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The Table Video

Gerald Sittser

Gerald Sittser: Ancient Wisdom for Today

Professor of Theology / Senior Fellow in the Office of Church Engagement, Whitworth University
October 19, 2016

Ancient Wisdom for Today: Gerald Sittser of Whitworth University tells three stories of early Christian monastics that show the relevance of ancient wisdom for today.  First, from John Cassian’s “Conferences” about a young monk who is battling the demon of lust for years, and an old monk who doesn’t understand the intimate role of God in offering grace for growth. Second, the story of a boastful young monk who’d rather pray than work. Normal Christian life, we learn, includes both working and praying – both Martha and Mary. Finally, the story of Macarius of Egypt, who learns from two sisters about living for God everyday, right where we are. It’s not about living in the desert or the city; rather, everything is spiritual.


One story that comes from Cassian’s “Conferences” really underscore their view of grace and also their humanity. So, the story goes there was a young monk. He’s staying in a cell as these monks in Egypt did. And he was battling the vice, the thought, the temptation of lust. He had done this for several years. He kept failing, and finally he gave up. And of course the cue there, the sign there is he decides to leave his cell and return to the city and return to the world. So he’s marching out toward the city and he runs into, I think it’s Abba Apollos. If my memory serves me well. And Abba Apollos can tell that this young man is deeply troubled. And so in a conversation, he finally sort of draws this out of this young monk and he asks, what ails you? And the monk says, I’ve been fighting this demon of lust forever and I’m failing. And then he said, I went to another old man who lives in the desert and I shared this problem with him. And he said to me, you lazy, terrible monk. You are unworthy of being in the desert, you are a failure, and you are a shame to us all.

Well, Apollos is furious at this old man. So he first turns to the young monk and he says, you know, I’ve been in the desert for seven years, and I still struggle with this problem of lust. You go back to your cell, and just for 24 more hours, seek the mercy of God. Then he goes to the cell of this old man, he stands outside and he prays to the Lord, let the demon of lust afflict this man as it did the young man. And this old man is tormented. And within hours, he decides to leave his cell and return to the world.

Well Abba Apollos finds him as he’s leaving and says, why are you leaving your cell? Oh, I failed miserably because I’ve yielded to the demon of lust. And Abba Apollos says, I prayed that you would face this same affliction as the young man who gave him bad counsel because you did not encourage him or understand the weakness of human nature. You should repent of your own sin for your failure. The old man does, goes back to his cell. But then he finds the young man again, and he said, you know, with these vices, if it weren’t for the grace of God, all of us would fail all of the time. God in his mercy gives us grace. And sometimes that means he afflicts us with adversity, with struggle, with failure, but in the end, it is to rescue us and save us and deliver us.

Here’s another, another one of my favorites. So there’s a young man, it’s always young men, right? It’s a young man. And he goes to visit an Abba, it’s always a wise Abba. And he noticed that other young monks involved in this little sort of loose monastic community are working. And he’s shocked by this. Says to to the Abba, these young men are working instead of praying. I mean, they’re living like Mary, Martha rather than Mary. I mean, how could this be? Well, the Abba’s a wise man. You could just see this wry grin on his face, right? And he says, well I’ll just put you in a cell so you can pray all day long to be like Mary, he says. Well, the day goes by. And at the end of the day, this young man is wondering where his dinner is. Goes out to the old man, the Abba, and says, where’s my dinner? And the old man says, well you want her to pray all day long, I’m assuming you’re so spiritual that you don’t even need any food. Well, we do and so we have to work for our food.

Well, immediately this young man is stricken in the heart and repents of his sin and said, oh I’m so sorry for my pride. And then the punch line, there are always punch lines, you know. The Abba says to him, you know, in a normal Christian life among ordinary Christians, Mary needs Martha as much as Martha needs Mary. We have to live like both if we are to be truly spiritual in the world. Now, what a lovely punch line. This is a story of the great Makarios. There were two Makarios’, by the way. One of Alexandria and one of Egypt. This is, I think, Abba Makarios of Egypt. One day, he’s praying, he’s been out in the desert, living in a cell practicing these severe ascetic disciplines for years. And an angel comes to him and says, you have not yet reached the level of spirituality of two women living in the city. Well, he hears the word woman, and then city and already he realizes he’s in trouble, right? I mean, he can’t believe that women and city would actually lead to a deeper spiritual life than he has. Well, he’s curious. So he goes into a nearby city.

And I don’t know how this happens, but somehow finds these two women. Knocks on the door. They come to the door and he said, tell me what you’re doing, how you can live such an amazing spiritual life. And they said, well we don’t know. I mean, we were just with our husbands last night. Now that’s a code word for had sex with their husbands. So now, Makarios is not just dealing with women and city, but sex. And then they say, we’ve been sisters living together for a long time. And we asked our husbands if they would release us from the demands of marriage so we could go to the desert to practice the kind of life you live. But they said, no you stay and live with us. And so we have simply tried to live for God every day, right where we are. And the punch line of the story is, Makarios says, all of a sudden, I realized that it’s not whether we live in the city or the desert. Whether we live as married people, as single people. Whether we live strict celibate ascetic lives, or lives in the world. It’s that we learn to live for God right where we are. And they poke fun at themselves a lot. I mean, there are so many little code stories that are mocking fanatics. Old men who haven’t become wise, as I’ve indicated. Somebody’s got to translate this stuff. I use these stories all the time in my teaching and in my preaching.