What We Can Learn From The Story Of Abba Apphy

What We Can Learn From The Story Of Abba Apphy January 27, 2023

Internet Book Images: Image From Page 70 Of “Legends Of The Monastic Orders : As Represented In The Fine Arts” (1890) / flickr

Early monastic literature contained within it an ambivalent picture of the ecclesiastic structure of the church. On the one hand, the structure was recognized as important, and necessary. On the other hand, they saw that those who got drawn into it, seeking or even being elevated to positions of authority such as priests or bishops found their spiritual lives tended to diminish as they had to deal with the public instead their own private spiritual development. This often meant bishops and priests, because they did not hold onto a solid spiritual center, found themselves acting contrary to the expectations of the charism they had been given. They used their office for the sake of power, and the gain they can get out of that power, ignoring the responsibility they received once they were invested with such authority. There were bishops, like St. Athanasius, who were seen as exceptions to the rule,  but in general, monastic literature discouraged monks from seeking ecclesiastic rank, and it did so by providing examples of what happened to those who became ordained An example of this is found in the story surrounding Abba Apphy; while he was a monk, he was able to follow a great spiritual regime, and found himself able to commune with God in such a way to find himself sustained directly by God, but when he was made a bishop, he was unable to live the life he had lived as a mere monk, and as such, lost his connection with God:

They used to say of a bishop of Oxrrynchus, named Abba Apphy, that when was a monk he submitted himself to a very severe way of life. When he became a bishop he wished to practise the same austerity, even  in the world, but he had not the strength to do so. Therefore he prostrated himself before God, saying, ‘Has your grace left me because of my episcopate?’ Then he was given this revelation, ‘No, but when you were in solitude and there was no one else it was God who was your helper. Now that you are in the word, it is man.’[1]

We must not read this story as suggesting that bishops are unnecessary or that they do not receive any grace from God. This is why we were told Apphy did not lose grace. Indeed, he  gained some new grace, the grace associated with ordination, a grace which included what was necessary for him to effectively live out his vocation as a bishop. But the way of life of a bishop is different from the way of life of a monk. That is, the experiences of a bishop, what they can and cannot do, what is expected of them, differs from the way of life of a monk. Thus Apphy was longer able  to live in solitude – rather, he had to be with the public, with the community at large, and as such, his way of life changed. Not only was he to share grace he received with his flock, they would, likewise, have to share the gifts they have with them. They were to support each other. He had to accept being helped by the rest of the Christian community. He had to make relationships with them, engaging them on a daily basis. As such, he could not have the time he used to have to engage contemplation, and his relationship with others, seeing them in person, meant he could not live the harsh, ascetic regime had become normal for him. This meant, then, he would not experience God the way he did when he was a simple monk. This did not mean God was not there, working with him, helping him, but with his change of circumstances, he found his ability to perceive God’s work in his life changed. He had to put more trust and faith in God, not only in the way God was at work with him, but also in the way God was at work with the community. He would not be able to perceive it in the way he did when he was in his cell. He had to accept God would sometimes indirectly interact with him through his community instead of directly engaging him in his times of silent meditation. Certainly, it was not a complete change, for when he was a monk, he was expected to engage charity and justice, but the means by which he did so differed, and this was something which other monks were to learn from this story, showing why they should not seek after priesthood for themselves.

Those of us who are not called to the religious life can also learn something similar from this story. Each of us will find ourselves called to do different things, leading to different kinds of experiences with God. Just because we do not find ourselves experiencing God the way others do should not lead us to despair. We should not assume, or fear, that if we do not experience God in the way we hope for or expect, God is not at work in our lives. We must understand no one is outside of God’s loving gaze. No one is outside of God’s offer of grace. Sometimes, we must, like Apphy, learn to accept this is so, and so trust in God, even if we do not personally sense God’s work in our lives at a given moment. Indeed, at such times, we find ourselves the opportunity to grow in our faith and trust in God, for we show, we do not need great signs and wonders have us trust in God and believe in what God has already revealed to us. And if we can have faith in God without them, then are blessed.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn. 20:29b  RSV), for, “Many are the pangs of the wicked; but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the LORD” (Ps. 32:10 RSV).

A good bishop, therefore, will find themselves active, engaging their flock, helping them instead of using their bishopric as a tool for power and earthly glory. They will rely upon God, trusting God will work in and with them but also in and through the people they are called to shepherd. That is, they are to  realize their position is not one which makes them stand above others, and so not in any need of them and what they offer; once they do so, then they hopefully will work with their flock, and indeed, rely upon them without any sense of pride or superiority. If they do this, hopefully they will be able to fulfill their vocation and find God truly is at work, not just in the charism given to them, but in the church as a whole. A bad bishop, however, will not note this, and if they are not careful, will cut themselves off from all kinds of graces as they try to lift themselves above their community. While, to be sure, grace will continue to flow through them, so that their flock will not go without the needs which bishops fulfill, their infidelity to God will be proven by their ill-treatment of their flock, and in the end, they will experience  God’s judgment of their infidelity when it they come face God in the judgment which is to come.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 35-6 [Saying of Abba Apphy 1].


Stay in touch! Like A Little Bit of Nothing on Facebook.
If you liked what you read, please consider sharing it with your friends and family!

N.B.:  While I read comments to moderate them, I rarely respond to them. If I don’t respond to your comment directly, don’t assume I am unthankful for it. I appreciate it. But I want readers to feel free to ask questions, and hopefully, dialogue with each other. I have shared what I wanted to say, though some responses will get a brief reply by me, or, if I find it interesting and something I can engage fully, as the foundation for another post. I have had many posts inspired or improved upon thanks to my readers.

"If you are polar opposite of Harrison Butker's speech, what's that make you, since you ..."

Butker Doesn’t Represent Catholicism
"I don't care much for Butker's ideas on women's vocation. But the outrage is a ..."

Butker Doesn’t Represent Catholicism
"Thank you for your very insightful thoughts on the importance of Jesus' "do unto others" ..."

Religions Should Show Us The Way ..."

Browse Our Archives