The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter VII:
On Discretion

IT is discretion which enables a man to judge rightly in matters concerning his religious life. We must remember that during the earlier stages of the monastic movement the monks were not very eager about doctrinal orthodoxy. It is true that even to be suspected of heresy seemed horrible and quite unbearable, yet their main interest was centred in the problem of how to live the Christian life rather than in the definitions of the Christian faith. It is therefore in the decision of practical questions that they conceived discretion to be useful. They made no claim to special illumination in matters of the faith.

The teaching of history confirms the belief, which most of us arrive at by experience, that the character of religious enthusiasts is likely to be marred, not only by narrowness and bitterness, but by exaggerated rigorism and by spiritual pride. The hermits saw a danger of ultimate shipwreck for the religious soul in which these faults were suffered to find a home. Safety lay in cultivating the virtue of discretion. There are, of course, other safeguards. The genial laughter with which humanity's broad common sense greets exaggeration and affectation saves the world from being overrun with militant faddists of various kind. For most men the laughter of their friends is the best cure for religious and moral foolishness. It is unfortunate that the genuine enthusiast is to some extent removed from the fear of being laughed at. The hermits, especially, stood clear from the influence of the world's opinion. An essential element in their position was that they had learned to say with St. Paul, "To me it is a very small matter to be judged of you or of man's judgment." To many a hermit it came to be actually a source of satisfaction to be laughed at as a fool. The greatest among them did not shrink from using ridicule as a weapon in combatting exaggeration and pride. Perhaps a sense of humour is the last thing we should expect to find in a hermit. Yet we find not only that they could appreciate the laughable side of the faults they combatted, but that they were quite ready to enforce the teaching of common sense by extremely practical forms of ridicule. It will not be denied that they were wise. The Latin poet, who claimed the right of speaking the truth while he laughed, was too modest. He might have asserted that certain kinds of truth can hardly be spoken at all except while laughing. The exaggerations and eccentricities of faddists tend, however, to grow aggravated until we learn to call them fanaticism and insanity. Then they can no longer be met or cured by laughter. It is against the danger of moral shipwreck from these faults that the hermits sought safety in learning discretion. One of the most striking features in the characters of the greatest among them, is their entire sanity. In spite of the strangeness of St. Antony's way of life and the severity of St. Macarius' asceticism, no one will be found who wants to laugh at them. Stories of lesser enthusiasts move men to smile even while they love. The great Egyptian hermits may be hated, indeed, but they cannot be regarded as either ridiculous or fanatical. The saving grace was discretion.

Discretion, as the hermits conceived it, differed from common sense or an appreciation of the ridiculous, in that it was not a natural faculty but a virtue. A faculty is a gift whose possessor is to be envied. A virtue is an attainment. He who has it, has attained it. He who lacks it, is a failure. The hermits regarded discretion as the final glory of a perfect character. Sometimes it saved them from excessive asceticism. After St. Antony preached his first great sermon to the monks on his outer mountain, moderation was recognised as a fruit of discretion. There are stories which inculcate fearful warnings against extremes of fasting and labour. It brought with it a keen spiritual insight which saved the monk from hating or despising the world which God made very good, or claiming for himself an imaginary freedom from the divinely imposed necessity for labour. It saved him, too, from diabolic deceptions. It is by a form of discretion, amounting almost to inspiration, that the hermit recognises the devil who comes to him disguised as an angel of light. This is its highest achievement. Discretion is the eye of the soul. It is of it, according to St. Antony, that the Lord taught when He said, "The light of the body is the eye. If, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." There is only one way of attaining this perfect vision, and that is through humility. Indeed, discretion and humility are the same virtue. Humility is the root and stem, discretion is the flower and fruit. It is quite obvious that this is so. Only the man who has too good an opinion of himself will break out into the absurdity of eccentricity and singular exaggerations. Only the man whose soul is puffed up with spiritual pride is in any real danger of mistaking the devil for an angel of light, charged with a special revelation to him. It is by steadily maintaining a low opinion of himself that a man may hope to achieve that singleness of eye of which the Lord speaks, the ability to distinguish with swift and certain glance between what is really good and those subtler forms of evil which dress themselves in virtue's clothing.


