Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Ancient Form of Wisdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Great Lent: The Third Day

We find ourselves (stuck?) in a sound-bite culture. We hear short fragments of news stories, anecdotes, gossip, and the like, that are meant to draw us into a given story; but the brevity of the "data" makes it almost impossible to really understand many of the underlying issues or the personalities involved. How often have we seen five-second clips, accompanied by a voice-over, of someone like the late Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton flit across the screen meant to titilate our interest in one more meaningless or sordid detail - though we hardly know anything about them as persons? We can easily come away with a misunderstanding unless we expend the time and energy to probe deeper (and this usually occurs through internet surfing instead of book reading). The whole point of the sound-bite, however, is that we often do not have the time nor the energy to look deeper, even if our interest has been aroused. And here I am referring to a serious story - political, cultural, social - and not about the life of the glamorous and rich. We can therefore conclude that our sound-bite culture has been created (by whom or by what?) in order to serve our limitations; almost to "respect" our overwhelmed lives that are constantly on the move from one event to another. A little edgier, or even more cynical analysis, may conclude that the sound-bite is the perfect means of communication for a superficially-educated or apathetic society that is more interested in entertainment and distraction than real "news." (There is a book out there entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death that I hope to get to one day and comment on - when I have the time, that is!).

All of this can make you hunger for a good, long 19th c. realistic novel - War and Peace anyone? - that has character development in depth, intricate plots, passages of lyrical beauty, dramatic narrative pacing, meaningful dialogue and a moral vision informing the entire work. Something you have to "work at" with precisely time and concentration for the book to yield its manifold richness and endless insights about life. Or a good history book or documentary that probes a given subject with solid investigative reporting.

On the other hand, there does exist a centuries-old and even ancient form of wisdom that is presented in very concise form, sometimes in only a sentence or two. Yet, this literature has the opposite purpose and effect from our modern sound-bite. I am speaking primarily of the Scriptures and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The Book of Proverbs offers wisdom teaching about life in short aphoristic, even pithy, sayings that are often memorizable (think of memorizing a TV or gossip magazine sound-bite!) and created to be meditated and pondered over, with the hope that the wisdom so imparted can be integrated into our lives with a life-changing effect. From The Book of Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning
of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (PROV. 1:7)

Happy is the man who finds wisdom,
and the man who gets
for the gain from it is better than
gain from silver
and its profit better than gold. (PROV. 3:13)

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will
hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will
love you. (PROV. 9:8)

By the way, The Book of Proverbs is appointed to be read during the forty days of Great Lent. We hear the appointed passage for the day during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers resemble this form of imparting wisdom. As John McGuckin explains: "The instructions were usually arranged in short paragraphs, meant to be learned by heart and meditated on over and over again for a day or even a week until the paragraph had broken like a fruit on the tongue of the monk and revealed its inner flavor to the searching mind." (The Book of Mystical Chapters, p. 7) What I would like to do during Great Lent this year is to share some of these wonderful sayings from the great ascetics and saints of the Church, so that we can read them, meditate on them, and see which of them may strike a real inner cord that awakens us to really desire to embody this timeless wisdom that is the fruit of faith, hope and love; cultivated through prayer, fasting, vigils and tears. These sayings are wonderful examples wherein "less is more" - not, as in the sound-bite, wherein less is superficial, incomplete, or misleading. To "unpack" these short sayings is to ponder deeply on what is significant in our relationship with God and neighbor; to find endless insight into how to live in the light of the Gospel.

These sayings are taken from The Book of Mystical Chapters - Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, translated and introduced by Fr. John McGuckin. They certainly do not need my commentary, but rather your undivided attention, focus and concentration together with a real desire to learn from the masters of the life in the Spirit. Today, we begin with the words of a certain Amma Sara, a desert mother of the 4th - 5th c.:

Amma Sara said:
If I prayed to God
that all men should approve of my conduct,
I should find myself endlessly penitent
before each man's door.

I shall not ask this;
I shall pray instead
that my heart might be pure toward all.

Fr. Steven

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