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The Peasant’s Alphabet

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The Peasant’s Alphabet

Friday, January 24, 2020

Abba Poemen (340–450) taught that the right question in all circumstances was “Who am I?” [1] St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) would spend whole nights praying “Who are you, my most dear God, and who am I . . . ?” [2] It is through encountering the absolute safety of God that we discover our True Self, and in finding our truest self, we find a God who is always and forever larger than we expected. The truth of our identity, wrapped up in God, gives us a deep sense of radical okayness and yet humility about our fragility. What a paradox!

Read these sayings and let them stir deeper questions and reflection. This is the power of these simple stories.

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him,

“Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.” [3]
Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” [4]

Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, “Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.” [5]

I hope this brief introduction to the Desert Fathers and Mothers has given you at least a taste of why their simple spirituality is so valuable for us today. If you are drawn to read more of their sayings, don’t be surprised if you are quickly offended by some of their seeming lower-stage thinking. Stay with them, in honesty and humility, and I’m sure they will teach you something of your own human nature and God’s benevolence. In their irrelevance to our world, these abbas and ammas end up being amazingly relevant, precisely because their frame of reference is so utterly different than ours. We all need radically different frames to recognize our own limitations.

The practice of contemplation took root in these mystics under extreme circumstances—in the desert wilderness and at the height of the Roman Empire. Looking for God, first in cities and then far away from mainstream culture, they ultimately found God’s presence within themselves, once they got still enough to recognize it. For all their idiosyncratic teachings and practices, the desert mystics provide a common thread of love running through their stories. In the words of our own beloved teacher James Finley:

In the freedom with which you freely choose to give yourself in love to the love that gives itself to you, in that reciprocity of love, your destiny is fulfilled, and God’s will for you is consummated. That all of life when you distill it out to its simplest terms, it has to do in the intimate always utterly personal way that each of us serendipitously stumbles upon this great truth. When everything is said and done, only love is real, only love endures. Outside of love, there is nothing, nothing at all. [6]

Contemplation helps us reconnect with our source, which is love, and compels us to embody love in our actions.

References:

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, rev. ed. (Cistercian Publications: 1984, ©1975), 102.

[2] “The Deeds of Blessed Francis and His Companions,” IX.37. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 3 (New City Press: 2001), 455.

[3] Sayings, Ward, 10.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 70

[6] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr

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