Ammon (of the place called Raithu) brought this question to Sisoes: "When I read Scripture, I am tempted to make elaborate commentaries and prepare myself to answer questions on it" He (Sisoes) replied, "You don't need to do that. It is better to speak simply, with a good conscience and a pure mind". From Rowan Williams, Where God Happens. p.140
This quote has been buzzing in my head the last few weeks, largely because of the time of year. Summer brings with it both more free time and a kind of internal pressure to do something 'productive' in my, admittedly, arcane patristics hobby. Don't get me wrong. This isn't about compulsive workoholism (I don't think....). It expresses a dilemma which has been with me for more than ten years, since I left my PhD in Classics. On one side, I truly love learning for its own sake and one of my joys is to have the tools to do that with the Church Fathers. I enjoy my reading of patristic texts and scholarly discussions of them. I like translating the texts--as odd as that sounds. And I have to acknowledge my debt to this study which has affected how I think about my faith and how I live out my spirituality. I can see how St. Augustine's Confessions influenced my conversion as a Christian and how St. Benedict's Rule informs my approach to fatherhood and, oddly, the teaching profession. The Desert Fathers (like Sisoes above) challenge my materialism and draw attention to the 'bad thoughts' which plague my attempts at humility and faithfulness. The Fathers do me the service of calling attention to my theological blind-spots (rather different from their own blind spots), help me read Scripture more deeply and remind me that theology isn't just an intellectual pursuit, but a spiritual one as well. When you get those benefits, more study seems like a profitable thing.
Yet, on the other hand, like Ammon of Raithu, I feel compelled to do something with my studies. That is, I shouldn't just read or translate for my own edification, I should publish something for goodness sake. I'm not saying that publishing is a bad thing nor am I saying that I won't consider working on a project intended to be published. This is probably not the time to fast-track it for it, not the least reason being my committment to my young family. Any planning that I make about this have to be long range, very long range, indeed. Perhaps some fruit will come that. I don't know.
Yet, I also feel the sting of this saying of Abba Sisoes. I don't need to do this. That is, this should not be a compulsion to produce, to argue, to explain. It is better to keep my attention on the spiritual virtues and prayer which my study of the Fathers and of Scripture give me day to day, yer to year. Then, I should do something radical and revolutionary: practice them. What I worry about my desire to 'do' is that it is a manifestation of one or the other of my two great temptations in my study: that all too common compulsion to produce as opposed to just shut and pray or a temptation to intellectualize my faith rather than mediate on it. Prayer, spiritual reading and work on self are gloriously useless activities, at least in the eyes of the world. Yet, I recognize that I need to do all these three things if I expect any spiritual growth or wisdom or, in fact, discernment over what I can contribute to the life of the Church. I need the ability to speak simply, with a a good conscience and pure mind, especially if I expect to write about spiritual things.
That means discernment. What is God calling me to? My main vocation is to teaching and, to my enduring my surprise, teaching adolescents . Yet, I feel the calling to write, but is that vainglory and/or avoiding spiritual growth? Time and discernment will tell me that, of course. So, patience is what is called for and the willingness to do what is 'useless' for as long as it takes. That, I trust, will be enough.