A discourse of St. Antony, wherein is explained the meaning and the value of discretion.

Often men are most strict in fasting and in vigils. Often they nobly withdraw into solitude and aim at depriving themselves of all their goods so that they do not suffer even one day's supply of food or a single penny to remain to them. Often they fulfil all the duties of kindness with the utmost devotion. Yet even such men are sometimes suddenly deceived. They cannot bring the work they have entered upon to its fitting close, but bring their exalted fervour and noble manner of life to a terrible end. In these men, though the virtues I have mentioned abound in them, yet discretion is wanting, and they are not able to continue unto the end. There is no other reason for their falling away than that they have not obtained discretion, that spiritual wisdom which, passing by excess on either side, teaches a monk to walk always along the royal road. It does not suffer him to be puffed up on the right hand of virtue, that is, from excess of zeal, in foolish presumption, to transgress the bounds of due moderation. Nor does it allow him to become slack and turn away to vices on the left hand, that is, under pretext of duly managing the body, to become lukewarm. For it is discretion which is termed in the gospel the "eye" and "the light of the body" according to the Saviour's saying, because as it discerns all the thoughts and actions of men it sees and overlooks all things which should be done. But if in any man this be "evil," that is, not fortified by sound judgment and knowledge, or is deceived by some error or presumption, it will make the whole body "full of darkness." It will obscure all our mental vision, and our actions will be involved in the darkness of vice and the gloom of unpeacefulness. No one can doubt that when the judgment of our heart goes wrong and is overwhelmed by ignorance, our thoughts and deeds must be involved in the darkness of still greater sins.


A story of the abbot John the Short: how he fell into the sin of presumption through lack of discretion, and afterwards was saved.

They tell this story about the abbot John the Short. Once he said to one of the brethren who was his senior, "I wish to be as the angels are, free from all care, doing no work, but ceaselessly praising and praying to God." Then casting off his raiment, he departed into the wilderness. After a week had passed, he returned to his brother and knocked at the door of his cell. Before he opened to him, the brother asked, "Who art thou?' John replied, "I am John." Then the brother answered him and said, "Not so, for John has become an angel, and no longer has intercourse with men." He, however, continued knocking, and crying out, "Indeed, I am he." The other, however, would not open the door, but left him suffering there. At last he opened the door and admitted John, saying to him, "If you are a man, need is for you to work that you may live. If you are an angel, why do you seek entrance to my cell?" John then, being truly penitent, replied, "Pardon me, O brother, for I have grievously sinned."


The abbot Evagrius commeds discretion in advising that all things be done moderately and at ftting seasons.

The abbot Evagrius said: Reading and watching and prayer are good for the slothful spirit and the wandering mind. Fasting and toil and carefulness will tame lust though it burn in us. The singing of psalms, together with patience and tenderness, will conquer wrath and bring peace in troubled times. Yet must all these be practised at due times, and all within the bounds of moderation. For he who exercises himself in these ways inopportunely and excessively may indeed profit for a little while, but after a short time will be harmed, not helped, by them.


How the abbot Lucius rebuked certain brethren who showed that they lacked discretion, and taught them a better way.

Certain brethren once came to the abbot Lucius, and the old man asked them, "What work are you wont to do?" They said, "We do no work, but, according to the saying of the apostle, we pray without ceasing." Then said the old man, "Do you never eat?" And they replied, "Truly, we do eat." Then Lucius said, "And who does your praying for you while you eat?" They were silent. Then he asked them "Do you never sleep?" When they confessed that they slept, he asked, "And who does your praying for you while you sleep?" They could find no answer to give to him. Then he said, "I see that you do not perform what you boast. I will show you how to pray without ceasing. Sit working in the morning up to the accustomed hour; weave mats and make baskets. Meanwhile keep praying in these words: 'Lord, according to thy mercy pardon my offences and do away with my iniquity.' When you have finished a few baskets sell them for money. Give a portion to the poor, and keep the rest to buy your food. When, then, you eat or sleep, the poor whom you relieve are filling in the gaps in your ceaseless round of prayer."


