SPIRITUAL PATERNITY IN ANCIENT SPIRITUAL MONACHISM
Sister Lisa Cremaschi, nun of the Community of Bose, Italy
A continuation of the article, the first part of which appeared in the previous issue, AIM Bulletin 102, p. 86-103.
4. The Disciple
a. In Search of a Word of Life
The disciple searches for a spiritual father because he wants a ‘word of salvation’. Without this desire no relationship of spiritual paternity is possible. One goes to a spiritual father because one is searching for the Lord, the salvation of our life, and because one wants to find a help and support in order to make progress on the narrow way (cf. Matthew 7.14) and grasp one’s own cross with faith and love, in order to discern among the many desires jostling in one’s heart the desire of the Spirit. When the father does not recognize in the disciple this wish to know his heart and to meet the Lord, he has nothing to say and remains silent. The story is told that for three days a monk besieged a father to obtain a word from him, but the father remained wrapped in silence. Once the visitor had left, the father explained his attitude to the disciple who lived with him, ‘Truly I did not speak to him because he is a merchant who is seeking to glorify himself in the words of another’ (Theodore of Pherme 3).
Nor is there a ‘word of salvation’ when the listener is not disposed to put into practice what he has heard. This is the message of the following story:
No further word was said. When the brothers asked the elders and did what the elders told them, God showed them what to say. But now, since they ask but do not act upon the answer, God has withdrawn from the elders the grace of speech and they can no longer find anything to say, since there is no one to act upon it.
The disciple is free to choose his spiritual father, and to leave him if he does not find in him a help for his human and spiritual growth. But such liberty does not authorize him to choose a father to fit his own will, a father who approves all his desires and fails to teach him how to recognize and do the will of the Father in heaven (Syst 10, 12). Obedience to the Abba is essential for the relationship of paternity and filiation to bear its fruit. The fathers of the desert were accustomed to say, ‘If you see a young man who is lifting himself to heaven by his own will, grasp him by the foot and bring him down again, for that is what he needs’ (N 111).This obedience aimed at the liberation of the ‘I’, of the determination to save one’s life by oneself, for ‘whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it’ (Luke 9.24). ‘It is a question of a method which sets free, but is oriented towards the deep liberation of those who have set their whole hearts on gaining a discernment of themselves and of their deep motives for action. It is no blind obedience, as one reads later of venerable spiritual masters who sought and stressed in the fathers only extravagant orders. It was not a passive obedience without discussion, the more so because in such a situation a monk could choose another father as director, but it was a lucid submission to a guide recognized as an expert on the road of the spiritual life. In the Abbas there was nothing seductive, no risk of plagiarism. They did not make great speeches, but pronounced one word only, a true midrash of the scripture’ (E. Bianchi, ‘L’Abba del deserto’ in Abba, dimmi una parola!, Bose, 1989, p. 146).
This is why the disciple, before questioning the father, prays to God in these words, ‘Lord, put on the lips of the elder whatever you wish him to say to me. For I shall accept as from your mouth whatever comes to me from him. Strengthen him, Lord, so that I may learn your will through him’ (N592/58). If the father prays for the disciple, the disciple also, for his part, must engage in the struggle of prayer. A brother said to Abba Anthony, ‘Pray for me.’ The old man replied to him, ‘I will not take pity on you, and nor will God, if you do not give of yourself and make supplication to God’ (Anthony 16).
b. Openness of heart
What questions should the disciple put to the father? The object of the dialogue between father and son is the logismoi, the thoughts. It is not the sins which must be confessed to the spiritual father. Abba Poemen said, ‘Ask questions on hidden thoughts, and it is for the elders to test them, but on visible faults there is no point in asking questions; merely lop them off immediately’ (Poemen 152). On the contrary, the memory of such sins can be harmful, for it re-awakens the desire of evil, or even leads to despair (Mark the Hermit, De his qui putant se ex operibus justificari, 139). By contrast it is necessary to manifest logismoi, the thoughts which besiege the heart, the multiple ideas and desires which nestle in the heart. Little by little the disciple learns to distinguish between passing thoughts, which need not be made known, and those that persist and trouble him, and need to be revealed to the father. The devil rejoices in nothing so much as those who do not reveal their thoughts (cf. Syst. 4.25).
