“But come, let us talk no more of this, for you and I both know sharp practice, since you are far the best of all mortal men for counsel and stories, and I among all the divinities am famous for wit and sharpness; and yet you never recognized Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, the one who is always standing beside you and guarding you in every endeavor” (206—The Odyssey, Book 13).
One of the most important and beautiful chapters of Homer’s The Odyssey is Book XIII, which describes the homecoming of the great Trojan War Hero Odysseus after many delays and obstacles. It’s in this chapter that the Goddess Athena—the goddess of wisdom—confesses her loving care for Odysseus. She has been with him always, leading him through dangers to the safety of home. We the readers knew this, of course. We recognized her disguised as the wise old man, the young servant boy, the little girl—but her champion, Odysseus, did not. For all of his devotion to the goddess, he was often too distracted by the cares of the present moment to feel her loving presence. This distraction weakened his trust in her.
Unfortunately, just as in The Odyssey, the people of God (of times past and today) are sometimes so distracted by their own cares they cannot feel the presence of the God who loves them. He who, as Homer put it, “is always standing beside them and guarding them in every endeavor.” We see this dynamic played out in today’s Gospel with the Pharisees. They are men who are dear to God and who love him in return, but who are so distracted by their own knowledge of religious law (and the seeming faults of others) that they cannot see the God before them—literally, the God standing right in front of them. Sadly, the love of Incarnate Wisdom is lost on them.
Fortunately, we have a better example set before us today in St. Anthony of Egypt, one of the founders of religious life. Anthony was the son of a wealthy Christian couple who died, leaving him and his sister a great deal of property. To anyone else, the estate with its 200 acres of rich, fertile land might have been a comfort, but to Anthony, who heard the Gospel “Go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor,” along with “Do not worry about tomorrow,” the comfort of home was a potential danger. Unlike the man Odysseus, Anthony knew the greatest treasures in life were not fortune, fame, or even family, but the love and companionship of God. Accordingly, he sold his family’s estate, provided for his sister’s care, and went out to the desert to be alone with God. Many would follow his example, and so a new form of Christian religious life began.
When we think of the desert fathers (who might be called desert brothers, as many of them, like Anthony and Pachomius the Great, were not ordained), we focus on their asceticism—their rigorous fasting, prayer, poverty, chastity, solitude, and silence. But when you read the advice of desert fathers (and mothers) as collected by St. John Cassian, what they remind us is that these ascetical practices are merely means to an end. Religious life, in whatever form it takes, is first and foremost about companionship with God. Asceticism helps facilitate that companionship by warding off distraction.
It is fitting then, that we sit with the examples placed before us today as a way to discern our own successes and failures as religious. Are we like the man Odysseus and the Pharisees, too distracted to notice the God who loves us? Or are we like St. Anthony and the Disciples, who are willing to go to great lengths, even to the point of giving up the comforts most people live and die for, so that when the God who loves us comes among us, we are ready and wise enough to return his love?
Br. Paul Byrd, OP