The Desert Fathers and Woodwork

For some reason a recent storm over our house caused certain websites to go down. Not the internet in general, only certain websites. I have no idea how that works. It’s all magic to me or something. At any rate, obviously things are back up and running now. I was a little worried there for a moment because my computer has a tendency to develop a problem and then run with it for roughly a month before mysteriously working completely fine for months on end. Like I said, magic.

Still, I was able to “redeem the time” as it were upon the innocent pieces of a tree that were in need of being chopped for future use in our fireplace. If any of my readers were planning on assisting me with my woodwork, I have to sadly inform you that it is now too late. Well, unless you want to deal with the remains of another tree that had some kind of fungus infestation.

We couldn’t really tell the tree was unhealthy from looking at the outside, especially since we are not experts on plant health. It seemed fine to us and provided our garden with a generous portion of shade. But apparently this tree was quite sick with fungus. Now that the city has come by and sawed it down and further into choppable-sized blocks, we can see that the fungus was quite widespread. Portions of the trunk have almost no healthy wood left. It was a fungus that started on the inside and worked it’s way out. It turned all the healthy wood into sponge, basically.

Now, this image could lend itself quite readily to all kinds of parallels. I could point out how the little faults in our lives that we think are secret actually end up weakening us without anyone knowing. And that would be true, if perhaps a bit cliched.

Instead, what has been on my mind recently has been something that I read in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

A brother asked Abba Poemen, “If I see my brother sin, is it right to say nothing about it?” The old man replied, “whenever we cover our brother’s sin, God will cover ours; whenever we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God will do the same about ours.”

First, I’d like to address what many people are probably thinking of in objection to this saying. We live in a world of laws and accountability. This story from the Desert Fathers is in no way intended to create some kind of cover-up of wrongdoing that needs to be disciplined. This particular story is not an excuse to not discipline those who need it, nor is it an excuse to hide any kind of abuse behind bureaucratic curtains. Discipline for wrongdoing is an integral part of monastic communities and Christian theology. This story deals more with sins that are perhaps what we might call “of a personal nature.”

What Abba Poemen is trying to say hearkens back to some of the sayings of Jesus. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you” and “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” etc. If a brother (or sister) is weak and falls into sin then it is not our job to spread news of their weakness around. This can be rather hard for many of us in a world that loves to be shocked by “scandal.” News of the personal goings-on of famous people regularly makes the tabloids and a great many people seem to just drink up such information. But that isn’t how we are supposed to act. It is our job to “cover” sins. So what does “covering” the sin mean?

I think what Abba Poemen is getting at is that it is our job to cover the sins of each other with our prayers for each other. And if the sin is something like forgetting a particular duty (washing the dishes for example), then it is our job to take that duty upon ourselves as much as possible. There’s another story from the early monastics about a brother who would steal from the elder of the community. The elder did not confront the thief, but rather reasoned that this brother was in great need and so the elder worked harder to support both himself and the brother. When the elder was dying, he kissed the hands of the stealing brother and thanked him for helping him on his path to salvation. The extra duty that the elder took upon himself was just as much extra grace.

This is what covering the sins of another means. We are to cover them with grace and prayer. We should even be cautious about confronting our brother/sister because we are to see them through the eyes of grace and forgiveness. Perhaps that’s stretching the metaphor a bit from the image of our tree being eaten away on the inside by fungus, but the strong wood is on the outside. The strength covers the weakness. Maybe that is a stretch but then again, I’m no poet.


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 21, 2012.

One Response to “The Desert Fathers and Woodwork”

  1. Yes, that is surely right? It is not our duty to proclaim the sins of others to the world, but if they are criminal, yes, we inform those who need to know. It is a warning against gossip and scandal I think? Good your electricity and computer are OK 🙂

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