Thursday, May 24, 2007

John the Dwarf and Moses the Black

Who are two of the more colorful desert monastics quoted by Rowan Williams in his book, Where God Happens, which begins this way, in a chapter titled "Life, Death, and Neighbors":
One thing that comes out very clearly from any reading of the great desert monastic writers of the fourth and fifth centuries is the impossibility of thinking about contemplation or meditation or "spiritual life" in abstraction from the actual business of living in the body of Christ, living in concrete community. The life of intimacy with God in comtemplation is both the fruit and course of a renewed style of living together.

Archbishop Williams next cites Anthony the Great, "earliest and most influential of the desert monastics," who said:
Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.

Moses [the Black] is credited with a series of summary proverb-like sayings about the monastic life written for another great teacher, Abba Poemen, one of which seems to pick up the language of Anthony yet give it a twist that is at first sight very puzzling. "The monk, says Moses, "must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatsoever." If our life and our death are with the neighbor, this spells out something of what our "death" wtih the neighbor might mean: it is to renounce the power of judgment over someone else - a task hard enough indeed to merit being described as death. And the basis of this is elaborated in another of the Moses sayings: in reply to a brother who wants to know what it means to "think in your heart that you are a sinner," which is defined as another of the essentials of the monastic life, Moses says, "If you are occupied with your own faults, you have no time to see those of your neighbor."


Everything begins with this vision and hope: to put the neighbor in touch with God in Christ. One this the rest of our Christian life depends, and it entails facing the death of a particular kind of picture of myself.

The philosophy is "summed up in the formula of a great monastic reformer of the nineteenth century, R. M. Benson, who believed he should have 'a heart of stone towards myself, a heart of flesh toward others, and a heart of flame toward God.'"

And what is the theological end result? Just this, in a fairly extreme illustrative example:
A brother asked Abba Poemen, "What does it mean to be angry with your brother without a cause? [The reference is obviously to Matt. 5:21ff.] He said, "If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of this, that is getting angry without a cause. If he pulls out your right eye and cuts off your right hand and you get angry with him, that is getting angry without a cause. But if he cuts you off from God - then you have every right to be angry with him.

Archbishop Williams talks, too, about our own society, "at once deeply individualist and deeply conformist"; he quotes Henri de Lubac as having observed that "psychology alone is not suited, at least in the most subtle cases, to discern the difference between the authentic and the sham"; he quotes "a saying attributed to Isidore the Priest warning that 'of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart.'"

And to me, the most interesting and remarkable statement of all, again from John the Dwarf:
We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.

All of this is about "transformation": it's about Repentence and Grace. And it's completely about what Archbishop Williams sees (if I'm reading him correctly) as the primary duty of each Christian: to put his neighbor in touch with God, to the best of his ability and power.

It is, of course, ultimately about the Cross. And I think again that religion is the one and the only place where human beings can become acquainted with - and become versed in - the understanding and the practice of these things. Which further really does mean that religion/spirituality is central to our lives, and that Christianity will not die out after all, as some continue to believe. The foolishness of God is wiser than men.

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