elias’ list is ‘great-greed,’ which I think carries issues regarding both gluttony and avarice. We would know it today as hoarding. We collect our dollars, our trinkets, our houses which are far too large, indulge in frivolities with the full justification that they are OUR’S and we have EARNED them. Maybe we have, but how is this consistent with a God whose very character is a cruciform love; a love which claims nothing and instead gives freely?
I want to note one more observation of Dr. Bondi’s here and that is the fact that the “passions create blindness (72. ibid).” We are easily deceived by our attention being paid to practices and praise for which can take full credit. The answer to this is to turn to “the best guide of blind,” in John Wesley’s words, “the perfect instructor of the foolish, is faith. But it must be such a faith as is ‘mighty through God…’” (167, “Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons).
Our spiritual formation then, is a formation of your choosing in the way of “predecessors” or in the way of “nowadays.” Funny how little things have changed in all these centuries! To choose one, you must give up the way of the other. What we don't do, is look deep enough. Our attention to the leaves and branches ultimately leave the roots unexamined and it is here we need to look. Our growing attention to the debates of authority, theology, and ideology, leave little time for a deeper look at our way of life. So let me ask ya, how much care are you giving to your way of life?