Close Your Mouth To Empty Yourself

Close Your Mouth To Empty Yourself February 15, 2017

Saint Pambo by unknown Orthodox Christian painter (Eastern Orthodox Church) [CC0, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Pambo by unknown Orthodox Christian painter (Eastern Orthodox Church) [CC0, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”[1]

Like many others who had gone into the desert, and would later find themselves honored for their sanctity and wisdom, St. Pambo had received spiritual and monastic direction from St. Anthony. He started his monastic career as a young, illiterate ascetic. He used his time wisely, and so learned how to read. Eventually, because of his piety and his learning, he would be made a priest.

Pambo was also one of the first to join Amoun in Nirtia.

The lesson which Anthony gave to him here was one Pambo would take with him throughout the rest of his life. He would become famous for the scarce use he would make of his tongue, so that he would rarely if ever engage idle talk and gossip, just as he would consistently seal his lips for great amounts of fasting. Abba Poemen therefore decreed, “In Abba Pambo we see three bodily activities; abstinence from food until evening every day, silence, and much manual work.” [2]

Key to what Anthony told Pambo was his need for humility. No one should trust in their own righteousness, because once they do, they close themselves off from grace through their ego, and will find their growth in holiness halted as their pride turns into a sin which eats away at their holiness from within. “Trust in the Lord, and do good” (Ps. 37:3a RSV) is exactly what we should do. We are not to trust in ourselves, in our righteousness, but in God – and it is in and with that trust, not apart from it, that we can act in faith and do good. For it is God who gives us our strength. Our trust in God opens us up to that strength so that we can and will do the good God expects us to do.

As we realize we cannot trust in ourselves, we must not turn around and use that as an excuse, justifying inaction. We know we are called to do good. We know that we seek the good, but we also know there are habits of sin inside us which will divert us away from that good. Without God, without grace, those habits cannot be broken. But not trusting in ourselves, we realize that we have hope in God,  that through his merciful love we are able to attain the righteousness we seek. The strength comes from without, but for it to remain, we must remain open to it, cooperate with it, activating it in our actions lest we end up being shallow soil for God’s seed of grace (cf. Matt. 13:5).

Pambo was told two things he should do for himself which will help keep him humble and open to God’s grace. First, he should tame his tongue, and the other, is he should get control of his stomach. In a way, both are connected, because the tongue and stomach join together through his mouth. Food goes in and words go out of that mouth – and so by controlling the mouth, a person is able to gain control of themselves. The issue, then, is self-control; gluttony is about people allowing inordinate desire for bodily pleasure get the best of them, so that they pursue it without limit, while lack of control of the tongue, lack of control of what one says to and about others, ends up allowing various deadly sins to gain control of our spiritual demeanor, turning us away from the path of love and follow unlove instead.

James warned Christians about the evils which can come from the tongue, and his words were taken to heart by the early desert monks:

So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison (Jas. 3:5-8 RSV).

To keep silence is a way to tame the tongue, to make sure that our words do not become bitter seeds which infect our mind and heart, turning us away from the path of love. We create a poison through our words, a poison which we inflict upon ourselves  (even as we try to sting others with it). The more hostility we let fly through our tongue, the more we set fire within us all the good seeds which Christ the sower has sowed in us, destroying them so that our mind becomes corrupted and veiled by the bitterness of irascible deceit.

Moreover, our words construct an image and vision of the world, a vision which we place into our own mind, and once it is embraced, it becomes the veil which hinders our reception of the truth itself.  We become attached to false views, and through such views, find ourselves turned inward towards our own conception of the truth instead of opening ourselves to the truth itself. We allow our thoughts and words to take us off the right path toward God and his grace. We create ideologies through our words, through our tongues, which not only justify bitter hatred, but at times demand it. [3]

The wisdom Anthony gave to Pambo was that Pambo of emptiness. Pambo should make nothing of himself. He should be humble and silent. His past achievement should not lead him to think of himself as being great, just as he should be silent in the present so that he can become a hearer of the Word of God. He must allow himself to be elevated by God instead of taking in to himself what his inordinate desires suggest.

What Anthony told Pambo remains wisdom for us to heed as well. We should empty our mind from all the accumulated seeds established in it from the thoughts, words and deeds which have come before us today.  This will help us to transcend the past, to not let it control u. It will let the seeds of truth, wisdom, and holiness which we need, to be nourished instead of strangled, allowing them to grow in us as we make room for them within, until at last they bloom in us and make us full of grace and love. The sins of the past do not have to haunt us, we can divest ourselves of them, put them to the fire of confession. Likewise, we must put to the fire all our improper thoughts about others, all the judgment which would hinder our charitable treatment of them today. We should forgive as we would like to be forgiven and let the past die and bury itself as we find ourselves a new creation today.  And so, what Anthony suggested to Pambo, and Pambo was to live out as an ideal witness to the truth of Anthony’s wisdom, is something we can and should follow ourselves; we might not be called to become an extreme ascetic like Pambo, for that is a special calling for some, but we should still try to empty ourselves of all that would serve as a wall between us and God. For, if we tear down that wall constructed by our sinful thoughts and passions, we can, like Pambo, become righteous vessels of God’s love in the world.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984),2.

[2] Ibid., 188.

[3] John Keenan, in his comparative theological analysis of the Book of James, makes clear the problem at hand. It is not just the person will have bad views, but those views will lead to some negative impact in the world: “Rather, he warns his readers about their tenacious attachment to worlds constructed by unstable language, as if those worlds were stable. People often believe in the racial and class distinctions that they themselves have brought about, the economic differences which they have engendered, simply as a part of the natural and objective order of things, much as people used to (and sometimes still do) regard absolute rulers as part of the God-given metaphysical order of things. It is not that narrow-mindedness is merely a matter of false epistemological belief, with impact only on the mistaken mind of the narrow-minded person. The impact of attachment to views is ideological fixation and violence. People are oppressed and die because of ideologies. Suffering and death follow in the wake of ideological rigidity. The whole universe can be filtered and classified in support of narrow national interests or ethnic and religious boundaries. It is not that deluded people are particularly evil or different from good people. Rather, actions never considered within the realm of possibility become not only possible but demanded by fidelity to deluded ideology – political or religious.” James P. Keenan, The Wisdom of James (New York: Newman Press, 2005), 109.



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