Today we will continue our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John. This series will continue over several issues as much of what they have to teach us goes right to the heart of the questions each of us faces in our own individual pilgrimages. Today’s questions focus on the relations with other people and the workplace:
BEGIN: Q: When a brother asks me about some word or matter which I do not know, should I reply to him or not? Likewise, when I am not asked, but I myself see that someone is doing something badly, should I at least once speak about this to the one who is doing badly, or not?
A: To all these questions there is a single answer: be careful not to speak out of vainglory, but speak with humility and the fear of God. In all the cases (about which you ask), speak and remind another, if necessary - but only in your own monastery, and not in a different place; because those who live in one community are as it were one body. But when you are in a different place, say nothing of yourself, so as not to show yourself a teacher; but when you are asked, speak with humility, and God will instruct you, O brother.
-- Q: Tell me, my Father, what it means to pay heed to one’s thoughts? Should one be occupied with this at a definite time? And how does one do this?
A: The Fathers have assigned a time for paying heed to one’s thoughts saying: “In the morning test yourself, how you spent the night; and in the evening likewise, how you spent the day. And in the middle of the day, when you are weighed down by thoughts, examine yourself.”
-- Q: If I speak a sarcastic word to someone, and he doesn’t understand it, should I repent before him, or be silent and give him no thought about this?
A: If the brother does not understand that you spoke to him in sarcasm, be silent and do not disturb him; but strive to repent over this before God.
-- Q: Since you have assigned me to be in this service, in the infirmary, tell me, my Father: should I read certain medical books and teach myself to make medicines, or is it better not to be concerned about this, as something that causes the mind to wander, and abandon it (so that it will not arouse vainglory in me) and be satisfied with what I already know, doing whatever is possible with the aid of oil, flour, ointments, and in general simple remedies such as are used by those who do not read (medical books). How should I act? For my heart trembles in this service lest I sin in something and add to my passions yet other sins.
A: Inasmuch as we have not yet come to perfection, so as to be entirely delivered from the captivity of passions, it is better to occupy ourselves with medicine than with passions. But we should place our hope not in medicines but in God, Who kills and
brings to life and says: “I will strike and I will heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39). While reading medical books or asking someone about them, do not forget that without God no one receives healing. And thus, he who devotes himself to the medical art should give himself over to the Name of God, and God will grant him help. The medical art does not hinder a man from being pious; but make use of it like a handiwork for the benefit of the brethren. Whatever you do, do with the fear of God, and you will be preserved by the prayers of the Saints. Amen.
-- Q: You told me before that the cutting off of one’s own will consists also of not arguing out of a desire to stand on one’s own. But what should I do, my Father: sometimes it happens that I bring a sick man something that is apparently beneficial; but often it harms him, and I grieve that in this I have done my own will. I see likewise that I am occupied the whole day, and this somehow does not allow me to remember God. Also, gluttony disturbs me. Tell me, what should I do? For I believe that in these things is my salvation.
A: If, thinking that something will bring benefit to the sick, you act according to your will, and the opposite happens, that it brings them harm - God, who beholds your heart, will not judge you; for He knows that you have done harm while desiring to bring benefit. But if someone who knows (about this matter) should tell you about it beforehand, and you should disdainfully disobey him, this would be pride and self-will. Many have constantly heard about some city or other and then they chance to enter it without knowing that it is that very city; so you also, O brother, spend the whole day in remembrance of God and do not know it. To have a commandment and strive to keep it ñ this is submission to and remembrance of God. Brother John has rightly said to you: first put on leaves, and then, when God commands, you will bear fruit. If you do not know what is profitable, follow one who knows, and this is humility, and you will receive God’s grace. You have rightly said that your salvation lies in this; for you did not come here of yourself, but God guided you here. “Be strong in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:10): you receive not a little benefit from the occupation about which you complain. As far as possible, struggle against gluttony. And the Lord will help you to know and do what is profitable. Be manful and strengthened in the Lord.
-- Q: I am apprehensive, my Father, because I am in charge of the infirmary, for this is something involving authority, and this might give occasion for vainglory and familiarity. Likewise, from frequent eating of food I can be drawn into gluttony. And so, do you not consider that, for a preliminary training of myself, I should be first in a lower obedience, and then, when it will be easier for me, I should again enter upon that service?
A: Listen, O brother, and be convinced in the Lord, that when we entrusted this matter to you, our hand and our heart are with you, or to be more precise, the hand of God, entreated by our prayers for the salvation of your soul, and that He has strengthened you in this matter and given you success and covered you in it. You can be saved in no other way than through this (obedience). And so, do not become discouraged, falling and rising up, crawling and reproaching yourself, until the Lord will show you the mercy which you desire. Only do not be negligent. Fear not, for the Lord, Who has placed you in this work, will put it in order, and we will share the concern with you.
-- Q: If one of the brethren or one of the sick should sin, and I, desiring to correct him, tell him something with disturbance: should I later bow down to him (asking for forgiveness)? If it should happen that he leaves the infirmary being angry at me, what should I do? And in general, for what faults should one make a prostration (to the other)? For pride and self-justification darken the mind. And when one makes a prostration, vainglory again finds an occasion for itself.
A: Do nothing with disturbance, because evil does not give rise to good. But endure until your thought should become calm, and then speak in peace. And if the brother should listen to you - well and good; but if not, tell him: “Would you not like me to reveal this to the Abba, and we will do as he judges,” and you will be at peace. But if he goes away angry, tell the Abba, and he will enlighten him: but make no bow to him (that is, do not beg forgiveness), for through this you will give him occasion to think that you are actually guilty before him, and he will arm himself against you even more. But from other people be careful to ask forgiveness, corresponding to the sin: as soon as you see that your sin is great, bow down; but when it is not great, say with your lips, with a feeling of heartfelt repentance: “Forgive me, brother.” Beware of pride and self-justification, for they hinder repentance; and it also happens that a man gives a bow out of vainglory. Despite these three passions (pride, self-justification, and vainglory); where necessary, make a bow with humility, fear of God, and understanding. According to your strength, strive to remain in these virtues, and God will help you, by the prayers of the Saints. END
from “Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance Toward Spiritual Life,” trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 82 - 91 (selections).