Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Abba Anthony 4

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, "This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath." This is a classic word from the Desert; no compromises, no illusions, no excuses. It is a very different word than we get from our culture. We have legions of experts ready to tell us that our faults are not in ourselves. We are victims of circumstance, bad genetics, poor parenting, bad government. It is not really that the experts are wrong. It is just that the work of the Christian is different. Let us take it for granted that we walked in in the middle of the story, that we stand, in the words of A. E. Houseman, "a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made." Recognizing all this, the Christian nonetheless insists that he is free, which is another way of saying that he is responsible. To place the blame for sins outside yourself is, ultimately, a way of diminishing your freedom. To accept blame is, paradoxically, the first great step to freedom. The last part of Abba Anthony's word, to expect temptation to the last breath, is the opposite of the message of almost every self-help guru and almost every book, CD, t-shirt, poster, or piece of jewelry marketed by the members of the Christian Booksellers Association. We want to buy easy answers and an end to struggle. Abba Anthony says that struggle itself can be the great work that, as free men, God has called us to. This is not a proposition with great marketing potential. It is nonetheless, as we will see in tomorrow's saying, the heart of the Desert message.

After the Break

I've taken a few days off from the blog, but will start regular postings again this evening with the next installment of Abba Anthony. In the meantime, here is a picture from a couple of winters ago; Susan bottle feeding a newborn down at the barn.
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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

From the Philokalia

In a comment on the last blog post "A.F." cites a few passages from St Peter of Damaskos included in volume three of the English translation of the Philokalia. I will move the last excerpt up here both because it cites St. Anthony and it captures my best intention for the series:

“…St. Antony says that every word or act ought to be supported by divine Scripture. It is in this spirit that I begin to write… I do not do this in order to teach others - God forbid! - but in order to reprove my unhappy soul, so that, shamed by my own words, as St. John Klimakos says, I who have done nothing but speak may begin to act.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Abba Anthony 3

The first two sayings record Abba Anthony questioning his own life. With the third saying we see Abba Anthony taking the role of elder, giving a word in response to a question. Now if I were a true disciple seeking a word from an elder, I would listen, then spend a few years putting the word into practice and only after mastering the first advice would I dare come back for more. Being more of a dilettante than a real disciple, I will instead press on.

Abba Anthony is asked how one goes about pleasing God, what must one do, what rule to keep. Abba Anthony gives three precepts. The first says that whoever you are, always keep God before your eyes. Since we cannot see God, Anthony is not suggesting some kind of visualization exercise. He is commanding us to pay attention. In essence he is calling us to a kind of prayer, recollecting that no matter who we may be we are always standing before God. The second precept says that whatever you do, do it according to the testimony or witness of the scriptures. Even a "mystic" of the desert begins with the scriptures. Again, there is no secret knowledge just the same writings available to all Christians. The third precept advises that wherever you live, do not leave easily (or quickly). Abba Anthony is advising a virtue that will show up later in the monastic vow of stability. Underlying this is the view that you are where you are by the providence of God and have lessons to learn in the spot God has placed you. Of course we can put ourselves in bad places, but the principle remains the same. We cannot escape our problems by moving because we carry our problems with us. To put it in brief, live before God, live according to the scriptures, live where you are. As Abba Anthony concludes, do these things "and you will be saved."

Monday, June 09, 2008

Too Darn Hot

No update tonight. A long day at the office and an air conditioner that could not keep pace with the heat rising to my third story nook have left me with little to say and less energy to say it. With what few brain cells that were not steam cooked, I will contemplate further on Abba Anthony's third saying and report back tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a picture of the home place taken from the new winery.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

More Abba Anthony

The second saying is relatively short, so I quote it here in its entirety from Sr. Benedicta Ward's translation:

When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depths of the judgement of God, he asked, "Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?" He heard a voice answering him, "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them."

The more formal term for questions about evil and the providence of God is "theodicy." This is a perpetually hot topic on the web. Ecclesial wanderer Huw over at Sarx has even invited folks to take part in a Summer Theodicy Meme. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has looked at the issue several times, beginning with an essay response to the Indonesian tsunami and finishing with his book The Doors of the Sea. Abba Anthony gets a response to his question which would be profoundly unsatisfying to any philosophical student of the problem of evil. It is an answer most of us would find unsatifying. It is also perhaps the only honest answer to the question that God could give to us in this life. It is not an answer that would be acceptable from anyone other than God. We all resent it when another human stands over us and says "I know more than you, you couldn't understand, so just sit down and shut up if you know what is good for you." This rightly offends us because we know that, most likely, they don't know much more than we do, that they don't know, or care, what is good for us and are telling us to shut up to preserve their power and hide their own fear and ignorance. We probably resent this sort of answer from God as well, assuming that we are bigger than we are and He is smaller than He is and that we could understand any answer He gives. We assume an answer to the question of evil would be less complicated than, say string theory, and that we could absorb that answer without any real expansion of our hearts and minds in their present condition.

