Saturday, September 29, 2012

About That Monk Leaving His Monastery...

I wrote in my “Pointing Fingers at Bishops” post the other day:

I have heard a story about a monk who, after years of solitude and prayer in the monastery, left that haven in order to go out and correct some errors that were running rampant amongst the laity. The bishop, observing the monk, commented, “What is this?! A monk has left his monastery!” To which the monk replied, “I wouldn’t have to leave my cell if you would do your job.”

Turns out I didn’t have that story quite right…though I think the point I was making with it still holds: when things have gone awry, sometimes you need to do something about it.

I am told by the person who originally shared the story with me (which I obviously didn’t remember in clear detail!) that this is how the tale should be told:

The monk was St Aphrahat the Syrian; the "bishop" to whom you refer was actually the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate; and the monk replied rather differently. Here's the actual text, taken from the ancient A History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus:

8. On one occasion the utterly senseless emperor saw [Aphrahat] going out to the military drill-ground – for it was there that the adherents of the Trinity happened then to be assembling – and as he was walking along the bank of the river someone pointed him out to the emperor who was peering out from the palace. He asked him where he was setting out to so hurriedly. When he replied that he was on his way to make prayers on behalf of the world and his reign, the emperor again asked him, “Why, when you profess the solitary life, are you walking without scruple in the public square, deserting your solitude?”

The other, who was wont in imitation of the Master to reason in parables, replied, “Tell me this, O emperor: if I had been a girl shut away in some inner room and saw a fire attack my father’s house, what would you have advised me to do on seeing the flames kindled and the house on fire? Sit indoors and let the house be burnt down? In that case I myself would have become a casualty of the conflagration. If you say that I ought to have dashed to fetch water and run up and down and extinguished the flames, do not blame me, O emperor, for doing this very thing. It is what you would have recommended to the girl in the inner room that I am compelled to do, despite my profession of the solitary life. If you blame me for deserting my solitude, blame yourself for having cast these flames into the house of God and not me for being compelled to extinguish them. For you yourself have agreed that it is certainly right to bring assistance to one’s father’s house on fire; and it is obvious to everyone, even the utterly uninitiated in divine things, that God is more truly our father than fathers on earth. Therefore we are doing nothing wide of the mark or contrary to our original commitment, O emperor, in assembling and pasturing the nurslings of piety and providing them with the divine fodder.”

At these words, the emperor, out-argued by the justice of this defense, expressed approval by silence.

Yeah, I like that version better. ;-)

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