A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man and said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said, “No.” The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.”
Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 132.
The Abba’s wisdom reminds us that our ultimate identity is neither enhanced by another’s praise nor diminished by their insults. Until we know and trust that we are not determined by another’s evaluation of us we seek approval and reassurance that we are enough and we can never get enough of being told we are enough. Part of our spiritual work then is to detach from praises and insults, seeking our identity in God alone. Detachment does not mean we separate from others or ignore what they say; rather, it allows the freedom to be with others in an authentic way, one that allows for truth and sincerity. And when we can do that we have a new freedom to be with God.
Truly profound. I have just begun to learn the truth of this teaching.
Jon Mark, thank you for reading my blog and leaving a comment. This detachment is, I think, some of the hardest but necessary spiritual work we do. Peace be with you, Mike+
Mike I will publish this on my website unless you say I should not. The profound truth in the story is worth spreading around. Thank you for bringing it to us.
Thank you Marj. Please feel free to use it however you like.
Mike – you don’t know how MUCH I needed to hear these very words TODAY! Thank you for being the instrument! HUGS!
Detachment has been a core tradition and teaching not only among the desert fathers but also the mountain monks of Syria and what is now Turkey and Iraq. We find reference to this in Ephrem who teaches about prayer in the Ethicon, Rabbula in his monastic rules, and in the writings of Philoxenus. It is an Asian idea that has not often found it’s way into the Western Church. Buddhism of course teaches it and people act as if this idea has been lacking in Christianity. In fact it has been there all along hidden in the caves and monasteries of Alexandria, Edessa, and the mountains of Tur Abdin. Thomas Keating once said to me, “So many people are running around the desert looking for water when the well is right beside them where they started.” We do not need to abandon Christianity to find these truths, they have been with us all along the way.
Syriac Orthodox priest
Fr. Barhanna thank you for a very informative comment. I certainly agree when you write, “We do not need to abandon Christianity to find these truths, they have been with us all along the way.” We seem to have either forgotten or ignored the mystical, contemplative, and ascetical aspects of our own tradition. I think the future and relevance of the church depends, in large part, on the recovery of these aspects. Peace, Mike+
There has always been a tension between the institutional church and the contemplative wing of Christianity. Athanasius tried to get Anthony to submit to his authroity. Saint Simeon the Stylite refused to obey his bishop. Bishop Rabbula forbade his monks from offering the eucharist in the desert, on their pillars, and in their caves to force people back into the churches. Your website goes a long way in helping to recover something for which every human yearns…a oneness in the Other. Can this be done without abandoning the institutional church?