Lenten Wisdom from the Desert - Meditation 4
Some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, while being monastics and often very reclusive, nonetheless had some celebrity status and were often sought out by other younger monks seeking wisdom, or Christians looking for prayer.
One of the things we often hear others saying to the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the stories is, “give us a word!”
The relationship between student and teacher or mentor and pupil was very different in these days than it is now.
Then, to follow a teacher or to be a pupil meant giving up your regular life and literally following them, living with them, hanging on their every word, waiting for one word of wisdom to drop from their lips like a dog might wait for a crumb from the table.
Jesus’ disciples, many of whom gave up their livelihoods to follow him for three years, are examples of this.
People were always asking the Monks for a word, just one word of wisdom that might help them or open up the Scriptures for them.
And this is what we hear a monk asking Abba Anthony in our story for today, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’
The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says, “if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5.39) They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either, ‘they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil, ‘and they said, ‘we cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.’
In this story we hear the brothers asking for wisdom, but then turning it down.
At the end he suggests that they should have a brew of corn, a drink given to the gravely ill, as an insult, suggesting that they’re suffering from a spiritual sickness; “What you need is prayers,” he concludes.
I think this story offers us two nuggets of wisdom, today.
The first is the reassurance, I think, that the demands of faith are not always easy.
It’s easy for us to laugh at the brothers who seem a bit pig headed in this story, but think about the passage of Matthew from which Abba Anthony quotes; if someone were to strike you in the face later this morning, would you be likely to retaliate, or would you turn your face to offer the other side to be struck?
If you were to be robbed later today of your wallet or purse, would you stop to say, “Oh wait a sec, you forgot to steal my cellphone and wedding band!”
When we think about it this way, the brothers in the story don’t seem quite as silly, but yet offering the other cheek and offering to give all you have when asked is the demand that Jesus puts upon us.
These demands we may never be able to live up to in our lives, and while Abba Anthony suggests that this is because a weakness in spirit, he does offer the healing salve for it: prayer.
What he is saying is that we are all spiritually “sick” for some reason or another; the kind of sick that makes us sneer at the beggar on the street, or not stand up for the oppressed, or not pray as we ought.
But the medicine for this sickness, he’s saying, is prayer.
It is those little acts of praying for help, praying for others, praying for enemies that slowly, over time, wears us down like the stone we heard about last week.
It is coming out of a moment when we know we have behaved as we shouldn’t, or in the time following an encounter with that one person we can’t get along with, or in a time of spiritual dearth, that we can stop and pray.
It doesn’t need to be complex or long– but to pray, or to ask others to pray for us, even to simply say, “Lord, have mercy on me and help me,” is an act of humility that will help heal the spiritual ills that we all suffer from, and slowly wear down our hearts of stone.