Abba Longinus The Great
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 Longinus The Great?
Abba Longinus the Great was revered as a deeply spiritual man; he was one who walked in profound revelation, gifted to know things before they happened, and was moved deeply by the compassion of Christ for his people. Though he was recognized for the great gifts that he carried, he desired nothing of the recognition of men, and took to heart the words of his spiritual father, Abba Lucius.
“Where you are, my son, flee the empty praises of men.”
Longinus was born near Lycia, in modern day Turkey sometime in the 5th century. He submitted himself to Abba Lucius as a young man and was taught the spiritual life. Abba Lucius taught Longinus that the spiritual life was not about external practice, but the inward disposition of the heart. He taught Longinus that it was better to control the tongue than to live alone, that it was better to reject evil thoughts than to fast incessantly, and that it was better to learn to love those around you than to flee to solitude.
Longinus lived in a time where there was much debate over orthodox, Trinitarian doctrine. Though he held some questionable theological beliefs, he was none the less respected as a spiritual leader. Longinus held firmly to a theological position called Monophysitism.
The main contention between his theological position and the orthodox position that prevailed was the distinction of natures within Christ. Today we hold a Trinitarian formula that recognizes Christ as fully divine and fully human. Monophysitism held to a belief that Christ had one nature, that of the divine, and that his humanity was essentially consumed by the divinity of Christ. According to monophytistic belief, Christ’s humanity had mixed with his divinity and new nature was born, the humanity of Christ dissolving into the divinity of Christ.
But the church fathers had a problem with this theological structure. If Christ’s two natures mixed, it meant that he became something that he was not, meaning that God had changed in nature. And if his divinity and humanity had become one and the same, it also meant that Christ in his divinity was not full of all knowledge, because he claimed, while on earth, that there were things of which he was not aware (Matthew 24:36, the fathers believed this was accounted to his human nature, not his divine). A number of the early church fathers settled on a Christology that said Christ had become a human in order to bring humanity into his divinity. This position partly hinged on verses such as 2 Peter 1:4 (that we are partakers of the divine nature) and 1 Corinthians 6:17 (that we have become one Spirit with God). If the humanity of Christ disappeared, then our humanity could never be saved and elevated, it would have to be negated. Though the distinction was slight, the outworkings of the belief were various and problematic.
Though the position he adhered to was criticized and ultimately rejected, Longinus was nevertheless a respected teacher. The love and compassion he carried, as well as the miracles performed at his hand spoke volumes more than the variations in theology that would bring division.
While in Lycia, more and more miracles were attributed to Longinus. People began flocking to him and his spiritual father. Demoniacs were cured, though with cancer were cured, and even one story has them bringing a you man that had died back to life. One woman who was cured of cancer at their prayer launched a ministry to the poor and sick of the city. Their impact on the region was tremendous, but it came at a toll. Fame brought little time set aside for God.
Eventually, Lucius sent Longinus to Enaton, a monastery outside of Alexandria in Egypt. When Longinus arrived at the monastery, he humbled himself and asked for admittance, not revealing to the leaders of the monastery who he was. Initially, his request was rejected. But, in the vein of those who followed Abba Anthony the Great, he waited for many days outside the door of the monastery until they admitted him as a novice.
Longinus served the brothers in the monastery for two years in utter obscurity, being tasked with the menial chores around the environs. It wasn’t until a travelling visitor recognized him that his identity was revealed. When the monks of the monastery realized the spiritual giant they had in their midst, they began flocking to him. Once again, desiring silence and solitude, he retired from the monastery, only taking a couple of disciples with him.
His biographer said of him,
“But when Abba Longinus saw that he was being glorified by men, his heart was grieved, especially when he remembered the instructions his spiritual father had given him to flee from the empty praises of men.”
He was quick to forgive those who had sinned. Once, when a particular brother had sinned, a number of the elders in the community approached him and wanted him to expel the fallen brother. Longinus, having great patience for the man, knew that it was in kindness and tenderness that the man would find repentance, refused to expel him. Instead, he rebuked the elders that had come to him, saying,
“Woe to us because we renounce the world and have entered into the monastic life saying, ‘We are like angels,’ but in reality we are more evil than unclean spirits!”
If they had truly embraced the spiritual life, they would not judge, but would have patience in order to welcome repentance.
Once, when a woman who had cancer sought him out to receive prayer for healing, he was out gathering wood.
She asked him,
“Abba, where does Abba Longinus, the servant of God live?” as she did not know that it was him.
“Why are you looking for that old imposter? Do not go to see him, for he is a deceiver. What is the matter with you?”
He had no desire for fame or recognition, but rather sought to care for the woman in obscurity. The woman replied to Longinus by showing him the cancerous spots on her body.
He prayed for her and said,
“Go, and God will heal you, for Longinus cannot help you at all.”
The woman was healed immediately and went away glorifying God. It was not until later, when she described the appearance of the monk she had met to others, that she knew it was Abba Longinus that had prayed for her.
The lesson contained in that story is absolutely profound for our day and age. We live in an age where great miracles add legitimacy to any individual’s ministry. We live in an age where the testimony of God is claimed as the testimony of a man. The statement, “I healed…” rather than, “God healed,” betrays a deeper, more complex problem. Men and women like Longinus desired to do with the work of God absent the praise of men and women. Stories such as these should serve as a heart check for our purpose, motive, and intent in ministry.
The Teachings of Longinus
Abba Longinus taught that humility was the greatest kindling for the spiritual life. Absent humility, man tries to elevate himself above God. But with humility, mankind submits to God, and becomes a pliable tool for the Lord to shape.
”I reckon that just as pride is the greatest of the passions, since it was able to cast various beings down from Heaven, so also is humility the greatest of all the virtues. For it has the power to raise a man up from those dark abysses, even if he is a sinner like the Devil. This is why the Lord called the poor in spirit, that is, the humble, blessed above all others” (Matthew 5:3).
If it was pride that led to the greatest fall, it would stand to reason that humility must be the greatest aid in approaching God.
The further outworking of humility is a lack of judgement. Those with a truly humble disposition will find his own fault before finding fault with another.
“Abba Longinus said that just as a corpse does not feel anything or judge anyone, so the man who is humble of mind cannot judge anyone, even if he should see him worshipping idols.”
If we actually considered ourselves dead to the world we would not even have the capacity to judge another.
To Longinus, spiritual disciplines were not just something to be practiced, they provided the avenue for conviction and repentance to touch the heart.
“Fasting humbles the body and vigil purifies the mind; stillness produces contrition, and contrition baptizes a man and frees him from his sins.”
In practicing the spiritual life, space is created for the grace of God to bring transformation to the individual.
He taught that man was created for joy, but finds himself in lament. After the fall, mankind has need of sorrow, repentance, and humility.
“God did not create man to mourn but to rejoice, to give thanks to God and to glorify Him with purity and without sin, like the Angels; but ever since we fell into sin, man has been in need of lamentation. All who have fallen into sin are in need of tears. Where there is no sin, there is no need for mourning.”
Tears spring from the individual’s distance from God, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). When one considers his or her distance from God, the natural disposition of the heart is to lament. Lamentation then brings sorrow, sorrow repentance, repentance humility, and from wealth of humility springs love for God and for fellow mankind.
Longinus had a unique place to be able to counsel his followers to flee pride and embrace humility, for he had consistently practice just that. Every time he was exalted, he humbled himself, every time he was recognized, he removed himself. He sought obscurity for the sake of God. His audience was God, and his reason was Christ. For a man who held some questionable beliefs, it is very difficult to question his authenticity.