Assigning Blame

Envy – from the British Museum

Note: This topic may be considered mature.

Talking about others is something that has been going since humanity first developed speech. Our attention often turns towards what other people are doing and how it annoys us. Next comes the compulsion to share that annoyance with others hoping we can form a large enough block to pressure ‘those people’ to conform to ‘our’ expectations. The ancient monks knew all about this. Gossip and shaming were just as active in their world as in ours. This is why they promoted the practice of silence. Better to stay silent than speak destructive words. Here is a saying that addresses this problem.

A brother, tempted by a demon, went to an old man and said, “Those two brothers are always together.”

But the old man understood that the brother was being mocked by demons and he sent and called the two to him. When evening came, he laid out a rush mat for those two brothers and covered them with a single blanket, saying, “These sons of God are saints.” Conversely, he said to his disciple, “Shut that other brother up in a cell nearby, for he has in himself the very passion which he accused the others of having.

from Becoming Fire Edited by Tim Vivian

Where to begin? Why not with the one who is the real ‘bad guy’, the demon. Now let’s be honest, we want to condemn this tattling brother. The old man, who has seen and experienced much in his desert sojourn, sees the situation differently. He sees the evil that is at work in this tattling brother. The demon’s oppressing the brother has one goal, to sow chaos. By sowing chaos it is able to undermine the good at work in him and in those around him.

There is indeed good at work even in a tattling brother who tries to condemn two of his brothers. He is a brother after all. He answered God’s call to go out to the desert and join the monastics in seeking purity of heart. He sees what he thinks is wrong, two brothers involved in what earlier generations called a ‘particular friendship’. So, he refrains from handling the situation himself and instead seeks an elder monk. He may believe that he is doing what is right. Yet, it is all wrong. How can this be?

When we are not careful in examining our inner motives we quickly become blind to why we do the things we do. The tattling brother grew lax in his examination of conscience for reasons we do not know. The demons that lurk in the murky background of all our thoughts saw an opening and took advantage of it.

The demon found within the brother an unmet yearning for intimacy. He wanted to feel loved by another, in this case by another brother. The need was legitimate. Of course, what was forgotten was that he was already loved by God and his fellow monastics. The demon perceived this desire and pointed out the two other brothers who were apparently enjoying what he did not have, mutual love. Envy soon set in and brought chaos to the brothers mind and soul. A chaos that he could not contain within himself.

The demon’s plan was to destroy this brother from within and the rest of the monks from without. The primary target may well have been to two brothers who are described in this saying as saintly. Demons find the saintly particularly annoying because they too are envious of the love they enjoy. It would seem that the two saintly brothers shared a mutual love for God. They saw this love within each other and so were drawn towards each other in true friendship. A true friendship is one where each friend seeks what is best for the other. When it is found it should be honored and reverenced, just as the old man does in this saying.

Demons hate this kind of friendship which is based on love. So the demon tries to use the weak, tattling brother to destroy it. If successful, the demon can then throw a cloud of suspicion over all other friendships that monks would form. “They are not friends, but depraved lovers! Punish them, cast them out!” Monks would be afraid to get close to one another and begin to isolate themselves. Once isolated that would become easier targets for the other demons.

Of course, improper relationships between monastics was a problem and sadly continued to be so. The demons that afflict our souls are relentless. Those who set out seeking a pure love for God alone despair and settle for a love-like experience that is at hand. The tattling brother’s weakness is revealed to the wise old man. So, the tattling brother is treated as a sick person, confined to bed (a nearby cell) in order to be nursed back to spiritual health. The old man, I suspect, will have the sick brother acknowledge his yearnings for love and then help him direct those yearnings correctly toward God. This will be a tricky operation, no doubt.

So what does this saying say to us? Without a doubt, it is telling us many things. It calls us to confront our own daily battle against envy. We are reminded to acknowledge what are true yearnings for even if we know they are not, as yet, correctly directed. The challenge is to be willing to discover what is dark within us and be willing to seek healing even when that means revealing the darkness to another. This saying invites to consider how today’s demons may be at work sowing chaos in ourselves and in our societies. Our racism, classism, sexism, and self-righteousness all stem from a deep and hardly acknowledged hatred for that which is not ourselves. It challenges us, ultimately, to love God alone and to share that love with others. The simplest and hardest thing we mortals must do.

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