A monk comes to spiritual maturity when he has learnt to know himself, to put up with his wounds and to distinguish among the various logismoi those which are not from God. He has learnt from the spiritual father the art of discernment, and little by little recourse to the Abba becomes less frequent. The disciple has learnt to question himself and to discern his thoughts. ‘The fathers used to say, “Say to each thought that comes: Are you ours or from the enemy? And surely the thought will acknowledge it”’ (N 99).
The fruit of openness of heart is peace (cf. Dorotheus of Gaza, Teaching 66). Spiritual paternity means taking care of the seeds of life which are to be found deep within the heart of every believer. It is a seed, that is, something which is destined to grow, to develop, how we do not know. The Christian life cannot be reduced to catechesis, the teaching of a few elementary truths. It is true that faith is expressed by means of a body of doctrine, but it is also true that above all it is a life, the life of God in us, which can be stifled by our acting in opposition to the Spirit.
Anthony said, ‘He who lives in the desert in recollection is spared three combats, hearing, chattering and seeing. There is only one thing to do, a matter of the heart.’ (Systematic Collection II, 2; cf. Anthony 11). In what does this struggle consist? The heart is the place of prayer. The heart, understood in its biblical sense, is a person’s centre of life. In the New Testament Jesus reproaches the disciples for having a blind or hardened heart (cf. Mark 8.17), slow to believe (cf. Luke 24.25). In his first letter Peter speaks of ‘the hidden being of the heart’ (cf. 1 Peter 3.4). But it is necessary to learn to know one’s own heart, to discern the presences which live there. Jesus says, ‘It is from within, from the human heart that issue wicked intentions, shamelessness, thefts, murder, adultery, greed, perversity, deception, debauchery, envy, hurtfulness, vanity, contrariness. All this evil comes from within and makes a person impure’ (Mark 7.21-23). The struggle against evil, against sin, begins in the heart. Sin, said the fathers, is always born from a thought which arises in our heart. Hence it is important to learn to keep our thoughts under control, to struggle against the evil ones, to sow in the ground of the heart the Word of God so that the Destroyer does not sow seed there.
This interior struggle against evil, to pre-dispose the heart for the coming of the Lord, is called by the fathers praxis, practice. Evagrius of Pontus wrote a treatise called Praktikos, and already Judaism used to say that Jacob, before becoming Israel (=‘man seeing God’ according to a popular etymology) had to live the practical life, that is, the struggle against the passions. ‘Passion’ is the same as ‘thought’: this term does not signify reasoning, but the beginning of a thought, an image, a sentiment which comes to our heart. The term logismos is also used in this way in the New Testament, for example in 2 Corinthians 10.4 or in Matthew 15.19 (dialogismoi). The need to gather up the teachings of the fathers of the desert, to pass on their spiritual teaching, led Evagrius to establish a list of logismoi which became classic in Eastern Christendom:
The generic thoughts which comprise all thoughts are eight: the first is greed, then comes fornication, the third is avarice, the fourth is sadness, the fifth is anger, the sixth is acidy, the seventh is vanity, the eighth is pride (Evagrius, Praktikos 6).
This list came into the West, with a few variants, through Gregory the Great. It would be interesting to take this list and analyse what is said about each thought. I would remark only that the first thought, that which is at the origin of all the others, comes from the mouth, voracity.
