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.
*Disclaimer: I was unable track down a picture representing Abba Or.
Who was Abba Or?
Abba Or spent the majority of his life in solitude deep in the desert, praying, fasting, and seeking the intimacy of God. It was not until he had entered fully into old age that his influence was felt. One night, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said,
“You will be a great nation, and a numerous people will be entrusted to you. Those who will be saved through you will be ten myriads. For however many people you win in this world, that is the number you will lead in the age to come. Do not hesitate at all,” the angel told him. ‘”Provided you call upon God, you will never lack anything you need to the end of your life.”
He took the dream seriously, and, though he was fond of the solitude, traveled back from the deep desert to Mount Nitria, where he began discipling young monastics. When he had settled, he immediately began cultivating the grounds and planting trees, plants, and other bushes. His desire was to help the brothers around him by providing a place where they could collect wood close by, and not have to be troubled with the normal travel associated with the task. It was said that before he arrived there was nary a shrub in the place, and, after he passed, the area was full of trees.
His care of the disciples did not just extend to material matters. He was also deeply concerned for their spiritual maturity.
“…in his prayer to God he took the same pains and strove that all the needs of the brethren might be supplied, so that they would only have to be anxious about their redemption, and that nothing which they used might be wanting for them, so that they might have no excuse for negligence.”
Just as the angel told him that he would never lack anything, he saw that the men who came to him had no lack, and were taught the interior way of perfection.
He mentored Abba Sisoes before Sisoes left for Anthony’s mountain, and he was highly regarded by and influenced Amma Melania the Elder, a very influential Desert Mother. By the time he passed away, Or was credited as being the father of a thousand monks.
“In the church one could see the vast number of monks who lived with him, robed in white like choirs of the just and praising God with ceaseless hymnody.”
Even though he was illiterate when he entered into the spiritual life, he chose to memorize the Scripture and was taught by the Holy Spirit to read. It was said that Abba Or could recite the Scriptures by heart and was exceptionally gifted with keen insight into their meaning.
He was given grace to conquer demons and cure various ailments. Monks flocked to him from all sides to seek his blessing. He served the men and women that came to him, especially the newcomers, looking after their spiritual and physical needs. Abba Or laid good foundations in the lives of those who came to him and at all times gave thanks to God.
On the Spiritual Life
This is fantastic advice and a key to seeing formation and maturity in your life. Without doing this you can stunt your own growth and make it difficult to see God’s deeper lesson in any painful circumstance. If we constantly externalize our pain and problems, we never see the true source of our pain, our own self-destructive tendencies. If we only ever see “them” as the issue, we will never address the deeper issues in our heart.
Without humility there was no glory. Abba Or said,
‘The crown of the monk is humility.’
When Abba Sisoes asked Abba Or for some guidance on the spiritual life, the old man said,
"In my own opinion, I put myself below all men."
"He used to say this, 'Do not speak in your heart against your brother like this: "I am a man of more sober and austere life than he is," but put yourself in subjection to the grace of Christ, in the spirit of poverty and genuine charity, or you will be overcome by the spirit of vain-glory and lose all you have gained. For it is written in the Scriptures: "Let him who stands take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor. 10.12) Let your salvation be founded in the Lord.'"
Salvation is not found in comparison to others, that is the world’s way. Our example is not the imperfection of others, our example is Christ. Simply put, there will always be someone better than you, comparison for pride’s sake stunts spiritual growth. If you strive to be lower than everyone else, you are never wanting for growth. True spiritual maturity brings you lower than all.
He taught that if you had spoken poorly of your brother, you were to go to him and say,
“I have spoken badly of you; let this be my surety that I will not spread this slander any further.”
Criticism would only degrade the quality of your spiritual life. Who of us has ever drawn closer to God by criticizing others?
“He who is honoured and praised beyond his merits, will suffer much condemnation, but he who is held as of no account among men will receive glory in heaven.”
Those who create a reputation will always have a reputation to live up to. If you allow God to establish your reputation, then He is responsible for maintaining it.
One time, a count named Longinos desired to visit Abba Or. Longinos went to one of the monks and asked him to take him to father. Now, Longinos was a man who was known for performing acts of charity (he gave money away). When the monk that Longinos had visited went to Abba Or, he praised the count, saying that Longinos was a good man and always very generous. Abba Or agreed that the count sounded like a good man. The monk then began asking Abba Or to permit the count to come see him. However, Abba Or now discerned the true purpose of the monk’s praise. If Longinos came, it would be of financial benefit to both the monk and to Abba Or. Armed now with this discernment, Abba Or refused the petition of the count and would not compromise the gifts God had given him for financial gain.
Another time, a newly admitted brother came to Abba Or claiming that he had lost his clothes. Or, seeing through the man’s ruse, went and pulled the clothes from the place the man had hidden them, astounding everyone. The man, hoping to make money off the sale of the monastic clothes, hid what he had been given in order to gain a new outfit. Abba Or rebuked him publicly, after which, no one dared to lie to him again.
On the matter of discerning your own thoughts.
Abba Or said, “If you see that I am thinking adversely about someone, know that he is thinking in the same way about me.”
Capture your thoughts before they result in offence towards those who you are thinking about.
"He gave this counsel, ‘Whenever you want to subdue your high and proud thoughts, examine your conscience carefully: Have you kept all the commandments? Have you loved your enemies and been kind to them in their misfortunes? Have you counted yourself to be an unprofitable servant and the worst of all sinners? If you find you have done all this, do not therefore think well of yourself as if you had done everything well but realize that even the thought of such things is totally destructive.’"
If you have done the aforementioned, don’t let your accomplishment give way to pride. This echoes the statement of Jesus,
“So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’ (Luke 17:10).”
The crux of the matter when it comes to spiritual discernment is this:
“How can you hope to discern the intents of others, if you cannot discern the thoughts of your own heart?”
Once, the enemy attempted to seduce him to pride by praising his accomplishments. Quickly, he recognized the voice for what it was and uttered,
“I have Christ as my King, whom I adore without ceasing; you are not my king,”
Truly, this was Abba Or’s passion, Christ, who he adored without ceasing.
They said of Abba Or that he never lied, nor swore, nor hurt anyone, nor spoke without necessity.