Go, Be Dead!

One of the lesser known treasures of early Christian thought is the Apophathegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Fathers (hereafter, AP).   The Fathers in question are the early Egyptian monks (300-500 CE or so), who are sometimes called the Desert Fathers.  Entries in the AP are short and pointed.  This felicitous combination of brevity and perspicuity makes them memorable.  In fact, readers usually remember the stories long after they’ve forgotten the name of the monks involved!

These little gems usually start out very simply, by recounting what one monk said to another.   Among them are a group characterized by discourse between a younger and an older monk.  The younger searches out the old and asks for “a word,” by which he means some sort of advice on salvation.  The response of the older will show a remarkable depth of insight into human nature and how to overcome the frailties that keep us from approaching God.  Thus we learn that one day a brother came to Abba Macarius and said “Tell me a word: how can I be saved?”

Abba Macarius told him to go to the local cemetery and speak rudely to the dead.  The young monk was to curse them and throw stones at them!  When he returned to Abba Macarius the older man enquired about how the monk had been received by those he reviled.  The monk noted that there had been no response.

Then Abba Macarius suggested that he visit the cemetery a second time, and that this time he honor the dead, including accolades naming those interred there as apostles, saints, and the righteous. When the bewildered monk returned to Abba Macarius, the older monk enquired again about the response of the dead, and was once again assured that there had been no response.

The lesson that Abba Macarius drew for his supplicant was this: “You have seen how you cursed them and they did not say anything to you, and how you glorified them and they did not respond at all.  It should be the same with you, too:  if you wish to be saved, go, be dead, having no regard for people’s contempt or their honors, like the dead, and you can be saved.

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Mormon Archipelago

November 2009
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