It is the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. It is to want to swallow, make one’s own, appropriate something or someone, to bend the world to oneself and one’s own desires: ‘everything belongs to me, everything, and everything that follows’. Such is the logic of voracity. It is necessary to fend off, to discern and uproot these thoughts as soon as they appear, before they transform themselves into sin. A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word from him and the old man said to him, ‘Make as great an effort as you can that your interior activity be according to God, and you will triumph over your exterior passions’ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4.16) (Arsenius 9).
Frequently the New Testament invites to keep awake, to be sober, to be careful since ‘the devil, like a roaring lion, is seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5.8). It is important to strive, to undertake the war against evil. Several of the fathers have passed on and sytematized the analysis of the process by which it is possible to pass from a thought to a sin. Mark the Hermit and John Climacus in particular distinguish the various moments by which a thought enters into the heart and takes possession of it. With psychological finesse they describe what occurs in the human heart. At the beginning, they say, there is only a simple suggestion (prosbole), a sensation, a bad sentiment which knocks at the door of the heart. If we have not learnt to recognize it immediately and slam the door in its face, we enter into discussion with this thought. It is the second phase, the dialogue or colloquy that Eve had with the serpent. But already in the colloquy, the fathers warn, we are wasting our energy and allowing the serpent to falsify our view of reality, right up to convincing us that things are as the devil says they are, that the other is my enemy, that he is wicked. From there the passage is easy to the third stage, that of consent, where one acquiesces in the evil thought, where one consents to the serpent’s suggestion. From this moment the act, the evil action, the sin finds the way open. When this process is repeated, without one taking care to interrupt it, a habit is formed, the habit of acting in opposition to what God requires of us. From then on it becomes natural, it is like a second nature which obscures our true nature which consists in being in the image and likeness of the Lord. All the fathers insist on saying that it is necessary to strive against thoughts right away, as soon as they present themselves to us.
But how does one acquire the capacity to discern the various thoughts? The fathers insist on the need to have space for silence, a ‘desert’ in order to learn to know our heart and to listen to God who speaks to the heart. Of course, solitude is not easy. A certain young monk knew this well, for having lived a few months in the desert, discouraged and fearful because in his own eyes he was becoming ever more wicked, he went to an elder to ask advice. The Abba listened with love and patience, then, without saying a word, took him to a well and told him to throw in a stone. Then he said to him, ‘Look at your reflection!’ But because the water had been disturbed the reflection was all disturbed. The young monk said so. ‘Wait a little,’ said the elder to him, ‘now look at your reflection’, he said again. The young man lent over and saw his reflection in the water. ‘There you are,’ said the elder, ‘in the same way someone who lives among people does not see his sins because of the disturbances, but when he lives alone, especially in the desert, he sees his weaknesses’ (Systematic Collection II.29). He did not become more wicked in the desert, he simply discovered what he already was, and realized it. Did not the father say that ‘one who can see his own sin is greater than one who raises the dead’? (Isaac the Syrian, Greek Treatise 34)
In solitude a person puts off the roles he has to play every day. Nothing distracts him, no friends to talk to, no telephone calls, no meetings, no books to distract, only myself, naked, vulnerable, weak, dispossessed of myself. It is this nothingness which one must face up to in the desert, a nothingness so terrible to see that everything in a person longs to throw himself on his friends, his work or his distractions, to forget and avoid seeing what he truly is. But this is the alienation which corresponds to the illusion of being able to save oneself. The whole monastic tradition often quotes the passage of Lamentations 3.26, ‘It is good to wait in silence for the salvation of the Lord.’
In a collection of advice addressed to those who want to live in continual prayer John Climacus says that in order to live in true silence it is necessary to close three doors: ‘Close the door of the cell on your body, the door of the tongue on speech and the door within (that is, the door of the heart) to evil spirits’ (The sacred ladder 27.19). A place of silence is necessary. It is necessary to construct silence, but one achieves true silence only by means of the third door, when the door is closed on thoughts. This is true silence, or rather hesychia, a very rich word which designates an attitude of recollection and interior peace. Seraphim of Sarov liked to say, ‘Find peace, and thousands of people around you will find salvation’. The outcome of this struggle against thoughts is interior peace, profound peace.
