The Desert Fathers and Mothers have appeared in this blog several times in the past. Today, we look at what they have to say about do nothing for show. I repeat the warning that, as 3rd Century Egyptian monks, they are very different from us today. So if they seem strange, let the strangeness challenge you.
Once a brother came to Theodore of Pherme, and spent three days asking him for advice. Theodore did not answer, and he went sadly away. So Theodore’s disciple asked him, ‘Abba, why didn’t you speak to him? Look, he has gone away sad.’ He replied, ‘As a matter of fact, I said nothing to him because he’s only interested in getting credit by repeating what others have said to him.’
Another brother spoke with the same Theodore, and he began to talk about matters of which he had no experience. Theodore said to him, ‘You’ve not yet found a ship to sail in, nor put your luggage aboard, nor put out to sea, and you’re already acting as if you were in the city which you mean to reach. If you make some attempt to do the things you are discussing, then you can talk about them with understanding.’
Poemen said, ‘Teach your heart to follow what your tongue is saying to others.’ He also said, ‘Men try to appear excellent in preaching but they are less excellent in practising what they preach.’
Ammon of Raithu brought this question to Sisois: ‘When I read Scripture, I am tempted to make elaborate commentaries and prepare myself to answer questions on it.’ Sisois replied, ‘You don’t need to do that. It is better to speak simply, with a good conscience and a pure mind.’
Syncletica said, ‘An open treasury is quickly spent; any virtue will be lost if it is published abroad and is known about everywhere. If you put wax in front of a fire it melts; and if you pour vain praises on the soul it goes soft and weak in seeking goodness.’
A hermit was fasting and not eating bread, and he went to visit another hermit. By chance some other pilgrims came there and the hermit made them a little vegetable soup. When they sat down to eat, the fasting hermit took a single pea which he dipped in the soup and chewed it. When they got up from the table, the hermit took him to one side and said, ‘Brother, if you visit someone, don’t make a display there of your way of life. If you want to keep your own rule, stay in your cell and never go out.’ The brother accepted the advice, and thenceforth behaved like other people and ate what was put before him.
Once some brothers came to visit Antony, and Joseph was with them. Antony, wanting to test them, began to speak about holy Scripture. He asked the younger monks first the meaning of text after text, and each of them answered as well as he could. To each he said, ‘You have not yet found the right answer.’ Then he said to Joseph, ‘What do you think is the meaning of this word?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know.’ Antony said, ‘Indeed Joseph alone has found the true way, for he said he did not know.’
They said of a hermit that he went on fasting for seventy weeks, eating a meal only once a week. He asked God the meaning of a text of the holy Scriptures and God did not reveal it to him. So he said to himself, ‘I have worked hard and gained nothing. I will go to my brother and ask him.’ Just as he had shut his door on the way out, an angel of the Lord was sent to him; and the angel said, ‘The seventy weeks of your fast have not brought you near to God but now you are humbled and going to your brother, I have been sent to show you the meaning of the text.’ He explained to him what he had asked, and went away.