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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Lessons from the desert

In the early centuries of Christianity, groups of men and women retreated to the Egyptian desert wilderness where they lived as hermits. The wisdom and stories of these desert fathers, or abbas, and mothers, or ammas, have been passed down through the centuries. In writing about their enduring contribution to our faith, Roberta C. Bondi (To Pray & to Love, Fortress Press, 1991) says they considered humility "the distinguishing mark of the Christian."

Here is one story she includes that offers insight into their understanding of the importance of humility:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, "What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me."

Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, "Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you."

And here's a story Bondi includes to show what they taught about humility and the sinner (To Love as God Loves, Fortress Press, 1987):

A soldier asked Abba Macarius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, "Tell me my dear [friend], if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?" He replied, "No, I mend it and use it again."

The old man said to him, "If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful of his creatures?"


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