Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Abba Joseph of Panephysis.
“Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, ‘You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.'”
“If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, ‘Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’”
“…when provoked by any wrongs, a monk should keep not only his lips but even the depth of his breast unmoved.”
The life of Abba Joseph of Panephysis bridged the first and second wave of desert dwellers in Egypt, spanning the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Abba Poemen and Abba Anthony and was considered among the influential desert fathers.
He dwelt in eastern Egypt, near the city of Panephysis. Panephysis was a rich city that had seen significant decline in his day. The region had experienced an earthquake that affected the sea level and flooded the plains, turning a once lush area into a salt marsh.
It is with this backdrop that Joseph sought the Lord in silence and solitude. Two other notable figures shared the region with him, Abba Nesteros and Abba Chaeremon. The shifting landscape caused many to leave the area, providing ample space for the men and women of the Egyptian desert to seek God in the cells they dwelt in undisturbed.
Abba Joseph was one of the monks Abba Cassian visited in his attempt to chronicle the lives of the fathers in the Egyptian desert. It was under Joseph’s tutelage that Cassian and his companions realized they were ill-equipped to practice the spiritual life and would need to dedicate more time to studying under fathers such as Joseph.
Joseph was born in the Egyptian city of Thmuis. His family was well known in the city and he was well educated because of it. It was said he could speak Greek and Egyptian fluently without an accent. This afforded him a unique position as a desert father. He could converse with locals and hold discourse with theologians mainly trained in Greek rhetoric.
He was a man with keen spiritual insight. Once, he was visited by some monks with the intention of asking whether they should practice a strict fast when entertaining visitors, or relax their discipline to welcome others. Abba Joseph set out to answer the question before they even asked. When the group arrived, Joseph changed into a set of clothes a beggar would wear to greet them and then changed back into his normal attire. They were perplexed as to why he had done this. Abba Joseph explained that the way you appear to a person does not fundamentally change who you are. Therefore, if someone visits you and you break a fast, you have not done any harm to yourself as you are more than capable of taking up your fast when your visitor has departed. The men were astounded that Joseph had answered their question before they had even been able to ask.
Abba Joseph recognized that not every individual was of equal strength. Once, when asked by Abba Poemen how to deal with the passions (vices and inner wounds, the things that would hinder the spiritual life), Joseph counsels Poemen to war against the passions as they are stirred within. Poemen caught wind that soon after he had visited Joseph, another monk had asked him the same question. Joseph’s response was different to the second monk, he counseled the second visitor to never allow the passions entrance into the soul.
Poemen was perplexed. He went to Abba Joseph and asked him why he had answered the second question differently than the first. Abba Joseph answered, “Truly, if the passions enter you and you fight them you become stronger. I spoke to you as to myself. But there are others who cannot profit in this way if the passions approach them, and so they must cut them off immediately.” Abba Joseph recognized that individuals have varying degrees of strength. Each person is created uniquely, and thus must be addressed uniquely.
To clarify Joseph’s point, at the outset of the spiritual life, one must resist anger. But as the spiritual life matures, one must understand why anger occurs. To understand why the anger occurs, its depth of depravity, and its source in the inner life requires a greater level of strength. Facing the interior life requires more maturity than resisting the emotion. Both are necessary, one is weightier.
The Spiritual life
The core of Abba Joseph’s teaching on the spiritual life revolved around humility and desire. The thrust of the spiritual life was to become like God, discover yourself and refuse to judge anyone. This is, of course, far more difficult in practice than in principle.
When approached by disciples and asked about the spiritual life, Joseph offered a few complementary answers. To one, he counseled to always, in all circumstances ask, “Who am I?” and to never judge another person. To another he said, “You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.”
To yet another he counseled to become completely aflame with the desire for virtue: “You cannot become a monk unless you first become completely aflame with the desire for virtue, unless you become indifferent to honor and rest, unless you cut off the desires of your heart, and unless you take care to keep all the commandments of God.” Abba Joseph knew the desires of the heart of the individual would stand in direct opposition to the heart of God. The desires of the heart are only granted, as Psalm 37:4 says, when we delight ourselves in the Lord. As the heart of the seeker comes alive with the flame of God, the interior life is transformed and the will of the individual becomes the will of God. Discerning the will of God starts in transformation of the heart.
Beyond spiritual disciplines and the rhythm of the spiritual life, the will to pursue God is almost the greatest combustible element to growth. One can disciplines themselves to pray, fast, and meditate on a consistent basis, but the tenor of the will determines the outcome of the effort. When asked once how to move beyond the disciplines and enter into true spiritual maturity: “…the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, If you will, you can become all flame.”
Another brother when asking Joseph about how to practice the spiritual life, lamented his inability to give generously (ostensible because he lacked any possessions), to work effectively, and to endure harsh circumstances. Abba Joseph, recognizing the weaknesses of the brother, directed him towards the interior life: “If you cannot do even one of these things, at least guard your conscience from thinking any evil of your neighbor, or denigrating him, and you will be saved.” Regardless of how effective you are at spiritual disciplines, you are always capable of esteeming others as better than yourself (Philippians 2:3).
