Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection)
What does all of this mean? And how can a blogger become “all flame”? As the Episcopal priest and theologian Mark McIntosh has written, the point here is that Abba Lot expects Abba Joseph to refine his well-considered scheme or add one final modification so that he can then spiritually advance. But Abba Joseph completely rejects Abba Lot’s criteria for discernment, instead opening before him “the unfathomable promise of divine grace that cannot even be conceived within the categories of the conventional scheme of self-improvement.” St Paul likewise rejected the conventional schemes for holiness found among the Corinthians – appeals to baptismal lineage, class status and cultural sophistication, or measures of spiritual elitism – and instead suggested that “what pertains to the Spirit of God” will be inconceivable “foolishness” to the “natural person” (1 Cor 2:14). St Paul is speaking of the unfathomable promise of the Cross.
What happens if we rely on our own conventional schemes for self- and ecclesial improvement (and blog about them endlessly)? The fifth century bishop Diadochus of Photike writes that contemplating divine generosity frees us from dependence on the “praise of men” and “keeps the mind free from fantasy (aphantaston), transfusing it completely with the love of God.” Our schemes, however, remain vulnerable to our anxieties about our own status and how others may perceive us. Fr McIntosh writes that Diadochus links this inevitable compulsion for worldly regard with “a tendency toward fantasy, an ego-gratifying fabulation to cocoon the self or social group in an illusory world more reassuring than real.” Factions emerge with their own “needy, compulsive idols that require full adherence in order to grant validation of one’s status, worth, and position.” Amidst the bitter desperation of human conceit and its fears of deprivation, the Gospel cannot then be heard – St Paul refused any contest in such an arena and counseled that there be no divisions among the Corinthians and that no one should ever boast in the presence of God. St Paul reminds us that he himself “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1).
The resulting envy, especially when its mentality is masked as “religious,” is destructive. St Paul writes, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense” (2 Cor 10:12). Yet another story from the desert concerns a monk and a virgin who visited an elder and had sexual relations. They departed the elder’s cell and were left wondering how the elder could possibly have failed to notice what they had done. Paralyzed by a dark curiosity, they found themselves compelled to return to his cell to ask, and the elder responded, “At that time, my thoughts were standing where Christ was crucified, and weeping.” The two were deeply affected and experienced conversion. Fr McIntosh tells us that the elder didn’t have to assert his own threatened virtue in angry condemnation. His gaze was upon Christ. He could instead humbly bring the Cross into the situation – the “foolishness” that “represents God’s powerful mercy breaking into the itching, pusillanimous needs of the fallen world, holding open the possibility of a wholly other disposition grounded in the generosity of divine action.” And then the monk and virgin were transformed.
How is it that the Cross frees us from our compulsion for worldly regard? If our thoughts are “standing where Christ was crucified, and weeping,” we are forced to embrace slavery, humiliation, and death. If we really can empty ourselves, trusting that Christ has trampled death by his death, we escape “slavery by the fear of death” (Heb 2:14), no longer imprisoned by “the distortions of fear, envy, and anger – all of which have as their ultimate bogey-totem the shame and humiliation of death itself.” We see differently, without the distorting lenses of a continual and unceasing grasp for self-worth, status, or moral accomplishments, conscious of the new horizon of Jesus’ self-giving on the Cross. In the clarity of an ultimate mercy and forgiveness that replaces the shadowy anxiety-inducing bogey-totem, our beautiful and maddening neighbors can appear as more than just bearers of either the grim threat of condemnation or the intoxicating promise of self-justification. Some brethren, it is said, came to Abba Poemen to complain about others who fell asleep during the liturgy. Poemen replied, reflecting upon the generosity of God, “For my part when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.”
How do we become “all flame”? We must concentrate on that “foolishness” of the Cross that manifests the unfathomable promise of divine grace. Although certain beliefs would be strictly incompatible with what St Paul calls the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:14), this has less to do with particular beliefs than a more general framework involving our discernment of reality. It especially has to do with our giving of ourselves to those who are alienated from us. Diadochus writes, “For spiritual knowledge, consisting wholly of love, does not allow the mind to expand and embrace the vision of the divine, unless we first win back to love even one who has become angry with us for no reason.” Our relational life must become free from self-preoccupation or the self-referential knowledge that only “inflates with pride” (1 Cor 8:1), and be directed towards the selfless “building up” of a common life (1 Cor 14:3-5).
The late Fr Herbert McCabe, OP, wrote about St Thomas (my emphasis):
It is an important theme of Question 12 [of the Prima Pars] that when, in beatitude, a man understands the essence of God, the mind is not realized by a form which is a likeness of God, but by God himself. God will not simply be an object of our minds, but the actual life by which our minds are what they will have become.
How do we become “all flame”? We must look away from our own projects to reinvent ourselves or reengineer our institutions and try to come into the light of the infinite, deathless reality of God. This self-giving God must be “the actual life by which our minds are what they will have become.” And I’m not very good at this. Not very good at all.