July 2007 Archives

Ancient Wisdom


Wisdom from Antony, one of the most influential and holy of the desert fathers.

“Somebody asked Antony, “What shall I do in order to please God?” He replied, “Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, then you will be saved.”

I’ve been thinking and praying about this quote over the last couple of weeks. It’s quite a striking saying, but there are a couple of points that stand out that I’d like to note.

The first thing that struck me is that Antony seems to be answering a different question than the one asked. The question was phrased, “What shall I do to please God?” Antony’s guidelines are meant to lead to salvation; his answer is meant to lead one to a much higher standard.

I think, here, Antony is following his own guidelines, “Wherever you go, keep God in mind.” He is leading us to look to the question God wants us to ask, how we can be with Him in eternity. Our desire is often to just go halfway, to please God in the moment, rather than eternally. That is a much tougher question to ask ourselves.

I have to admit, I’ve been a bit puzzled about this. It seems the question is focused on living a moral life, it seems this person was seeking some sort of practical, short term advice. Antony’s answer, as I said, is focused on the very long term. But I think Antony is saying that living a life pleasing God must have the inevitable result of salvation. I think it is a gentle reminder that all our actions have eternal consequences and that is where our focus should always be.

Another point I found interesting is that, his first two guidelines are what you might expect from a person living a holy Christian life: pray always and live a life in accordance with God’s Word. The third, though, seems out of place, especially in this day of constant movement and, one might say, instability: stay put. Most people today would feel prompted to ask, “What does that have to do with salvation?”

It should be obvious, though, that Antony is also giving advice that one would expect from a monk; he is simply saying, slow down, look around you, see the beauty of the world God has created for you. Take a minute and think about the gifts God has given you, say a prayer of thanksgiving, read a bit of Scripture and meditate, hear what God is trying to say to you. If you live a life on the move, running here and there at a frantic pace, you don’t have time to do the really important things.

Ideally, a monk’s entire existence is centered in one place, with little or no opportunity to do a lot of travel. He takes a vow of stability, which means he seeks God within his community and monastery. This vow, I think, is intended to slow down the tempo of his existence and to allow him to take a longer term view of things. The intent here is to simply lead the monk to a greater sense of gratitude for God’s gift of life and salvation. I think that the fruit, or one of the fruits, of a life of prayer is this sense of gratitude, which leads to yet deeper prayer and union with God. It is our constant tendency to continually be on the move that is one of the greatest obstacle to a simple awareness of God’s never ceasing presence in our lives, and what, for many people, makes prayer so difficult.

The desert fathers weren’t spiritual weaklings, they chose the hard road. I think people in their day also faced the same spiritual challenges that we face today. Yet, their way was one of simplicity. The way to salvation is simple: keeping God in mind at all times, read and pray over Scripture (regularly), and slow down so you can see what God is trying to do in our lives. This simple road, as true fifteen hundred years ago as it is today, leads us to a greater reward than we could ever dream to ask for, almost more than we dare ask for ourselves, salvation.

Thoughts on Mark 6-8


During the past 10 days or so, I have been doing my lectio praying from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6:31 through chapter 8. For most of this time, I have been trying to write down a summary of my impressions and thoughts on this section of Mark's Gospel without much success. Even now, I am not coming close to putting together a coherent summary of my impressions of this section of Scripture. However, I feel I must try.

A great deal happens in this section and the thrust of it is not really favorable to the disciples. As a reminder, here is a brief outline of the section.

(A) Jesus and His Disciples (6:6b-8:33)
a. Introduction (6:6b-34)
(B) Summary statement (6:6b)
a. Mission charge and return of the disciples (6:7-13, 30)
b. Interlude: Opinions about Jesus (6:14-16)
c. Interlude: John the Baptist’s death (6:17-29)
d. The Loaves Section (6:31-8:26)
(C) Feeding of the 5000 and its sequel (6:31-7:37)
a. Feeding of the 4000 and its sequel (8:1-13)
b. Conclusion: The Blindness of the Disciples (8:14-21)
c. Appendix: The Blind Man of Bethsaida (8:22-26)

I have been reading and praying and studying this section, almost obsessively, because, while the stories are so familiar, there is much that seems quite obscure. I am no further ahead in really coming to an understanding of what is really going on here than I was when I started. For example, the feeding of the five thousand narrative begins with this exchange between Jesus and the disciples:

“And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late; send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ And they said to him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’” (Mark 6:35-38)

Why does Jesus feel it necessary to tell the disciples, “you give them something to eat.”? He knows they don’t have the resources on their own to do so; I suspect he knows what He is about to do. So why does He offer what appears to be a taunt?

Another example, at the start of the section about the blindness of the disciples in chapter 8:14-21, the passage begins as follows:

"Now they had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”

They have just witnessed Jesus feeding large crowds with just a few loaves and fish, one wonders how they could be so obtuse as to forget to bring bread along for the journey. How could they forget bread after the events of what seems to be just the past few days?

There are many other such questions that arise from this section of Mark’s Gospel. One thing I learned in consulting commentaries is that many of the questions I had have been asked for a very long time, with no good answers being available.

It is clear, that Mark is writing about mysteries that are beyond our understanding. I can make generalizations about this passage of Scripture; there are obvious Eucharistic overtones to the narratives and, in the presentation of the disciples, I can assume this all represents some commentary of the state of the Church before the descent of the Holy Spirit. But, I can’t go much beyond that.

My initial reaction was one of frustration, but as I thought about this, I have let all that go. I don’t need to understand everything, not in an intellectual sense. I can accept the generalizations and be thankful that there is enough of Scripture that I do understand to provide more than suitable guidance for my daily life as a Catholic.

Perhaps the important thing is, like Jacob, to wrestle with these passages. Perhaps something is gained that is simply imperceptible to me now and that will benefit me at a time of greater strength and maturity. That is now my hope and my prayer.

A Poem by Ernest Dowson


Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

On Fasting from St John Cassian


It’s easy to think of the great saints of the Church as some sort of spiritual super-heroes. However, in doing so, we risk forgetting that they struggled with many of the same problems we do today. After all, they were human, just as we are. But, as this quote from St. John Cassian shows, the thing that made them great is they approached spiritual matters with plain common sense.

I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to
gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I
shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies... A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.

Not many of us enjoy fasting, and not all can do it well; I know, I’m one of them. Yet, the discipline of fasting is not a practice that involves making huge sacrifices once or twice a year, say at Lent or during Advent. St. John is telling us that is not the case. What he does say is that we should do what we can do. More importantly, though, he says we should do it always. He is really saying we should exercise the virtue of prudence, even when we fast. His advice is simply to avoid over eating.

I think this is advice that can be applied across the board; remember the old saying about “too much of a good thing. . . .” Too much food, too much drink, too much fasting, in fact, too much of anything, is the problem the saint tries to avoid. Just exercise common sense in all things; becoming a saint does not meaning doing great things that no one else can do; I think St. John would say it means doing the little things well.

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