Macarius the Great

Beyond Kavanaugh Craziness: Confronting Our Deplorable Sex Culture

I am afraid that too many people on either side of the Kavanaugh confirmation fiasco are going to continue to ignore the far deeper problem in our society than who sits on the Supreme Court. Our culture of “boys will be boys” is deeply embedded in America to a point where even many Christians are tolerant of sexual immorality.  I have mentioned the words of the late educator Benjamin Mays a couple of times before in my blog articles, “The problem is not failure.  The problem is low aim.”  While we can have all of the proper laws against rape,  extend the statute of limitations to a hundred years, and permit every DNA and polygraph test in courts of law and public opinion; unless we aim for purity and repentance in our minds and souls we will have many more Cosbys and Kavanaughs to come.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX canonized over 200 years before the birth of Christ), we read in the fourth Psalm Have remorse in your beds for what you have said in your hearts (1) and As you lie in bed, repent for what you say in your heart (2).  The context of the scripture addresses the sin of anger.  However, the sin of lust should also be expelled from our hearts and be repented of as we go to sleep.  The New Testament era writing The Shepherd Hermas warns us, Or do you suppose it is not an evil thing for for a righteous man if an evil desire arises in his heart? It is indeed a sin, and a great one (3).  Jesus Himself confirms, But, I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (4).  Please note, no actual physical sexual assault has to take place.  The sin begins in the mind.  And in the case of Hermas, the desire for the woman was in the context of marriage.  If our society taught remorse and repentance for lust while it is still in the mind and soul, rape (like any other sin) would still happen.  But, it would happen far less than it does now because the root of this horrible and obvious sin is being addressed and corrected at the root. 

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Because the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are not in the Bible, it was easy for modern Christianity to ignore Hermas and other ancient books (no matter how highly regarded they were to early Christians). Biblical translators from the Maseoritic Hebrew text of the Middle Ages exchanged the words remorse and repent with less challenging terms like commune (King James and Revised Standard), meditate (New Revised Standard) , and ponder (New King James). As the reader feels less of a need to correct himself, he will make excuses for his thoughts.  I can’t help it, I’m a man. She shouldn’t have been dressed like that.  Those girls deserve it.  She really wants it.  She really wants me.  Ain’t no harm in thinking.  Since lust is such a difficult sin to overcome, making excuses for it seems to make common sense.  If the mind is set in the wrong direction, it only takes opportunity for thought to turn to action.  This is true even for clergy who proclaim the teachings of Jesus Christ.  While most men do not become rapist and molesters, the atmosphere of sexual violence is upheld when we make excuses for ourselves and others who aren’t “as bad as _______________.”  We give Satan a foothold everytime we do not use quiet moments outside of worship to be remorseful and repentant for our “little” sexual sins.  As long as he knows his foothold is unchallenged, he can be content for years and decades.  Sometimes the devil brings us down with a hurricane or tornado.  He is just as happy to rot us out like fungi and termites making our holiness and morality an empty shell.  To have a society full of judgemental and tolerant excuse making empty shells causes the demons great rejoicing.

The call to be remorseful and repentant on our beds is not a time of fearful condemnation and self hate. If anything, it is just as much a time of rejoicing as it is a time of tears.  We ought to be mornful of our interior wickedness and consider ourselves to be chief among sinners (5).  But, God has given us this opportunity for self correction.  It is far less destructive to cleanse our hearts and minds than to have sexually violated someone (men get raped too).  We are much better off taking the treatments of healing our soul than letting them rot until we die.  Mourning over our sins brings about the promise of Christ to comfort us (6).  Repentance gives us that peace in mind that we can enter the kingdom of God (7).  Our Lord taught that if we clean the inside of a cup or dish, that the outside of it will be clean as well (8).  If we continue to make excuses for lust in our hearts and minds, people will see past our apperances of righteousness and despise us for the hypocrites we are; especially if we call ourselves “Christians” (9).

