Do Not Give Into The Temptation To Ignore Your Neighbor

Do Not Give Into The Temptation To Ignore Your Neighbor August 25, 2021

Redeemed & Forgiven: Love Your Neighbor / flickr

Christians are not to flee from their responsibility to the world. Monasticism should not be seen as being or used to promote some sort of “option” people employ to disengage themselves from society. Though many ascetics might have been tempted to abandon the world and live for themselves, if they did so, they would have only fallen for a Satanic temptation and embraced the ascetic life in vain. To disregard one’s neighbor and their needs for one’s own personal spiritual pursuits is the height of selfishness, and such selfishness is denied by all proper forms of ascetic spirituality.

Asceticism is not for everyone; those who are called to it know that the affirmation of others is a part of the process by which self-denial is to be made. Taking care of others is more important than any desire they might have to retreat from the world and enter into absolute seclusion from others. For this reason St. Isaac the Syrian made it clear that authentic spiritual progression requires one first deals with primary concerns, such as the needs of others through corporeal works of mercy, and only after one has established themselves through such actions can they engage other concerns (such as contemplative prayer). With such a framework, spiritual master know that they must stop what they are doing and take care of those in need when they are confronted with such need. If no such need arises, then they must develop in themselves great love for their neighbor so that if and when the time comes, they will be motivated to act for the good of those in need; for, if they truly develop themselves spiritually, they will never abandon their duties to their neighbors:

For as man is constituted from two parts, so all things pertaining to him are accomplished in a twofold manner, corresponding to the duality of his state. And because praxis everywhere precedes divine vision, it is impossible for a man to rise to that lofty portion unless he first fulfills by labor what is lower. Now no one can dare to say concerning the love of his neighbor that he progresses in it within his soul, if he forsakes that part of it which is fulfilled by the body in accordance with his strength, the time, and the place, which things aid him in doing the deed. For only then is that portion of love verified that is held and apprehended in the conscience. When it outward action we are faithful and true in so far as possible, then our soul is given power to stretch upward to that great portion of sublime and divine theoria in intellections that are simple and without form. But where there is no possibility to practice the love of neighbor in visible actions with the body, the love of our neighbor fulfilled in our thinking alone suffices in the eyes of God, especially if we are able to continually practice that all-embracing portion that is superior to the love of neighbor. [1]

St. Isaac made it clear that our desire for spiritual contemplations, theoria, should not be used to override the concern we should have for our neighbor. For, the pursuit of theoria has its proper place as being after praxis. We can’t rise up in our spirit if we deny the flesh and its needs, something which we would be doing if we deny the needs of those living in the world. Anyone who would disregard the needs of the flesh have abandoned authentic Christian spirituality, for they have given in to the “gnostic” temptation to deny the value of the material world. Christianity teaching a holistic spirituality which includes the body and recognizes we must take care of it and its needs. If we would ignore the plight of our neighbor, our spirituality is far from Christian, and this is true, not only for secular people, but those called to a religious vocation:

What sagacious monk, possessing food and clothing, can see his neighbor hungry and naked, and will not give him whatever he has, sparing nothing? And again, who, upon seeing another who bears the same flesh as his own, wasted away by illness, exhausted by hardship and in need of help, would prefer his rule of seclusion to the love of his neighbor by reason of his ardent love of stillness? When, however, no such occasion arises, we observe love and mercy toward the brethren in our minds. But when the occasion is at hand, Gid requires us to fulfill and perform mercy with manifest works. [2]

Ascetics might love seclusion because it makes it easier for them to engage life of contemplation, but this is why such seclusion can be seen to be a temptation. Asceticism is about self-denial. If some ascetic became too attached to their seclusion, using their love for seclusion as an excuse to ignore their responsibility to their neighbor, their asceticism is not proper because they have formed an inappropriate attachment to seclusion and use that attachment as a means to embrace themselves and their own personal desires. This happens not just with ascetics, but with anyone who embraces options which promote an inordinate seclusion from society in order to preserve an appearance of holiness. As a way of rebuking such an error, St. Isaac gave the example of St. Macarius the Great, who, even in his elderly age, took care of those in need, engaging society even if it took him away from his beloved cell:

But as for me, I will not neglect the saying concerning Saint Macarius the Great, which was recorded as a censure of those who despise their brethren. Once he went to visit a certain brother who was sick. When Saint Macarius asked the brother if there were anything he wanted, he replied that he wanted a little freshly baked bread. He said this because all the monks of that place had then the custom of baking bread once a year, at most. Straightway, therefore, that man worthy of blessedness stood up, and though he was ninety years of age, he walked from Scete to Alexandria forty miles and more with dried bread laid up in his cloak, and he exchanged it and brought to the sick man that which he besought. [3]

Monastic literature consistently reminded monks and nuns that their spirituality must not lead them to some nihilistic abandonment of the world; rather the point is to deny themselves so that they can work for the good of the world. They are to be vessels of grace to the world, but if they deny the world and its value, if they ignore the world, they will not do as expected and share the grace they received with the world. They will try to hold onto it, and by doing so, they will lose it, just like the unfaithful steward in the parable of the talents who hid the talent he had been given in the ground had it taken away from him when he was called by his master to give an account of what he had done with it (cf. Matt. 25:14-30). Grace is given to be shared. Spirituality is meant to help us become more like God, loving others and the world around us. Those who would neglect their duty to their neighbor, those who would try to find all kinds of pious excuses to care for themselves above others, show that they have lost their way. They risk losing everything for the sake of their preferences.

[1] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Trans. Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Rev. 2nd ed (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 531 [Homily 76].

[2] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, 529 [Homily 76].

[3] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, 530 [Homily 76].


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