Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This week I’m featuring Part 1 of Abba Nesteros the Great.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the ornaments of heavenly eloquence and the most precious beauty of the Scriptures if by clinging to filthy deeds and thoughts he destroys it by burying it in the foulest ground, or defiles it by the dirty wallowing of his own lusts?”
“But do ye, says He, learn this of Me, ‘for I am meek and lowly of heart.’”
Abba Nesteros the Great lived in the desert mountain of Sketis sometime in the 4th and 5th century, was considered a friend of Abba Anthony, and was widely sought for his advice on the spiritual life. His teachings are recorded in the literature of John Cassian, a man who travelled through Egypt interviewing the notable fathers in the area.
As there are a few monks in the desert tradition named Nesteros, there is some debate as to who he actually was. However, many have found similarity between Nesteros the Great of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Abba Nesteros of Cassian’s writings. The assumption that they are one and the same is not far-fetched.
Nothing much is known about the history of Abba Nesteros, but the temperance of the man can be estimated based upon the stories handed down in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. He was a humble man who guarded his tongue. When asked by Abba Joseph how to weigh words that are spoken, Nesteros responded, “When you speak, do you find peace? If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent and when a conversation takes place, it is better to listen than to speak.”
When asked by a certain brother the extent to which he would go in giving away his possessions to a poor man, Abba Nesteros responded, “I would give him the rest and go and sit down somewhere, until God sent me something to cover myself with, for I would not ask anyone for anything.” To the desert fathers, it was an honor to give all of your possession to those in need. Faith in God engendered trust in the care of God. If out of love we take care of the poor, the expectation of trust is that God would take care of him.
He counseled those that came to him to discover the unique purpose of God for their life. When asked what constituted good work, Nesteros said, “Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elijah loved interior peace and God was with him. So, do whatever you see your soul desires according to God and guard your heart.”
If that was the case, how should one guard the heart? The answer was simple. Begin and end each day by asking God what we have done that is in line with God’s character, and what we have done that is out of line with his character. When you pray, consider God to be present, because he really is there. Do not impose rules upon yourself, or judge anyone. Rather than living by rules, discover the heart of God flowering within your heart and your judgements towards others will cease. Swearing, falsehood, anger, and insults are all alien to the spiritual life according to Abba Nesteros.
On Knowledge and Interpretation of Scripture
In Cassian’s writing, Nesteros teaches that the spiritual life consists of two types of knowledge, practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge. Practical knowledge is “brought about by an improvement of morals and purification from faults.” It is the understanding of right and wrong as dictated by Scripture, and the discovering of our own faults with the intent to find purity before the Lord. Practical knowledge is the entry point to the deeper spiritual life. We cannot begin to know God if we do not know the parameters of the life required by God, and the faults which would hinder our progress towards God.
Theoretical knowledge “consists in the contemplation of things Divine and the knowledge of most sacred thoughts.” At its essence, theoretical knowledge is the knowledge of God through experience and Scripture. It is the contemplation of the Holy.
To Abba Nesteros, one could not progress to the contemplation of God without practicing the principles of the spiritual life as Scripture defines them. He said, “…practical perfection depends on a double system; for its first method is to know the nature of all faults and the manner of their cure. Its second, to discover the order of the virtues and form our mind by their perfection so that it may be obedient to them.” The practice of the spiritual life is two-fold: one is the healing of our internal world, our pain, trauma, wrongdoing, and sin. The second is the practice of the spiritual life: fasting, prayer, silence, solitude, etc…
But the practice of the virtuous life is not to be done out of obligation, but out of passion and commitment. The monk ought to practice virtue, “…as if it (he or she) delighted in its natural good, and throve upon it, and mounted by that steep and narrow way with real pleasure.”
He goes on to teach that the rooting out of fault is twice as difficult as the establishing of virtue. Nesteros quotes Jeremiah 1:10, “See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, To root out and to pull down, To destroy and to throw down, To build and to plant.” Rooting out, pulling down, destroying, and throwing down all have to do with the destruction of what hinders progress towards God. Building and planting are establishing the principles of the spiritual life deep in the heart of the individual. Why is it twice as hard to establish uproot past pain, trauma, and sin? Because four things are prescribed for the removal of a thing (root out, pull down, destroy, and throw down), and only two are prescribed for the establishing of a thing (build and plant).
Of course, not everyone will practice this in the same way: “Some choose the care of the sick, others devote themselves to intercession, which is offered up for the oppressed and afflicted, or give themselves up to teaching, or give alms to the poor, and flourish among men of excellence and renown, by reason of their love and goodness.” The mode of life depends on the call of the person. The application of the two-fold system of practical knowledge will hinge upon the unique journey of the person pursuing God.
Elaborating on Paul’s analogy of believers being one part of a body with many members, Nesteros says, “For no members can claim the offices of other members, because the eyes cannot perform the duties of the hands , nor the nostrils of the ears. And so not all are Apostles, not all prophets, not all doctors, not all have the gifts of healing, not all speak with tongues, not all interpret.” And he goes on to say, “…it is good and profitable for each one to endeavour with all his might and main to attain perfection in the work that has been begun, according to the line which he has chosen as the grace which he has received.” Discover the grace of God in your life and spend all your energy on pursuing that grace.
Once practical knowledge is established, the monk begins to excel in theoretical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is first applied to Scripture and then to the mystery of God. Nesteros, drawing on the wisdom of the early church fathers, separates this knowledge into four parts: historical, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical.
Historical knowledge is the application of literally what happened. It is the literal sense of a thing. In Scripture, it is the plain meaning behind the text.
Tropological knowledge is moral sense of a passage of Scripture. In Scripture, there are passages that are historical, but also have a moral sense to the meaning. Historically, Scripture speaks of two covenants. Tropologically, those two covenants have established moral standards that speak to the formation of the interior life of man.
The allegorical level of knowledge tells us how a thing can represent a deeper mystery. In new covenant language, the new testament believer is understand as the Church of God and the Bride of Christ. The allegorical form of knowledge is the understanding that is given about the mystery of the kingdom through direct comparison.
Lastly, the anagogical layer of knowledge is the hidden mystery of God and the life of the age to come. Where Jerusalem in the New Testament can be understood plainly as the historical city, the pointing to a new covenant (Galatians 4:25-26), the life of the new covenant (Galatians 4:28-29) the representation of the bride of Christ and what we can know about the rule and reign of God and the life of heaven.
What does all this amount to? Simply that there are layers of interpretation when it comes to Scripture, what we can know about God, and the interior makeup of man. As the monk progresses in the spiritual life, there should be an evident increase in understanding of how Scripture points to the deeper reality of God. Classically, these layers of interpretation have been called the literal, allegorical, philosophical, and hidden meaning of the text of Scripture. There should also be a maturity progression from seeing the plain meaning of a text, to spiritual reality the text is speaking of, to seeing the moral sense of the text, and then seeing the deeply hidden meaning of the text.