Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Barsanuphius?
Abba Barsanuphius lived in a community of monks in the Gaza area of Palestine. He lived during the first half of the sixth century, near the tail end of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Barsanuphius was a contemporary of Abba John the Prophet (known for prophetic accuracy), together they offered deep spiritual counsel to many men and women.
Having become so caught up in the contemplation of God, around the year 540 AD Abba Barsanuphius retired to a life of complete solitude in order to seek God wholeheartedly. He spent around ten years in solitude before reposing to Heaven around 550 AD.
Most of what has been preserved of Abba Barsanuphius’ teaching comes in a series of letters written to him as questions from monks living in various communities. The questions asked range from the secular arena, such as family inheritance issues; to the spiritual, such as how to deal with distracting thoughts; as well as the life of community, such as how to express sympathy for a fellow monk. The advice Barsanuphius provides is both practical and deep. The Greek monastics thought very highly of him, and he was venerated along with Abba Anthony as an incredibly important influence in the monastic movement (albeit much later than Anthony).
Due of the nature of his writing, the topics covered vary considerably, though they all have application to the spiritual life.
Practical Advice on the Spiritual Life
He was once asked about how to deal with pride and having a reputation, his response is incredibly helpful.
"Having a name or a reputation greater than one’s accomplishments does a man no harm at all, as long as he feels no gratification from words of praise and does not agree with what is said about him, just as one who is slandered as a murderer is not accounted guilty in the sight of God as long as he has not committed such a murder. A man who is praised should reflect thus: 'Men have held me in esteem, but only because they do not know what I am.'”
The problem lies in believing the praise and esteeming yourself as greater than you are. The greater response is to hear the words of praise, lower yourself, and turn your heart to Christ.
Another time, he was asked how to tame the tongue. His response was simply, “Contrition.” (Contrition is another way of saying a repentant heart). The brother then asked how to develop contrition. Barsanuphius replied,
“If one lives among men, yet cuts off his own will and pays no heed to the faults of others, he acquires contrition. As a result of this, he gathers his thoughts together and, when they are thus collected, they produce Godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10) in his heart, and this sorrow then engenders tears.”
The two facets of a repentant heart are forsaking our own will and not accusing others. In practicing this we are prepared to see the depth to which our heart is separate from God. And then the tears of Godly sorrow restore softness and humility to the heart, bringing back the presence of God.
When he was asked what it mean to cut off our own will, he responded,
”Brother, cutting off your will is progress in God’s eyes; it consists (when it comes to what is good), in one’s doing not what he wants, but what the Saints say. In the case of bad things, he should avoid what is improper by his own choice.”
Cutting of the will is to not do what we want for our own sake, but to do what has been handed down to us in Scripture and tradition for God’s sake.
Regarding responding to offenses, he said,
“When you are bothered, do not say anything; for the bad does not engender the good. What is said with an agitated heart does not give rest to the one who hears it-nor does it correct him. You should be forbearing until your mind is calm, and then you should speak peaceably.”
Before you seek to heal an offense, make sure your heart is healed.
Another time, he was asked by a young, immature monk if the young monk should feel sympathy for those in poor health or afflicted by spiritual warfare. Abba Barsanuphius’ clear discernment is seen in his response.
“The Fathers have instructed younger monks that no one should abandon a corpse of his own to go off and weep for another…for the younger monk makes foolish judgments about men and things, without infallible discernment… if he happens to remember that one of them is sick or suffers from some affliction, or hears about him from others, let him say: ’May God have mercy on both him and me'…Sympathy for others on account of your love of God is not yet in your domain, if you are a neophyte. When a thought about someone concerns you, then ask and learn what your duty and obligations are."
Barsanuphius’ answer is thoughtful and profound. A young neophyte (new monk) should not concern himself with the progress and struggles of others, rather he should be focused on his own internal life. His concern is that the young monk would be distracted by the concern for the progress of others. Let the concern for others be among the more mature, whose compassion is more perfect than the imperfect compassion of the young spiritual person.
