“Father, Speak a Word!”
We live in the age of sound bites. As television time has increased in our lives, attention spans seem to decrease. Back in 1968, the average length of a presidential candidate sound bite on the news was 42 seconds. By the year 2000 the average sound bite for presidential candidates was down to 7.3 seconds, an 83% drop.
What can someone say in 7.3 seconds that will change a person’s mind? It turns out, quite a bit. I say this, based not on anything that ever came out of a politician’s mouth, but on a tradition of our Church. On January 17 we celebrate Saint Anthony, whose life was changed by a single sentence spoken to him directly by the Lord. It was the word that Christ gave to the rich young ruler: “If you would be perfect, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” And on the basis of this word, Anthony did just that. He gave away his sizeable inheritance, he made financial arrangements for the care of his younger sister, and he sought to follow Christ by going out into the desert to face temptations.
Saint Anthony was the first in a long line of Christ’s disciples who heard and received a single sentence as their personal destiny in life. Most people did not hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them directly. They went instead to another person who had proven to be a trustworthy spiritual guide. To get there, it often meant crossing the desert or climbing a mountain. At the end of the long and arduous journey they would find a monk or nun, one who had a reputation for miraculous insight and discernment. And without introductions, without small talk, they would approach the master and say simply: “Father, speak a word.”
“Father, speak a word” means: Say something that cuts to the core of my spiritual needs, something that will be the guiding star for my soul on the way to the Kingdom of God. Give me one morsel of spiritual food that I can chew and chew on for years to come. Give me a prescription of spiritual medicine that will cure the particular disease of my heart and bring me to full health.
The sayings of the desert fathers—the monks and nuns who followed the example of Saint Anthony and lived lives of prayer and fasting in solitary places—these sayings are full of stories of pilgrims meeting with the masters, and the replies that the masters gave.
Sometimes the answer was a story; sometimes it was a piece of advice. Very often the reply was a simple line from the Scriptures. The hermits of the desert would spend their days in manual labor to supply their needs, and while they were working with their hands, they would recite Scriptures passages over and over by memory. They would have known the Book of Psalms by heart, and large portions of the Gospels as well. And having wrestled with all the temptations that are common to human flesh, they would have learned from their own experience what words are most effective in fending off the darts of the devil. Experience would also have given them the ability to size up the souls of men quickly, to figure out what their particular weaknesses and sins were. And on the basis of this, and with divine inspiration, the Abba or Amma (spiritual father and mother) could assign each seeker a word best suited for them. Like William Tell, they shot an arrow that not only hit the bull’s-eye, but split the arrow of the devil that was already lodged in the heart of their fellow man.
Here are some examples:
Abba Bessarion tells a brother who asks him what he should do: "Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others."
Amma Syncletica said, “Imitate the publican and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee.”
Abba Hyperechius said, “It was through whispering that the serpent drove Eve out of Paradise, so he who speaks against his neighbor will be like the serpent, for he corrupts the soul of him who listens to him and he does not save his own soul.”
Abba Agathon said, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.”
Abba Hyperechius said, “It is better to eat meat and drink wine and not to eat the flesh of one’s brethren through slander
Abba Theodore of Pherme asked Abba Pambo, “give me a word.” With much difficulty he said to him, “Theodore, go and have pity on all, for through pity, one finds freedom of speech before God.”
And one of my favorites …
A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, 'Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?' He replied, 'No, I mend it and use it again.' The old man said to him, 'If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?'
As sound bites go, these aren’t as catchy as “Read my lips, no new taxes.” But they certainly did more to change lives in a meaningful and lasting way, way back in the fourth century and even still today.
Let’s be honest: we all have our faults. We all have room for improvement in our spiritual lives. The question is: how many of us are actively working on finding a cure for whatever particular disease of the soul we are afflicted by? Do we not all have need of a diagnosis from an experienced healer who can tell us what word of truth will bring us closer to salvation?
Should we not all be seeking for that one word that is medicine for our most harmful spiritual habits? Saint Anthony and all the fathers and mothers of the desert were in agreement in believing that the answer to all the practical needs of a Christian were to be found in the Scriptures. Like Christ’s answer to the rich young ruler, one thing alone would be needful to set us on the road to salvation. That one thing may be different for each of us, but it is there in the word of God waiting to be found by us.
For this reason, again and again in the life of the Church, when the Scripture is being read, the priest call out: “Let us be attentive.” You never know. Perhaps that next word that you hear will be that one saying that will save your life. All the more reason to come diligently, week after week, seeking the health that God alone offers. So it was for Saint Anthony, so through his intercessions may it be for all of us. Amen.
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