The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XVII:
The Inner Life and the Visible Church

DURING the earlier stages of the monastic movement the hermits came very little into contact with Church authority. They lived, at first, outside the sphere of clerical activity. They were often far out of reach of village churches, and a priest in order to minister to them must have been himself prepared to become a hermit. They were, I believe, at first almost entirely uninterested in the controversies which rent the Church. Their devoted loyalty to St. Athanasius was less the result of their dogmatic orthodoxy than a tribute to the noble unworldliness of the great patriarch's character. For them the entire interest of religion centred in the effort to keep the commandments of God and follow the example of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, of course, their spirit changed, and they became the earnest and sometimes even fanatical opponents of positions deemed heretical. Long before that time came, however, they had been obliged to adjust their relations to ecclesiastical authority.

It is not to be supposed that even the earliest hermits were in any way hostile to the clergy or opposed to the system of Church government, still less that they were contemptuous of the means of grace committed to the Church's guardianship. Rather, we must think of them as men so absorbed in fostering and perfecting the inner life of personal communion with God, that they did not feel the need of absolution or of Sacraments. It was inevitable that as their numbers grew, and as they gathered into the communities of the lauras, this position must give way. The change was a very critical one. There was the possibility of a revolt against all the external machinery of religion. It is quite easy to understand that this was the most likely consequence of the earlier aloofness. Men who are genuinely on fire with a love for holiness are sure to resent the marks of corruption and insincerity which must ever be visible in the garments of the Church on earth. Men of intense spirituality are likely to revolt against the claims of authority which sometimes must seem to break in upon their own communion with God. It is not the least wonderful thing in the history of Egyptian monasticism that it never produced even the beginnings of a schism.

The change from the original position of entire spiritual independence to that of faithful loyalty to the Egyptian patriarchs took place silently, and has left but few traces of the steps by which it was accomplished. The two stories which form this chapter are quoted as examples of the way in which the hermits learned their lesson of obedience. They furnish us, I think, with valuable spiritual lessons, and give evidence of a grace in their heroes which is very worthy of imitation.


Of a hermit who refused the ministration of a priest who was a sinner.

Once a man said to a certain hermit, "The priest who ministers to you is a sinner." Then doubt concerning the priest took possession of the hermit's mind, and when, according to his custom, the priest came again he shut the door against him. There came a voice to him as he sat in his cell, which said "Assuredly men are governed by someone else than me." Then he beheld a vision. He stood in a great garden wherein were fruit trees of every kind. He saw there the engine by which water was raised from the river for the watering of the garden, and lo, all the vessels connected with it were of gold. He was about to drink of the water when he saw that the man who tended the engine was a leper, loathsome to behold. Then all desire of drinking departed from him. There came the voice and spoke to him again, "Oh man, have you beheld the beauty of the garden and the trees? Have you seen the wheel with its golden furniture? Have you seen, too, the gardener and the misfortune which has overwhelmed him ?" The hermit answered, "I have seen all this." Then said the voice, "Does his disease injure at all the trees or the beauty of the garden?" And he answered "No." The voice said to him, "It is even so with the priest who makes the sacrifice. He may be a sinner, but his sin diminishes nothing of the honour due to the body of the Lord. The divine virtue is ever active in the eucharist. The prayers with which he celebrates are always the samne as the prayers of holy fathers."


How the Lord himself taught the abbot Schnoudi the respect due to those who sit in Moses' seat.

It happened one day that the abbot Schnoudi was holding converse with our Saviour Jesus Christ, when the Bishop of Schmin arrived at the monastery. He sent to ask the abbot to come to him that he might talk to him. But Schnoudi, the Saviour as has been told being with him, sent back a message by the servant, "Schnoudi at this time has no leisure." When the servant had given this message to the bishop he sent again, saying, "Bid him be kind to me, for I have come here for the purpose of knowing him." But Schnoudi said to the brother who brought the message, "Tell him again that I have no leisure to see him." Then the bishop was vexed, and said, "Say to him, If you do not come I shall excommunicate you." Schnoudi, when he heard the message, smiled and said, "Behold the folly of this man of flesh and blood. Lo, here is with me the creator of heaven and earth. I shall continue to abide with Him." Then the Saviour Himself spoke, and said to him, "Oh, Schnoudi, rise and go to the bishop, lest he excomumunicate you. If he does I shall not receive you into heaven. The Father promised, saying, 'Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'" Then when Schuoudi had heard these words he hastened to the presence of the bishop.

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