The path of conversion, of return into the hands of God, those hands from which Adam and in him all people fled, implies a persevering struggle, without yielding to discouragement. We are on the way towards the Kingdom. This way knows halts, falls, detours. The fathers insist on starting again ceaselessly without ever tiring, without measuring the road already covered, and without comparison to others. Abba Poemen said, ‘To throw oneself down before God without any estimate of oneself, to abandon all self-will, these are the soul’s effective tools’ (Poemen 36, p. 224).
Fasting and vigils are the traditional means of struggle against demons and against temptations (cf. Matthew 16.21). But more often ascesis comes from life itself: there is absolutely no need to invent other forms of asceticism, for it is sufficient to accept in peace the difficulties that life brings us, always turning one’s eyes towards the Lord. For Amma Syncletica the greatest asceticism consists in resisting and giving thanks to God during illness or under trial (cf. Syncletica 8). Bodily asceticism is worthless unless it is accompanied by asceticism of the heart, denial of one’s own will, renouncing the multiple thoughts which distract from the one thing necessary. The practice of giving up food or sleep is ordered to giving up philautia, that terrible self-love, the root of every passion. Fasting must be accompanied by humility and love. ‘What should have been secret they turned into a victory-proclamation,’ wrote St Jerome (Letter 22.34). Another monk said, ‘It is better to eat meat and drink wine and to refrain from eating the flesh of the brothers by calumny’ (Hyperechios 4). Other sayings polemically grant to demons the practice of fasting and vigils. For example the story is told,
Abba Macarios, returning to his cell one day from the oasis, carrying palm leaves, on his way met the devil with a scythe. When he vainly tried to strike Macarius the devil said, ‘What strength you have, Macarius, that I should have no power against you! I do everything that you do. You fast, so do I. You keep vigil, I never sleep. You beat me only on one point.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. ‘By your humility. That is why I have no power over you.’ (Macarius of Egypt 11, p. 172)
d. Lectio divina
Hyperechios said, ‘A monk’s asceticism is meditation on the scriptures and the fulfilment of the commandments of God. The monk who does not give himself to these has no formation.’ (Advice to ascetics 4) Why silence? Why solitude? Not in order to look at emptiness and nothingness but to listen to the Word of God and make our hearts the dwellingplace of the Lord. Hyperechios asserts that a monk is unformed, lacking shape, that is, not ‘fired’, who does not apply himself to lectio divina. The Bible has two purposes: it is a mirror of the reader, bringing him to know who he is at the very moment when it reveals to him the face of God, and secondly, it forms him, gives him shape, by enabling him to strive against the Destroyer who would separate him from God and his brothers. Cassian said, ‘Whatever happens, apply yourself assiduously, that is, constantly to sacred reading until this continuous meditation impregnates your soul and transforms it, so to speak, to its own image’ (Conference 14. 10). Hence the need to know, read and meditate the scriptures, not in view of a purely intellectual knowledge, but to receive life. One father said, ‘It is a great betrayal of salvation not to know the divine laws (i.e. the scriptures).’ (Epiphanius 10). A monk is philologos, a lover of the Word. So of Anthony it was said, ‘He was so attentive that he let nothing of the words of scripture fall to the ground, but he kept them all so that his memory took the place of books’ (Life of Anthony 3.7).
It was customary for monks to learn by heart the psalter and whole Books of scripture. In his rules Pachomius prescribes,
The newcomer who enters the monastery should be taught what he must observe. Once he has been instructed, he should be given 20 psalms to learn and two readings of the Apostle or another part of scripture. If he does not know how to read he should, at the hours of Prime, Terce and Sext, go to someone who can instruct him and who has been charged to do so. He will stay with him and learn with full attention and great gratitude. Afterwards, someone will write out for him the alphabet, the syllables, the verbs and nouns, so that even if he does not want to, he is forced to read. There must be absolutely no one in the monastery who has not learnt to read, and who does not know by heart some part of the scriptures, at least the New Testament and the psalter. (Precepts 139-140).
