Category Archives: Desert Fathers and Mothers

The weeds within (20 July 2014, Year A)

Matthew 13.24–30, 36–43


Last week we heard a parable about seed, the Parable of the Sower. The sower throws seed all over the place, like it’s going out of fashion. Some of it — only some, mind — lands on good soil, where it takes root and grows fruit.

Today, we’ve heard another parable about seed, the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat. The “weeds” are most likely darnel. Darnel is a poisonous weed that looks just the same as wheat in the early stages of growth; it’s only when harvest comes that you see the difference. The head of grain of the wheat plant is quite different to that of darnel.

As I did last week, I’d like to tell another story as well as the parable. This one comes from the early centuries of the church, when men and women ran away from the cities to the bush to form monastic communities and live in prayer.

They did that because they thought the church had become too lax. Its standards had dropped too far. The church was letting anyone in! As you can imagine, some of them were pretty judgemental. Here’s the story:

A member of a monastic order once committed a fault. A council was called to determine the punishment, but when the monks assembled it was noticed that Father Joseph was not among them. The superior sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.”

So Father Joseph got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. When the others saw this they asked, “What is this, father?”

The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?”

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Good without effort?

People have regularly asked me whether the Orthodox Church is Christian. I assure them it is! Let me point you to this article, written by Father Stephen in his blog, Glory to God For All Things:

A Hermit said, “We fail to make progress because we do not comprehend our capacity. We weary of the work we have started. We want to be good without making any effort.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

There is a popular cultural statement, “I’m only human,” that serves to make excuse for our failings. In truth, I would that we were only human. Our sin lies in our failure to be what we were created to be. Christ alone is the one “fully human,” and it is to His image we seek to be conformed.

Of course, we cannot be conformed to His image except by a gift of grace – but grace is not the same thing as magic. God does not snap His fingers and make us to be something we are not. Just as our disobedience got us into this mess, so our obedience must play its part in our extraction. God means to heal our will as well as the rest of us.

Some years ago one of my young children (pre-school at the time) declared that they were going to “give up their blanket and sucking their thumb for Lent.” We discussed it at length and I blessed the effort. I recall one Saturday evening watching my child watch television with the family – and was fully aware of the struggle that was being endured. As a father and an adult Christian, the courage and fortitude of a child put me to shame. For the story’s sake I will add that the Lenten discipline was completed with success.

This was not the only occasion I have had to marvel at the good undertakings of others. Too many Christians (and most of our culture) have too few heroes – too few examples to follow as we seek “the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”

I am also aware of the curse of various neuroses in our culture – psychological damage that makes some strive amiss only to come to a sense of failure and the inability to ever please anyone. This, too, is a matter to be healed, and perhaps healed long before other things are attempted. But even this healing will require our cooperation.

We cannot be saved by our own effort – but God means to save our effort – and this is good.

I have been greatly helped by this, especially, “God means to heal our will as well as the rest of us”, and the final words: “We cannot be saved by our own effort – but God means to save our effort – and this is good.”

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 10

The kids of today…

An old man said, ‘The prophets wrote books, then came our Fathers who put them into practice. Those who came after them learnt them by heart. Then came the present generation, who have written them out and put them into their window seats without using them.’

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 9

Rather than include a story from the desert today, I want to share an excerpt from a beautiful book by the ABC*, Rowan Williams, called Where God happens: Discovering Christ in One Another:

Saint Anthony of the Desert says that gaining the brother or sister and winning God are linked. It is not getting them signed up to something or getting them on your side. It is opening doors for them to healing and to wholeness. Insofar as you open such doors for another, you gain God, in the sense that you become a place where God happens for somebody else. You become a place where God happens. God comes to life for somebody else in a life-giving way, not because you are good or wonderful, but because that is what God has done. So, if we can shift our preoccupations, anxiety, and selfishness out of the way to put someone in touch with the possibility of God’s healing, to that extent we are ourselves in touch with God’s healing. So, if you gain your brother or sister, you gain God. (p. 24)

(*ABC: Archbishop of Canterbury)

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 8

Amma (Mother) Theodora said, ‘There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, “I will go away from here.” As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this monk said to him, “Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.”‘

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 7

As a bibliophile, sometimes waiting a long time for a chance to get to a book I’ve bought, I like this one!

Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, said “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.”


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Desert Fathers and Mothers 6

Three old men, one of whom had a bad reputation, came one day to Abba Achilles. The first asked him, “Father, make me a fishing net.” “I will not make you one,” he replied. 

Then the second said, “Of your charity make one, so that we may have a souvenir of you in the monastery.” But he said, “I do not have time.” 

Then the third one, who had a bad reputation, said, “Make me a fishing net, so that I may have something from your hands, Father.” Abba Achilles answered him at once, “For you, I will make one.”  

Then the other two old men asked him privately, “Why did you not want to do what we asked you, but you promised to do what he asked?” The old man gave them this answer, “I told you I would not make one, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had no time. But if I had not made one for him, he would have said, ‘The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything,’ and so our relationship would have broken down. But now I have cheered his soul, so that he will not be overcome with grief.” 

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 5

Whenever Abba Agathon’s thoughts urged him to pass judgement on something which he saw, he would say to himself, “Agathon, it is not your business to do that.” Thus his spirit was always recollected.

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 4

Abba John said, “We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.”

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Desert Fathers and Mothers 3

It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.

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