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Among the Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great was once accused of impregnating a young woman (10). Instead of passionately pleading his case, the monk (badly bruised and beaten by an angry mob) returned to his hut to sell off and make even more baskets to support the new wife that he resigned himself to be bound to.  When the time for her to deliver came, she couldn’t until she confessed that Macarius was not the culprit.  Rather than wait to gloat before his embarassed accusers and tormenters, the saint left the area so he could continue a life of undistracted prayer.  If this father can trust God in the midst of such an obvious and false accusation, we can do the same in confessing our private sins that we know we are guilty of.  Let’s do it now before accusers and tormenters arise and take us to task.

  1. Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 4:5
  2. John Cassian, On the Eight Vices, Philokalia Vol. 1, pg. 83
  3. Shepherd Hermas, Vision I:1-9, The Apostolic Fathers (edited by Jack N. Sparks) pgs. 161, 162
  4. Matthew 5:28
  5. 1 Timothy 1:15, Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
  6. Matthew 5:4
  7. Matthew 3:2
  8. Matthew 23:25, 26
  9. Romans 2:24
  10. Sayings of the Desert Fathers (translated by Benedicta Ward), pgs. 124, 125.
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African Monastic Wisdom: Rejecting Glory

There is a temptation among us all to gloat when we are proven right.  We especially tend to gloat when we had to endure a lot of criticism and insults until the truth came out on our side.  For some, we just want our opponents to admit their faults.  Others of us want to make a meal out of our “haters.”

St. Macarius of Egypt

To combat this tendency, God provides us with the example of St. Macarius of Egypt.  This well-respected African saint is one that almost all Orthodox Christians are familiar with as his words are in our prayer books.  Despite being sought after and honored by all races of Christian believers in life, he led an extremely austere life as a celibate monk with a simple diet and basic clothing.  From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this story (my paraphrase of it).

Macarius had taken the life of a hermit monk making hand crafts to support himself.  A local man saw him as a spiritual guide and took the monk’s work to the local village market to sell for him.

A young lady in the village became pregnant.  When asked who was the man she slept with, she lied and claimed it was the monk Macarius.  The people of the village seized him and led him into town to be humiliated, beaten, and spat upon.  The monk’s assistant also was tormented as he stood by the innocent man.  Rather than try to plead his case, Macarius worked harder to make more crafts telling himself that he has to support his new wife and child.

When it came time for the woman to deliver, she went through great pain as she couldn’t give birth.  When asked what was the matter, she confessed that she falsely accused the monk and that the father was another man.  The monk’s assistant quickly went to the outskirts of town to tell Macarius that the woman admitted her lie and that the whole village was coming to repent and honor him for their years of disbelief and abuse.  Rather than stay and receive them, Macarius fled his cave and went even further away to a desert where no one knew of what had happened.

I confess, I think I’d stick around for a few tearful apologies from the most irritating of the bunch.  But, this story is so opposite of myself and most of us.  Even though we may not want to put folk through the same cruelty they put us through, the object of our existence is not earthly glory from man under any circumstances.  St. Anthony died far away from his followers so that his relics would not be found to be venerated by anyone.  St. Moses the Black once disguised himself before a wealthy official as not to be discovered.  Even  our Lord when He had done mighty works in one village, did He not move on to another place to spread the Gospel (Mark 1:35-39).

How many of us strive to make a school honor roll not because we love learning the various subjects presented to us and challenging our minds, but for financial awards and praises from others?  How many of us bust our butts on our jobs not because we find our careers fulfilling our interest and passions, but because we want that pay raise, promotion, and recognition as the best in the profession?  While not every man or woman will be called to live in a cave or monastic cell, the monks and nuns remind us that there is a world beyond this one with greater glories than what this world can offer.  While recognition may come our way in our academics, employment, or community service; we must accept such things with the greatest of humility and make sure our true aim is for the kingdom of heaven.

When we make the glories of the kingdom of earth our true aim, we fall into the temptation Satan tried to offer our Lord.  The more we want earthly glory, the more we will serve the devil to get it.  Which is why Jesus rejected the overt plan of the devil.  Which is why Macarius fled the slippery slope of many praises that would have misled him.  Let us not be fooled into seeking earthly glory.

African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.