The Desert Fathers on Mixed Motives

The Penguin edition of The Desert Fathers (translated by Benedicta Ward) seldom gathers dust on my shelves. I frequently consult its varied collection of spiritual adages and anecdotes, handed down to us from the early hermits and monks of Christian Egypt. A passage that I read the other day was typical for its combination of lofty piety and monastic shrewdness.

A brother said to Poemen, “If I give my brothers something, for instance a piece of bread, the demons made the gift worthless by making me think that it was done to please men.” The hermit said to him, “Even if it is done to please men, we still ought to give our brothers what they need.” He told him this parable: “In a town there were two farmers. One of them sowed seed, and gathered a poor harvest; the other was idle and did not sow, and had no harvest to gather. If famine came, which of them would survive?” The brother answered, “The one who sowed seed, even if the harvest was poor.” He said, “It is the same for us. We sow a few seeds, and they are poor, but in the time of famine we shall not die.”

One calls to mind the axiom that we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. But neither, one might add, should the “good” (in the sense of compromise or mediocrity) become the enemy of the perfect. What the Desert Fathers are wisely warning against is the kind of false “perfection” that is motivated by pride or sloth. For another take on this issue, see my earlier post.

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