“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9)
The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world. They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might. They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means. They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal. Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end. They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth. As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.
These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God. They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience. Sometimes they are simply stories which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel. What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous. Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on. They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord. So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:
Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)
Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.” Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault. They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” – that they are lost. For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.
“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)
The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were. The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide. And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost. It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)