We must be resolutely inflexible in putting an end to wandering thoughts, which are like water boiling over, by the constant memory of the law of God, thanks to which we destroy the law of fleshly desire (Admonitions 4).
Such ruminatio concerns especially the Book of Psalms. We find on the lips of the Abbas quotations and allusions to all the Books of the Bible, but the Psalter is a favourite. There is no objection to someone filling his mind for seven days and seven nights with a single verse of the Psalter, since the fathers have said, ‘One verse close by is better than a thousand at a distance’ (Philoxenus of Mabboug, Letter to a superior, in Orient syrien 6 (1961), p. 465.
A human being is a thing of desire. He grows and comes to maturity in the measure that he looks for something new where he desires to learn, grow, make progress, and does not remain content with what he has, what he has understood, acquired or learnt. Several fathers define a human being as a thing of desire. Perhaps the best known is Augustine, who writes, addressing God, ‘Fecisti nos ad te, et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te, You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless till it rests in you’ (Confessions, 1.1).
A human being is passion, relationship. In the last analysis, even in perversity and depraved desire and concupiscence some positive aspect exists. John Climacus sees even in the impulses which dominate a person, in the passions which enslave a person, a sign of a call to life, a trace of recognition of radical inadequacy. By the very fact of desiring, this desire, even if it is erroneous, shows that someone is looking for a relationship outside himself, a salvation outside himself. So Climacus goes so far as to say that he prefers people bubbling with passions, even if they are misdirected, to those who have no pathos for anything, who do not get heated and enthusiastic for anything. In the former, in fact, conversion will lead to directing their passion to the Lord and to their brothers, and they will love them with the same intensity as they formerly loved evil. In the latter, there is not much to convert!
I have known impure souls who gave themselves up passionately to fleshly love; but, once their experience of this love has led them to repent, they have brought all their love to the Lord. Then, overcoming all fear, they focus insatiably on loving God. That is why the Lord, speaking to the penitent sinful woman, does not say that she has been afraid, but that she has loved much (Luke 7.47) and that by love she has put love to flight. (John Climacus, The Sacred ladder 5.28).
If God is a person and not a first principle, an immobile mover or something similar, an abstract and impersonal being, relationships with him can only take on the form of relationships of love between human persons. In human love, the passion of love, the image of the beloved is always present, even to dominating all our days. It is a matter not simply of nostalgia, but of continuous communion both in the presence and the absence of the beloved. For Climacus the love of God is no different:
One who truly loves always has the image of the beloved present and rejoices to embrace the beloved in imagination. Such a man, even in sleep, can find no rest from this desire and still continues to focus on the beloved. This is habitually the case not only for corporeal realities but also for incorporeal ones. A man wounded for love said about himself – and I admire his words – ‘I sleep but my heart wakes’ (Song of Songs 5.2) because of the greatness of my love. (The Sacred ladder 30.13)
Chastity of heart is defined by Climacus as an eros for God, where eros indicates a total, passionate love. The life of chastity is the conversion of this eros: ‘Chastity means banning love by love and extinguishing material fire by immaterial fire’ (ibid., 15.2). Climacus plays on the ambiguity of the term eros: there is a divine eros and a sensual eros. Love between man and woman is the search for the strongest communion imaginable and becomes, as in the Bible, the concrete model of love of God: ‘If the face of the beloved makes an obvious change in our whole being, making us joyful, merry and carefree, what will the face of the Lord do in a pure soul when he comes invisibly to stay there!’ (30.16).
