Abba Poemen said, ‘There is no greater love than that a man lays down his life for his neighbour. When you hear someone complaining and you struggle with yourself and do not answer him back with complaints; when you are hurt and bear it patiently, not looking for revenge; then you are laying down your life for your neighbour.’
When Abba Apollo heard the sound of singing from the monks who welcomed us, he greeted us according to the custom which all monks follow … he first lay prostrate on the ground, then got up and kissed us and having brought us in he prayed for us; then after washing our feet with his own hands, he invited us to partake of some refreshment…
One could see his monks were filled with joy and a bodily contentment such as one cannot see on earth. For nobody among them was gloomy or downcast. If anyone did appear a little downcast, Abba Apollo at once asked him the reason and told each one what was in the secret recesses of his heart. He used to say ‘Those who are going to inherit the Kingdom of heaven must not be despondent about their salvation … we who have been considered worthy of so great a hope, how shall we not rejoice without ceasing, since the Apostle urges us always, “Pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks”?’
The community founded here by St David was a monastic community, which looked to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and the Levant as their source and inspiration: as it was here that through prayer, the recitation of the Psalms and of the reading of Holy Scripture that their common life was formed. There is a little bit of the Egyptian desert here at least in spirit. There are those who would wish to characterise Christianity in general and monasticism in particular in negative terms, as gloomy, focussing on what one cannot do, and yet when we consider the parting advice of St David to his followers, he began with ‘Byddwch llawen’ ‘Be joyful’ just like the Desert Fathers quoted earlier. The Christian vocation then is one of JOY, we are to be joyful Christians, joyful in the knowledge that God loves us, that God died and rose again for us. To have the humility to accept the fact that God loves us, not because we are loveable but so that we might become so, requires that we circumcise the foreskin of our heart, or perhaps more literally ‘cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more’ (JPS Tanakh). The advice given in Deuteronomy 10-11 has at its heart the gentleness and generosity which lies at the heart of the Christian faith, in the same way that St Paul despite many trials and tribulations en route to his eventual execution in Rome remains joyful and generous.
This is how we live out our faith in our lives, not jealously guarding our faith as some treasured possession too precious to be sullied or shared, but by recognising that such things were given to us freely, and so should be likewise shared freely. We can be serious, as after all there are souls at stake, it is a serious business, but not so much that our seriousness of purpose and resolve should ever overshadow the generosity and joy inherent in our loving God and our neighbour.
The Christian life may be many things but it is certainly rarely easy, which is why it needs to lived together by a community of faith, so that we can support each other when times are tough, as St Antony the Great said: ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.’ How we support each other is how we live out our faith in our lives, and how we as Christians convert others – actions speak louder than words – and if our faith affects who we are and what we do and how and why we do it then it will be attractive, it cannot fail to be – hence the need for joy, given that one may catch more flies with honey than vinegar. It is the joy of being loved by a God whose service is perfect freedom. This is the pearl of great price, and the heart of the Gospel, so let us live it together in love.