The monk must admit how much they do not know in order to learn. Once, Anthony the Great asked about the meaning of a passage of scripture. He began with the youngest in the room and listened to the answers of each individual. When it came to Abba Joseph’s turn, his answer was a simple, “I do not know.” Anthony was impressed with Joseph’s humility and said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’” Sometimes, we are more concerned with sounding profound than learning deeper truth. We offer platitudes instead of real answers. The truth of scripture must lead us to encounter the heart of God, and not placate our need for knowledge or our desire to sound educated.
Lastly, Abba Joseph taught that the monk would eschew public recognition and practice his discipline in simplicity and private. When visited by a group of monks, one of which was a notable desert father, Abba Joseph and his disciples fed the travelers and silently sat with them over the course of a few days. The desert father and his group left disappointed in the manner in which Joseph and his disciples practiced the spiritual life.
Shortly after leaving, this group was beset by the dark of night, and ended up wandering back to the dwelling where Abba Joseph and his disciples lived. They were perplexed when they heard the sound of monks chanting. When the desert father asked Joseph why they had not done this when he was present, Joseph explained: “…when they had visitors they did their spiritual work in secret, out of discretion, so as to avoid vainglory (whereas, when they were alone they were able to do it openly).” More important to them was to protect humility, rather than be seen and create an occasion for pride.
Unity of the Spirit
Abba Joseph taught significantly regarding spiritual friendship. To him, spiritual friendship was the basis for unity, and was established by God. He took passages in scripture like Psalm 133:1 seriously, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” If God established unity, it was our responsibility to uphold it.
He taught that unity was established when, “…there is but one purpose and mind to will and to refuse the same things.” The book of Acts speaks of the people being of “one accord.” To Joseph, the unity of the church was to be preserved by the private practices of the individuals, and would be seen across the church at large. “And if you also wish to keep this unbroken , you must be careful that having first got rid of your faults, you mortify your own desires, and with united zeal and purpose diligently fulfil that in which the prophet specially delights: ‘Behold how good and joyful a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’”
This call was not region specific, but unity was to be pursued regardless of location: “For with God the union of character, not of place, joins brethren together in a common dwelling, nor can unruffled peace ever be maintained where difference of will appears.” We are united not with those we are near, but with those who are pursuing God, regardless of distance.
He spoke of six unifying principles to preserve the bond of unity among spiritual communities:
“The first foundation then, of true friendship consists in contempt for worldly substance and scorn for all things that we possess.” Forsake worldly gain to preserve relationships.
“The second is for each man so to prune his own wishes that he may not imagine himself to be a wise and experienced person, and so prefer his own opinions to those of his neighbour.” Listen to the opinion of another and refuse to be hard and obstinate against foreign ways of thinking.
“The third is for him to recognize that everything, even what he deems useful and necessary , must come after the blessing of love and peace.” Pursue love and make that the primary goal. Everything else begins after love.
“The fourth for him to realize that he should never be angry for any reason good or bad.” Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
“The fifth for him to try to cure any wrath which a brother may have conceived against him however unreasonably, in the same way that he would cure his own, knowing that the vexation of another is equally bad for him, as if he himself were stirred against another, unless he removes it, to the best of his ability, from his brother’s mind.” Deal with conflict when it comes. Humble yourself and be the first to reach out to establish restoration.
“The last is…that he should realize daily that he is to pass away from this world; as the realization of this not only permits no vexation to linger in the heart, but also represses all the motions of lusts and sins of all kinds.” Consider the transitory nature of your life, that helps to put in perspective our own faults, and the faults of others.
The problem, Josephs teaches, is that when we have conflict we conflate spirituality and our offense. We tend to over-spiritualize our problem rather than deal with forgiveness, apologizing, or reconciling. We act as if a spiritual practice is the proper response when the proper response is a practical resolution.
We pretend we are doing something worthwhile by not saying anything, but the whole time we harbor anger, bitterness, or offense in our heart. Or we spend long periods of time in worship and prayer, expecting these things to change either us or the one we are offended with, rather than doing the proper work of relationship and dealing with the problem directly.
We would do good to take the advice of Jesus, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” We attempt to pray thinking that is what we are supposed to do, without realizing we have actually taken the easy way out. Far more effective and necessary is humbling the heart and apologizing for a wrong caused.
Joseph taught that humility was the cure, not fabricated spiritual practices: “…they could have got rid of (the offense) at once if they had been willing to show more care and humility, for a well-timed expression of regret would cure their own feelings and soften their brother’s heart.”
Or sometimes, we think our silence is the cure, when in actuality we harbour deep feelings of resentment. “…by sullen silence or scornful motions and gestures so mock at our angry brothers that by our silent looks we provoke them to anger more than angry reproaches would have excited them…” We pretend that we are not at fault when the present fault lies in our heart and is not healed by our lack of words.
Outside of a humble apology, how else should we conduct ourselves to preserve unity in the face of difficult circumstances? Joseph boiled it down to two simple points: “…first of all when provoked by any wrongs, a monk should keep not only his lips but even the depth of his breast unmoved.” Silence of the heart trumps silence of the lips. Second, Abba Joseph said that the monk “…should not pay any heed to his present state…but should dwell on the grace of past love or look forward in his mind to the renewal and restoration of peace.” Rather than dwelling on the present offense, the individual should dwell on the memory of love and expect the restoration of peace.
Finally, those that are hard and obstinate will not be the individuals committed to history (for reasons other than infamy). Those that are soft and malleable are those who have been commended to us as the spiritual giants of ages past. Abba Joseph was one such man. His life and teachings bore that out.