For a human being joy and serenity are the fruit of love, a relationship of love. The same is true of relationship with the Lord. We do not have two different capacities of love, one for human beings and the other for God. It is the force of our passion which needs to be converted. The fathers will speak of the metamorphosis of passions or the transfiguration of passion: ‘Blessed is he who is conquered by a passion for God as violent as that of a lover for the beloved.’ The hope remains for all; for all conversion is possible, even today:
Those who have undergone the humiliation of being subject to passion should take courage. Even if they fall into all the crevasses, if they are caught in every snare, if they are subject to every disease, once they are cured they become doctors, light-houses, lamps and pilots for all, teaching the symptoms of each sickness, since their own experience enables them to prevent others falling. (ibid., 26.11)
Nothing is lost! Maximus the Confessor says further, ‘The soul is perfect when the power of passion is turned completely towards God’ (Four Centuries on Love, 3.98). I have spoken of fatigue, which each one of us knows. Each one knows that terrible discouragement, the sad resignation, the agony and the inability to change. Nevertheless, each of us can look forwards, ‘forgetting the past and straining ahead for what is still to come’ (Philippians 3.13). A verb dear to the monastic tradition is ‘to begin again’. It is often linked to ‘today’. ‘Today I begin again,’ said Anthony every day. A saying recounts, ‘An elder said, “Listen to the voice which cries to a person till their final breath: Be converted today.”’ (N 10, p. 16) A monk used to repeat each day, ‘Today you were born, today you started to serve God, today you began to live here as a guest and stranger on this earth. Be so each day, as a stranger who must leave tomorrow.’ (Verba seniorum 44, PL 73, 10608)
What is a monastery (though this is true for any form of Christian life)? It is a place where one falls and rises again, where one falls again and rises yet again, and so on till the coming of the Lord, so that he may see that we have fallen but risen again, and then he will take us by the hand and will himself raise us up definitively.
f. The Danger of Idolatry
‘Go! Join a man who fears God, and living at his side you will learn to fear God yourself.’ (Poemen 65) Sometimes this is not true. On the contrary, a relationship of dependence arises between the one who is looking for help and the spiritual father. I restrict myself to what one sometimes finds in the tradition. Often the fathers of the desert demanded an absolute obedience to outrageous commands, quite devoid of sense. This was perhaps to break the voluntas propria. Nowadays we see this as an authoritarian attitude which has nothing to do with the gospel. Sometimes we come across texts like this one of Symeon the New Theologian:
If you live among the brothers of the community, never side against the father who gave you your tonsure, even if you see him fornicate or get drunk or maladminister the business of the monastery, even if you are struck and outraged by him and are the victim of a thousand other maltreatments. Everything that you see him do or say, unsuitable or evil, impute these to yourself, see them as your own faults and do penance with tears. As for him, consider him a saint and pray for him (Catechesis 18.132-137, 142-145)
This is far from the spirit of Basil, who prescribes obedience only in conformity to the scriptures (Rb 114), and reproach to a superior who is wrong (Rd 27).
The father who experiences difficulties and obstacles, but also joy and consolation in spiritual combat, is assisting at the birth of a new man, suffering with his disciple in sympathy, encouragement, consolation, always witnessing that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8.35-39), that it is always possible to start again, to pick oneself up again, to take once more the path of return to the house of the Father. A brother questioned Abba Sisoes saying, ‘What should I do, Abba, for I have fallen?’ The old man replied, ‘Get up again!’ The brother said, ‘I did get up again, but I fell again.’ The old man said, ‘Get up again and again.’ So the brother said, ‘Till when?’ The old man said, ‘Till you are carried off, either to the good or to perdition, for in the state in which he is, so will a man be at the judgment.’ (Sisoes 38) The spiritual father is an elder brother who, whenever we fall, helps us to rise again till the day when the Lord will come and see that we fell and that we rose up again, and then he will raise us definitively.