When another monk tells him that he desires to leave his community and practice a life of solitude, the Abba replies,
“Stillness is nothing other than restraining the heart from all transactions, from attempting to please men, and from other, similar activities; if, then, stillness is what you desire, do not have dealings with worldly people, and you will have quietness.”
And goes on to say,
“Only when a man takes up his cross is he able to live in (inner) solitude.”
The young monk then responds by saying that he finds spiritual growth difficult in the midst of the community, since all the other monks distract him. The Elder responded again,
“Brother, a man who is in debt, as long as he has not first settled his debt, will-wherever he may go, be it a city or a village-be a debtor and will not have the freedom to remain in a state of rest…Once he is free, he is able with confidence and great boldness either to live with others or to stay where he wants."
Unless he was to deal with the issues in his heart, and grow in patience, he would remain in immaturity wherever he would go.
He drives his point home with this statement.
“If you remove yourself from people, in order to acquire these perfections, know that you are avoiding the contest and the arena.”
Too often, we think of the people in our communities as the source of our problem, without ever considering the fact that God may have placed them there for our benefit. Sometimes, the most difficult people are there to challenge the depth of love we carry for others.
Abba Barsanuphius spoke to one monk regarding the issue of living in community and bearing burdens.
“He should suffer with the brothers of the whole community. When a monk does this, he puts the commandment of the Apostle into practice (Romans 8:17 and I Corinthians 12:26). That is, if anyone from the community is in distress, one should feel distress along with him, in order to alleviate and comfort him; and if one suffers with the ailing (this means those being tested by afflictions) and helps to cure them, that is good."
Burden bearing was the life of Jesus (Romans 8:17 – suffering with Christ) seen in the midst of the community (1 Corinthians 12:26 – one body, many parts).
The Interior Life
Once, he was asked how to respond to impassioned thoughts. Should one arguing against the thought, rebuke the thought, or run to God in weakness? Barsanuphius states that the most effective way of dealing with thoughts that afflict us is to call on the Name of the Lord, he quotes Psalm 49:15,
“And call upon Me in the day of thine affliction, and I will deliver thee; and thou shalt glorify Me.”
If you lack the strength to argue with the thought, then you end up giving the thought more space in your mind without its removal. If you lack the authority to rebuke the thought, you run the risk of being ineffectual. The most consistently fruitful way of dealing with the wayward wanderings of the mind is to return the mind to Christ. The other responses entertain the thoughts, returning to Christ entertains his presence.
Another bit of advice he gives in regards to the thought life is to distract your mind with work if you lack control of your thoughts. If images continue to present themselves, or anger and pride continue to attempt to grab hold of you, then,
“My brother, when someone does not work, he becomes preoccupied with the thoughts that come to him; if, however, he is working, he is not at leisure to accept such thoughts.”
When asked by a monk if he should seek counsel for every temptation that passes through his mind, Barsanuphius counsels him to only consult an Elder when the temptation won’t leave.
“…we must reveal to our spiritual Fathers only those things which attack us or remain in our soul for a long time.”
The brother then pressed on and asked how come he continued to find fault with others after he had confessed the issue with them to his spiritual father. Barsanuphius answered him with keen insight,
“You criticize others even after confession,” answered the Elder, ”because within you reigns a disposition toward vindication, which has not died; criticize yourself and the condemnation will pass from you to others.”
He may have confessed, but he was still looking for justification.
This eminent father was known for the spiritual direction he provided for many during his life. He was considered an expert when it came to guidance in the spiritual life. While doing so, he demonstrated an aptitude for what the Bible says about the spiritual life, often merely offering commentary on what a particular verse meant in relation to the question asked.
What was his inspiration for his advice concerning the spiritual life? Simply put, how God dealt with him in his own life.
“Sympathy is engendered in a man from his remembering what compassion God has on him, in order that he, too, might have compassion on his neighbor.”