We say we want knowledge, but in our present state, "knowledge" is a polite way of saying "power." Ultimately, wanting to justify the way of the world to ourselves is a wish to play God for a moment. The trouble is that, as a general rule, playing God usually results in bad news both for ourselves and any other humans within our area of influence. It is not a habit to cultivate. It is ironic; we are called to be like God (perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect says the Gospel of Matthew). Yet, the beginning of this process is to realize our unlikeness with God. If we want his strength, we have to know our own weakness. Questions about divine providence are good questions. It is just that we are not yet the kind of persons who can hear and profit from the answers: "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.".

Weekend Update

The second Abba Anthony post is partly written and will go up later this weekend. Friday night we went to the end of school awards ceremony at the boys' school. Today we finished shearing a little later than planned due to the same thunderstorms that delayed the first Anthony post. With temperatures in the high 90's Susan and I were about as hot as the sheep were before the wool came off. I did take a break midday to go over to Glen Manor Vinyards just south of us on the other side of the old family farm. Susan's cousin Jeff planted his first grapes back in 95 and, after growing for other local winemakers, had the grand opening of his own winery today. There was a good turnout of friends, neighbors and local notables for the ribbon cutting, with Virginia's Secretary of Agriculture in attendance to lend a hand. The photo below is next year's vintage aging in oak.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


The first saying of Abba Anthony finds him afflicted with akedia, a Greek term variously translated as despondency, listlessness, sloth or, as Kevin Edgecomb does, melancholy. Akedia is sometimes called the Noonday Demon. It is a condition similar to what we today call depression, but with an element of restlessness. The afflicted monk finds himself all but paralyzed when he tries to pray and turn his mind to God, but has great bursts of energy to pursue distraction. If you would like to see the phenomenon in action on a less spiritual level, consider the thought processes of a child with a pile of homework waiting on one side of his room and a video game console with glowing TV screen on the other. Of Abba Antony it was said that "his mind was darkened by a multitude of imagined things, (Edgecomb)" or as Sr Benedicta Ward's translation puts it, he was "attacked by many sinful thoughts." This is quite a statement to make about the prototype of monks, the first great contemplative saint of the Church. As we shall see later, it is part of Abba Anthony's teachings that it is not in spite of our struggles that we become holy, but because of them. Abba Anthony cries out to God, wanting to know how he can be saved while trapped in the futility of his own thoughts and distractions. The story goes on to tell that:
Anthony saw someone like himself, sitting and working, then rising from work and praying, and again sitting and plaiting a rope, then again rising for prayer. It was an angel of the Lord, sent for the correction and insurance against stumbling of Anthony. And he heard the angel saying, Do this, and you will be saved. And when he heard this, he had great joy and courage, and did this, and was saved.
Now, we (or at least I) do not expect a vision of Angels to snap us out of habitual listlessness. If we read carefully though, the key point is not the angel, but what the angel shows to Anthony. There is no great revelation, no secret wisdom, no instant cure. The angel shows Abba Anthony that he needs to do what is set before him, simply and without drama. Work a little, pray some, work some more, pray some more. Nothing fancy, no mysteries beyond the mystery of God working secretly in us as we approach what is set before us with prayer and perseverance. There is scandal in the Church, what should I do? I have horrible thoughts, what should I do? Those around me don't understand me, don't appreciate me, what should I do? The answer given to Anthony is simple. Do the work you have been given, pray, and let God do his work. And when he heard this, he had great joy and courage, and did this, and was saved.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Stormy Wednesday

The start of the Abba Anthony series will be delayed by a day. A line of thunderstorms came through this afternoon and cut off power until just after sundown. I brought home fried chicken for the family and evening chores were done dashing between downpours. The power is back on and I am glad of it, but it was pleasant to sit in the kitchen for a while this evening reading by the slanting light of late afternoon as it cut between the clouds.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Abba Anthony

I have been listening to Father Thomas Hopko's podcasts lately. On his May 26th episode he revisits his commencement address from St Vladimir's Seminary last year. As in many of his talks Father Thomas recommends St Ignatius Brianchianinov's work The Arena and C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. I have pulled both off my library shelves for a re-read, but first I am taking another of his suggestions: I urge you, and, if I could, I would command you, to read St. Anthony's thirty-eight sayings in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its simplest and clearest form. So, for the next thirty-eight days I will be reading and meditating on each of Abba Anthony's sayings preserved in what is called the Alphabetical Collection. Blogger Kevin P. Edgecomb has posted his own translations of Abba Anthony's sayings here (Part 1) and here (Part 2) if you wish to follow along on-line.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Updating the blog slipped through the cracks the last few days. I have remedied this by backdating some posts of pictures I had been intending to put up. It was a busy weekend. I took a lamb off to a local butcher Thursday for the men at my parish to use on a trial run for the Greek Festival at Church later this summer. The weekend was spent shearing. We are almost there, but still have enough woolly ones for a good day's work remaining. We had some sad news; our llama died of a sudden illness. I found him down on Friday night at feeding time. We medicated and comforted as best we could, but he was gone by Saturday morning. While not the best sheep guard we ever had, he was still an enjoyable fixture on the place and I will miss him.

Daily Bread

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Tonight's loaf fresh from the oven.

Sunday, June 01, 2008