Is spiritual paternity indispensible? God can always guide directly by means of his Spirit. Symeon the New Theologian wrote, ‘Do not go here and there in search of famous monks, and do not study their life. If, thanks to God, you have found a spiritual father, tell him and him alone your concerns. If not? At any rate you see Christ. Fix your eyes on him always, and keep him as the only viewer of your falls and affliction’ (Ethical Treatises 7. 399-405).
In one of his letters the same father wrote, ‘Those who have had no father have not, in that case, become son to anyone. Those who have not become sons, clearly have not been born. Those who have not come into existence have not entered the spiritual world (Letters 4.103-109, quoted in B. Krivocheine, Dans la lumière du Christ, Chevetogne, 1980, p. 101). The two texts contradict each other. Perhaps the answer to the question is not simple. We could say that for anyone who wishes to advance in the spiritual life the accompaniment of a brother or sister is necessary, not only at the beginning, but whenever the Spirit moves us to make a further step in following Christ. There comes a moment when the relationship of father-son reaches maturity. Little by little the disciple learns to become a father himself, as Gregory of Nyssa attests, ‘In some way we become our own fathers every time that, by choosing the good, we shape ourselves, beget ourselves and advance towards the light’ (Homilies on Ecclesiasticus). When this happens we learn to accept ourselves as a creature beloved, intended, designed and willed by God, created in his image and likeness and destined to realise in himself the full likeness.
The little Light of the Gospel
One day it happened that the Lord sent our father Pachomius a vision. He looked and saw a dark and sombre Gehenna, in the middle of which was a pillar. Voices were heard, coming from all sides and saying, ‘The light is here, near us.’ Then they ran to it. But as they were running in that direction they heard another voice behind them saying, ‘The light is here.’ Immediately they turned round, looking for the light because of the voice they had heard. In his vision Pachomius saw people in the darkness, circling the pillar. They thought that they were moving forward and approaching the light, without realising that they were merely circling the pillar.
He looked again and saw the whole community he had founded. The brothers were walking one behind the other, holding firmly onto one another for fear of getting lost because of the darkness. Those in the front had a little light, like that of a torch. Only four of the brothers could see the light, while none of the others saw any light at all. Our father Pachomius watched their way of going forward: if one of them let go of the person in front of him he wandered off into the darkness with all those who were behind him. He saw one of them named Paniski, who was a great man among the brothers, refuse with several others to walk behind the man who was in front of them and was showing them the way. Then the man of God Pachomius in his ecstasy called each one by name before they let go, saying, ‘Hold on to the man in front of you, or you will go astray.’ The little light which was going in front of the brothers went before them till it reached a large hole, from the top of which a great light was coming down. The brothers went out through it…
Having seen this, our father Pachomius was also instructed about the interpretation of the vision by the one who had shown him all this, ‘The image of Gehenna which you have seen is the world. The darkness which reigns there is all the stupid errors and vain concerns. The little light which guides the brothers is the Gospel, divine truth. The light is small because in the Gospels it is written about the Kingdom of Heaven that it is ‘comparable to a mustard-seed’ which is small (Matthew 13.31-32). As for the flood of light coming from above through the opening, that is the word spoken by the Apostle, ‘Until we arrive at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to the perfect man, to the full measure of the plenitude of Christ (Ephesians 4.13)’ (103, p. 130-133).
The image of Gehenna brings us back to the world, to the Church of the fourth century. The world is plunged into darkness, but the Church with it. At a time of disorder and confusion, probably because of the post-Chalcedonian conflicts between Monophysites and Melchites, it was necessary to look towards the little light of the Gospel. It is little, and does not light up everything, does not explain everything. It indicates a way towards the light. But in the vision it is said that only four brothers see it. Who are they? Four like the four cardinal points, like the four Gospels. It is tempting to see them as the four first superiors of the community, Pachomius, Petronius, Orsisius and Theodore. What is the meaning of the Pachomian community? To indicate the little light of the Gospel. It is necessary to keep holding onto one another behind the light of the Gospel. Pachomius did nothing other than show the brothers this little light which changed his life and guided his path.