Study, knowledge, and spiritual practice

Desert FathersThis month I have been reading (and quite enjoying) the works of Philo of Alexandria. A contemporary of Christ, Philo was a great thinker who expressed biblical Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek philosophy. Many of the early Christian Fathers are indebted to Philo, and even St Paul uses some of the same ideas. In the early first century there were at least as many Jews in Alexandria as in the whole Holy Land, and it was these Greek-speaking Jews who mediated to the early, increasingly-gentile Church much of its understanding of the Old Testament. It’s fascinating to see in Philo some of the sources of arguments and teachings that over the next century or two arose in the Church, and were critiqued and clarified by the Fathers.

But I’ve also noticed that while this is a fun (in a nerdy sense) topic to read, it’s not spiritual reading. It’s not food for the soul. As I thought this morning about my preference for study and knowledge over purification of heart, I received in my email this excerpt from the Desert Fathers:

A brother once went out on a pilgrimage from the monastery of Abba Poemen, and came to a hermit, who lived in love towards all and received many visitors. The brother told the hermit stories of Abba Poemen. And when he heard of Poemen’s strength of character, he longed to see him.

The brother returned to Egypt. And after some little time, the hermit rose and went from his country to Egypt to see the brother who had visited him: for he had told him where he lived. When the brother saw the hermit, he was astonished, and very glad. The hermit said to him, “Of your charity towards me, take me to Abba Poemen.” And the brother rose up and showed him the way to the elder.

And the brother told Abba Poemen this about the hermit, “A great man of much charity, and particular honor in his own province, has come here wanting to see you.” So the elder received him kindly. And after they had exchanged greetings, they sat down.

But the hermit began to talk of the Holy Scripture, and of the things of the spirit and of heaven. But Abba Poemen turned his face away, and answered nothing. When the hermit saw that he would not speak with him, he was distressed and went out. And he said to the brother who had brought him there, “My journey was useless. I went to the elder and he does not deign to speak to me.”

The brother went to Abba Poemen, and said, “Abba, it was to talk with you that this great man came here, a man of much honor in his own land. Why did you not speak to him?” The elder answered, “He is from above, and speaks of the things of heaven. I am from below, and speak of the things of the earth. If he had spoken with me on the soul’s passions, I would willingly have replied to him. But if he speaks of the things of the spirit, I know nothing about them.”

So the brother went out and told the hermit, “The reason is that the elder does not easily discuss Scripture. But if anyone talks to him about the soul’s passions, he answers.”

Then the hermit was stricken with penitence, and went to the elder and said, “What shall I do, Abba? My passions rule me.” And the elder gazed at him with gladness and said, “Now you are welcome. You have only to ask and I will speak with understanding.” And the hermit was much strengthened by their discourse, and said, “Truly, this is the way of love.” And he thanked God that he had been able to see so holy a man, and returned to his own country.”

Ah, thanks. I can take a hint.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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