The abbot Pastor teaches discretion to a brother who repented truly of his sins.

A brother asked the abbot Pastor, "I have committed a great sin. Shall I do penance for three years?" Pastor replied to him, "That is too long." Then the brother said, "Do you advise one year?" Again Pastor replied, "That is too long." Those who were standing by asked, "Are forty days sufficient?" Pastor said again, It is too long." Then he added, "If a man repent with all his heart, and fully determine not to commit again the sin which he deplores, God will receive his repentance though it endure but three days."


Of a wandering brother who lacked discretion, being puffed up with spiritual pride.

A certain wandering brother came to the monastery of the abbot Silvanus. He saw the brethren working, and rebuked them, saying, "Why do ye labour for the meat which perisheth? Mary chose the good part." Then said the abbot Silvanus to his disciple Zacharias, "Give this brother a book to read and put him into an empty cell." At the ninth hour the brother looked out and gazed along the path to see if any man was coming to call him to a meal. After a while he went to Silvanus, and said, "Do not the brethren eat to-day?" The abbot confessed that they had already eaten. Then said the brother, "Why did you not send to call me?" Silvanus answered him, "You are a spiritual man. You have surely no need of such food as we eat. We, indeed, are but carnal; we must eat. We labour, but you have chosen the good part. You read all day, and have no wish to receive carnal food."


Of discretion in prayer. Certain brethren asked St. Macarius how they ought to pray. He answered them, "There is no need of much speaking in our prayers. Stretch out your hands and say, 'Lord, have mercy upon me as Thou wilt and as Thou seest best.' If your mind is disquieted, then say, 'Help Thou me.' He knows well what is best for us. Of His own will He grants us mercy."


How discretion taught Nathyra to alter his rule of life according to the circumstances amid which he found himself.

The abbot Nathyra, the disciple of Silvanus, when he lived as a hermit in his cell, adopted a very moderate rule of life, allowing himself all that was necessary for the welfare of his body. Afterwards, when he became a bishop, he used a much severer discipline. One of his disciples asked him, saying, "Master, when we dwelt together in the desert you used not thus to crucify yourself; why do you do so now ?" The bishop said to him, "My son, there in the desert we had solitude and quietness and poverty; therefore I so regulated my bodily life that I should not grow weak, but be able to strive for those graces which I desired. Here in the world are many temptations to excess of every kind; moreover, here there are many to warn me should I overtax my strength with fasting. I live austerely here, lest I should let slip the hope of perfection which led me to become a monk."


The abbot Agathon gave evidence of his discretion by avoiding all extravagance.

The abbot Agathon so managed his life and his affairs that discretion appeared to govern everything he was or did. This was the case not only in great matters, such as the labour which he performed, but even in the details of his dress. Thus he wore such clothes as never could strike anyone as either particularly good or particularly poor.


How one was preserved from a snare by discretion. They tell about a certain old man that sometimes in his struggles against temptatations he saw the devils, who surrounded him, with his bodily eyes. Nevertheless, he despised them and their temptations. Seeing that he was being vanquished, the devil came and showed himself to the old man, saying, "I am Christ." But when the old man beheld him, he shut his eyes. Then the devil said again, "I am Christ; why have you shut your eyes?" The old man answered him, "I neither expect nor wish to behold Christ in this present life. I look to see Him only in the life beyond." Hearing these words, the devil straightway vanished from his sight.


The story of another who was saved by discretion from an illusion.

There was another old man whom the demons wished to seduce. They said to him, "Do you wish to behold Christ?" He replied to them, "May you be accursed for the words you speak. I believe my Christ when He says to me, 'If anyone shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ or lo there, believe him not.'" When they heard him answer them thus the devils immediately vanished.


A way in which a man may order his life wisely.

A certain brother asked the abbot Antony, "What shall I do that I may please God?" The old man replied, "Keep these commandments which I give you. Wherever you go, have God always before your eyes. Whatever work you do, set before yourself an example from the Holy Scriptures. Wherever you dwell, be not hasty in removing thence. Stay patiently in the same place. If you guard these three precepts without doubt you will be saved."

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