I have climbed the highest mountains,
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
This blahg series has drawn mostly from John Cassian’s Institutes, in which he lays out the basic principles for the monkery of the Desert Fathers with special attention to the eight principle vices. I have chosen to examine each of these in turn because learning about them has helped me to identify the ways and means by which they work in my life. It has been very clarifying to me, a clarity I hope I have been able to pass on to some degree. (I need to say, however, that had I encountered these ideas earlier in my spiritual journey I may not have been ready to really grapple with them, and I think that is not unusual. I think this is especially true among free-church Protestants; we have been taught to sneer at the monks and falsely ascribe to them a quasi-Gnostic mentality which sought salvation by works, rather than to draw from their deeply-sought wisdom even if we do not endorse all their activity and teaching.) On these trips to the desert I have hoped to convey that knowledge of the vice should not lead us to an unhealthy obsession with eradicating it, which almost invariably leads to a cycle of self-consciousness, guilt, and shame, but rather to love for the virtues and gratitude for God’s grace.
Cassian’s works, which also include the 24 conversations (i.e. the Conferences) between Cassian along with his friend Germanus and a number of highly-regarded Egyptian abbas over some very weighty spiritual topics, are primarily didactic. But every once in a while he slips in a story drawn from monastic life, my favorite of which is The Tale of the Runaway Abba. Cassian mentions it in a couple of places, in book four of the Institutes and again in book twenty of the Conferences. If you would tolerate an extended narrative, I hope I can use it to demonstrate a vital principle for the Christian life.
The Flying Monk
The abba in question was named Pinufius, and he was the renowned head of a large coenobium, or common-life monastery, near Panephysis (located close to the Mediterranean entrance of the modern Suez Canal). But Abba Pinufius recognized the dangers of pride which were inherent to his position and status, so one day he stole away from the coenobium, ditched his monastic garb for the clothes of a common workman, and fled to the desolate stretches of the Thebaid region of Upper Egypt. There he sought out a remote monastery in Tabenna with a long reputation for the strictest discipline. The old abba knew that that the brothers there would suspect he was just another old man who had lived a prodigal life, and that they would disdain him thinking he sought comfort and care now that his best years were over. He knew that they would mistreat him accordingly; in fact, he was counting on it. Therefore Pinufius presented himself at the doorstep weeping and “embracing the knees of all the brothers and begging with most urgent pleas to be admitted” (Institutes IV.30.3), giving no hints to his true identity, not to test these brothers but to escape the snares of pride inherent to the life he had left behind.
After “quite a long while” and “with much contempt” the monks finally let him in, just as Pinifius knew they would. The brothers set him about the most humbling work he could physically manage in his old age, weeding and fertilizing—with raw dung—the community garden, just as Pinufius knew they would. And this all happened without anybody recognizing they had just admitted to their monastery one of the most famous monks in all Egypt as a mere novice, just as Pinufius had fervently hoped would be the case. He was apprenticed to a younger, far less experienced brother (though only Pinifius knew this, of course, and he wasn’t telling anybody), who overdid it ordering him about the way young men wrestling with their own insecurities and their first taste of authority tend to do, and the aged abba “so submitted to him and cultivated with such obedience the virtue of humility” that he not only rocked that garden “but also all the tasks that were difficult and demeaning for the others and that disgusted everyone” (IV.30.4). I’m going to guess that is an oblique reference to latrine duty; that garden fertilizer had to come from somewhere.
So here is the Billy Graham of fourth-century Egypt, hiding out in the sticks in the most rigorous monastery he can find, doing the most menial labor imaginable among monks who knew of Abba Pinufius by reputation but not by sight, even as people in Lower Egypt were frantically looking for him—and he was as happy as can be, “rejoicing in the longed-for labors of his burdensome submission” (Conferences XX.1.3). For three years his anonymity remained intact, three years in which he surreptitiously added to his duties by getting up in the middle of the night and doing extra dirty jobs on the sly, to the befuddlement of all the brothers who had no idea how these other “useful tasks” were mysteriously being completed.
“Renunciation is nothing else than a manifestation of the cross and of a dying.”
But Pinufius could not stay hidden forever. He was eventually spotted—on his knees in the garden, head bent down, up to his elbows in poop—by a monk from Lower Egypt who was just passing through Thebais and who (unlike anyone in Upper Egypt) actually knew Pinufius’s face. Struck by the familiarity of the man before him, the visiting monk was simply unable to believe that this manure-mucking gardener could possibly be who his eyes told him it was. At last the visitor was convinced beyond all doubt by the sound of the old monk’s voice and, to the great astonishment of the brothers and the indescribable horror of the runaway abba, he threw himself at the feet of Pinufius and hugged his knees. The jig was up. The news was out. They’d finally found him.
