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Discipleship

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Discipleship - St Shenouda Monastery Pimonakhos

The spiritual person becomes a disciple of the beneficial word. He searches for it from all sources: firstly from the Bible, then from the sayings of the fathers and the teachers who may be depended on, and then from any other source. Even if it should be a word that has come from the mouth of a sinner, it still might be beneficial. An example of this is the story of Saint Ephram the Syrian and the woman who gazed at him. This woman looked at St Ephram and stared so hard and for so long at him that he became embarrassed, and he asked her why she was fixing her gaze on him in that way? And she answered “It’s natural that I should look at a man, because women, when they were created, were taken from the body of a man. But as for you, you ought to look at the ground, because you were taken from the soil of the earth.” The saint learned a useful lesson from this woman’s words, and trained himself to look at the ground.

Another similar example is the benefit which St Anthony derived from the words of the woman who took off her clothes to bathe in front of him! He said to her: “Aren’t you ashamed of taking your clothes off before me, a monk?” And the woman replied: “If you were a monk, you would live in the heart of the desert, because this is not a suitable place for monks to live in.” So St. Anthony profited considerably from her words, and said to himself: “That was the voice of God coming to me, which He sent by the mouth of that woman.” He then went away to live far away in the desert.

In the past, people would cross land and sea on long journeys in order to ask one of the fathers for a beneficial word. The book ‘The Paradise of the Fathers’ is full of such stories. The journeys of Palladuis, Jerome and Rufinus are some good examples. And their books have left us with a rich heritage which has been of spiritual benefit to the whole world…

It was not only young people or ordinary people who used to seek a word of advice from the desert fathers, but wise and great people used to do so too. There was St Theophilus (who was the 23rd Patriarch), who as Pope went many times to the monasteries to gain some beneficial advice from the saintly monks. His stories are well known from those of Anba Arsanius and Anba Paphnuti. As is the visit of Pope Benjamin (the 38th Patriarch) to the monasteries and places of recluse. It is also well-known that St Athanasius the Apostolic was a disciple of St. Anthony the great.

We hear too, about how St Macarius the Great asked for a word of advice from the young Zachariah!! The boy was amazed, and said to him: “Are you, father, you who are the star of the desert and its light, asking me, a young boy, for a word of help?!” And St Macarius replied humbly: “I trust, my son, in the holy Spirit who is in you, and that you have something which I need to know.” There is also a story about how St Macarius received a beneficial word from a boy who was tending some cattle…

Discipleship need not be hampered by a person’s age or situation. Blessed are those who live as disciples, ready and willing to learn, throughout their lives… Our problem, however, is that we imagine that we already know something, or that we have reached a point at which we do not need to ask or learn any more… yet we find a group like the Lord’s apostles asking Him, on one occasion: “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1). Who of the blessed apostles did not know how to pray?! Everybody knew… or they imagined that they knew. The apostles asked about a matter which seemed perfectly clear, but the result was that the Lord taught them the Lord’s prayer, which was certainly of great benefit to them…

From this we can deduce that one of the characteristics of discipleship is humility. It begins with a person feeling that he needs to learn, and to ask, and to seek guidance. That person then goes on to have the feeling that someone else has greater understanding than he, and that God is able to guide him through that other person. On the question of the humility of discipleship, look at what St Paul said about himself: “…I am indeed a Jew, brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law,” (Acts 22:3). For the pupil was not permitted to sit on the same level as his master… One of the necessary conditions of discipleship is that he/she must take care to remember what they have heard and keep it within them, and not forget it. As the prophet David said: “Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You!” (Ps. 119:11).