Abba Poeman was known among the Desert Fathers as the wise shepherd. This was a play off his name which in Greek actually means ‘shepherd’. He is called wise because he is the most quoted of the ancient Egyptian monks. Over a quarter the surviving sayings are from Abba Poeman or involve him. In this blog and in the coming podcast we will come to know this wise shepherd well. Let us consider this saying:
A brother questioned Abba Poeman, saying, “I have found a place where peace is not disturbed by the brothers. Do you advise me to live there?” The old man said in reply, “The place for you is where you will not harm your brother.”From Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers edited by Tim Vivian
Now then, this seems like a reasonable request. The young disciple feels he is ready to take the next big step in his life as a Desert Monk, to live in a cell on his own. He has already taken some initiative in searching out a place in the desert where he can build a hut to live in. All he needs now is an okay from his spiritual father (abba) Poeman. In his mind this is all proper procedure. So why the snarky response from his abba?
Because Abba Poeman knows the gospels and understands how they can be applied in life. In this case, the parable of the splinter and the beam (see Mt 7:1-5). He is able to discern that this is an issue of judgment. The brother has passed judgment on his peers in the desert. They are prone to disturb him. He, who has left behind his former life and come to learn under the great Abba Poeman. The brother judges that he will reach his spiritual goals only if he can remove from himself those other splintered-eyed brothers who are such a disturbance to him. Surely the abba will understand his desire to go deeper into the desert so as to go higher spiritually.
Abba Poeman will have none of it. The problem is the wooden beam lodged in the brother’s eye. That beam is his pride. His pride in thinking he can judge his peers as disturbers of the peace. His pride in thinking he was ready to go it alone as shown by his eagerness to scout out a quiet place for his future cell. And his pride in questioning others when he should be questioning himself.
What the brother needs is not his own cell but some help, which his spiritual father provides in a simple yet wise reply. If the brother had been allowed to go out and live on his own he would have never discovered the prideful beam logged in his eye. Because of this, he would never have been able to see clearly. With his spiritual sight impaired he would be a danger to himself and to others. Abba Poeman correctly discerns that it best for this brother to stay where he is until he grows some more spiritually by grappling, with the help of his brothers, with the demon of pride.
May we, who are all probably splinter or beam eyed, find a spiritual guide like Abba Poeman to help us see clearly.