And so, with the deepest apologies of the Tabannisiote brothers who had for three years treated him as badly as they would treat any novice in whom they wanted to foster humility, Pinufius was escorted back to his own coenobium by monks who “guard[ed] him with the greatest care lest he escape from them and flee somewhere else.” The fact that he submitted to even this unwelcome set of circumstances further demonstrates his pursuit of humility. However, “he wept with frustration because by the devil’s envy he had been defrauded of a way of life and of a humility that were appropriate for him and that he had sought for a very long time and had finally found somewhere” (Institutes IV.30.6). Pinufius believed, as the Desert Fathers did, that humility was the highest virtue and that it was found in the lowliest station. It grieved him to his core that he did not “deserve to end his life in the submission that he had taken up.”
Catch Me If You Can
It turns out that the brothers in Panephysis were well-advised to keep an eye on their vagabond abba. Before long Pinufius was chafing anew under the burden of his fame and yearning once more to seek humility, so he found a way to sneak away from the monastery by night yet again. Learning from his previous mistakes, he sought to leave Egypt altogether and find a place where possibly no one had ever heard of him. The Egyptian monks had a rather dim view of their cousins in Palestine, believing their brand of monasticism was sloppy and spiritually deficient, so of course that is where Pinufius decided to go. What could be more humbling than submitting to the rule of a coenobium where the monks barely knew what they were doing? He fled Egypt by boat to the Holy Land and entered a monastery in Bethlehem, apparently desiring to live close to the site where the Son took on flesh and first made his dwelling among us.
Once again, after weeping and hugging knees at the gate to demonstrate his earnestness and humility, he was placed under the supervision of a younger, less-experienced monk—a young John Cassian, in fact—who had no idea that the old man who had just moved into his cell with him was one of the most famous and beloved abbas in Egypt. Even without the benefit of his office or reputation, Pinufius could not help but make an impression on his new roommate. Cassian wrote that the abba-in-hiding was “a city set on a hill,” utterly unable to hide the light radiating from him because of his otherworldly patience and humility, and in fairly short order he was discovered again by Egyptian monks visiting the holy sites in Bethlehem. Doubtlessly annoyed that his pursuit of humility had once again been short-circuited by the fame and reverence he so feared, the rambling abba was nevertheless convinced “by the strongest beseechings” to return to his own coenobium in Egypt (IV.31).
This wacky but fortuitous encounter with a man such as Pinufius, which would be like having Mike Trout join your beer-league softball team, eventually led Cassian and Germanus to seek a transfer to Egypt. Because of their oaths and the submission thus demanded, they were not simply free to go without their own abba’s permission, but they wanted to imbibe in the wisdom of Pinufius and the other Desert Fathers and were granted leave to do so. Out of these pursuits come the spiritual treasures, long overlooked in western Christianity and almost unknown in Protestant circles, that are Cassian’s Institutes and the Conferences.
Seek First The Kingdom
It is likely too presumptuous of me to evaluate the famous flights of Abba Pinufius, but in order to argue a point I won’t let that stop me. It seems to me that, even for pride’s great power and obvious dangers, it would have been better for Pinufius to remain in the position of care entrusted to him and engage the temptation of pride on that turf, rather than to flee and seek it in obedience to a distant, lowly overseer. But the principle here is too valuable for me to dwell on that quibble. Even if I’m skeptical about how he chose to handle it, the most important lesson from these stories is just how cunning, seductive, and toxic vainglory and pride truly are. The wisdom we gain from Pinufius is that we must, must take it seriously, because of its unique ability to poison any worthwhile thing we do.
Pinufius was willing to go to such extreme lengths to humble himself because he knew that humility before God was the only remedy for his demons…and the only salvation from his successes. He saw as few could (told you it was presumptuous of me to judge) just how dangerous his pride could be, not just for him but also every monk entrusted to him. And so he was willing to throw off that which most of those under his care would have stubbornly clung to: His position, his reputation, and all the temporal benefits of a lifetime of spiritual progress, counting them all as nothing lest any of it get between him and the God whose knees he longed to hug. Pride intercepts grace by turning our motives and attention away from where they belong; “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Pinufius was willing to go to such extreme lengths to humble himself because he knew that humility before God was the only remedy for his demons…and the only salvation from his successes.
When Cassian and Germanus caught up with him years later in Egypt, Pinufius stressed to them that humility required them to renounce their own desires in favor of God’s will. “Renunciation,” he said, “is nothing else than a manifestation of the cross and of a dying” (IV.33). We dare not confuse our will for God’s, nor conflate what God loves with our own self-centered desires–even when they cloak themselves in the garb of virtue.
And we dare not mistake God’s work with our own poor efforts. Cassian later summarized: “Finally, let the Author of our salvation instruct us as what we should not only think but also confess in whatever we do. ‘I am not able to do anything of myself,” he says, ‘but my Father who abides in me himself does the works.’” With Philippians 2:3-8 clearly in mind he continued: “In the person of his assumed manhood he says he can do nothing by himself. How, then, can we who are ashes and earth think that we do not stand in need of the Lord’s help in whatever pertains to our salvation?” (XII.17). We can merely reflect his glory; we have none of our own to offer.
There is so much more than could be said on this subject, but let’s leave it here with one last thought. The lesson here is simple, expressed in a single question: Will I be humble, or will I be humbled? Will I follow in the footsteps of Christ and humble myself before the Father, or will pride lead to humiliation when my every prideful boast returns laughably empty?