Br. Guerric, I understand that you like to read stories about the desert fathers. Well, on this day of your clothing as a novice, I thought we could look at a story that describes the clothing of one of St. Anthony’s disciples, namely, Paul the Simple. Paul’s story is recounted in a number of sources, but the one I like best is from the Lausiac History by Palladius.
As Palladius tells it, Paul was a “rustic herdsman, simple and entirely without guile, who was married to a most beautiful woman…” who, unfortunately, had a hidden weakness of character. Paul came home unexpectedly one day and found her with another man. He realized that God’s Providence had revealed this to him, and so he said “Ok,” and left the two to themselves, saying, “…I am going off to be a monk.” Maybe a first lesson to take from Paul is his attentiveness to divine Providence. He watched for the signs that God slips into our lives and tried to discern what was best and in accord with God’s will.
From there he traveled to the inner desert where Blessed Anthony lived. He knocked at the door, and when Anthony came out, he asked him, “What do you want?” Paul replied that he wanted to become a monk. Anthony proceeded to tell him bluntly that he was too old and to go back to his village and live as a simple Christian with thanksgiving. Then he went back into his cell and left Paul outside. Three days later Anthony had to go out again, and there was Paul. Anthony told him again that he was too old and couldn’t take the severity of the life. Paul replied that he would do whatever Anthony told him. Anthony responded that if he wanted to be a monk, he should go and find a community of brothers who would support him and put up with his weaknesses. Then he went back into his cell.
Br. Guerric, you and Paul have similarities and dissimilarities. You just responded to the question, “What do you seek?” with the words, “The mercy of God and the Order.” Paul the Simple was seeking the mercy of God with St. Anthony as his teacher. The mercy of God is what you are seeking, but you also added: “…and of the Order.” You are seeking the mercy of an Order, and in particular of a community of brothers in that Order who will support you and bear with your weaknesses, and who expect the same from you. You are saying that you want to share a specific way of life, approved by the Church and recognized by her as a gift from God, a way of sanctification and healing for both the Church and each member of the Order. To be even more precise, you are asking to join an Order of men and women – actually, 1,661 monks and 1,521 nuns, a total of 3,182 men and women out of a total of 7.8 billion people on this earth…a very, very tiny flock – but one dedicated and blessed to receive the mercy of God in a concrete way of life based on the gospel, distilled from the monastic tradition, and handed down to us by our Fathers and Mothers.
Like Paul, you are also ready to do whatever your Abbot, Novice Master, and fellow monks ask of you in accord with the Rule and the Constitutions of our Order. In other words, you are ready to follow Christ and to learn obedience from what you suffer. But notice how Paul proved his willingness to do whatever Anthony told him. He waited outside for three days in the heat of the desert. Anthony was not giving Paul an easy entrance, as St. Benedict would say. He was testing the spirits to see whether they come from God. And Paul was learning about all the hardships and difficulties that would lead him to God. So, it is with you. Your postulancy has been a time for the community (and you) to discern: does Br. Guerric truly seek God, and is he zealous for the work of God, for obedience, and for the humble and even menial tasks that can seem below one’s dignity? Your novice master and your brothers have discerned that the answer is yes, and so they invite you to enter more deeply into the monastic life.
After four days, Anthony was afraid that Paul would die outside his cell, so he finally allowed him to come inside, but he continued to test his resolve. Paul had not had any food for four days, but when Anthony brought out some loaves of bread – dry loaves which had to be soaked in order to make them edible – Anthony noticed that Paul did not grab at them to devour them: he waited for Anthony to pray and bless them. He ate what was put before him. And when Anthony invited him to take more, Paul replied that he preferred to follow Anthony’s example and only eat as much as Anthony. Anthony replied that he would not eat more, because he was a monk. Paul said, “I want to be a monk, too.” This reminds us of St. Benedict’s degrees of humility in which he urges us to do only what we see the elders doing and what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery. When Anthony gave Paul some palm leaves to weave, he made a mess of them. When Anthony corrected him, Paul patiently unwove the leaves and began over – without grumbling or murmuring. We can hear St. Benedict’s refrain: “Above all else, we admonish them to refrain from grumbling.” Palladius goes on to report that when Anthony had been fully satisfied after the specified months – even the desert fathers had novitiates! – he gave Paul a sheepskin cloak and built a cell for him at a distance, telling him, “Behold, you have become a monk! Stay here by yourself in order that you may be tempted by demons.” Br. Guerric, you have begun your journey as a monk. We exhort you to stay here with the community so that you may join us in battling with the demons who rule the world.
There is one last scene from the life of Paul that I would like to relate. Some people brought to St. Anthony a person possessed by the Prince of Demons, and asked him to cast the demon out. In his humility, Anthony said that he had not been deemed worthy of such power, and said, “This is a job for Paul.” He led the possessed man to Paul and told him to cast out the demon. Paul replied, “What about you?” Anthony answered that he was too busy and had other things to do. So, Paul rose up, said a prayer, and told the demon, “Father Anthony has said that you must leave this man.” The demon cursed him, calling him a lazy old man, and refused to leave. Paul took off his sheepskin cloak, rolled it up, and smacked the man on the back, “Father Anthony has told you to go.” But the demon cursed both Paul and Anthony and poured more abuse on them. Finally, Paul threatened the demon that “…if you do not leave, I will go tell Christ and woe to you what He will do.” The demon cursed all three of them and absolutely refused to leave. Paul was infuriated, so he went out into the desert at high noon – a time when the Egyptian desert is not unlike the Babylonian furnace – and said, “You see, Jesus Christ, you who were crucified under Pontius Pilate, that I will not come down from the rock of the mountain, or eat, or drink…unless you cast out the spirit from this man and free him.” The demon came shrieking out, crying out, “O the violence…the simplicity of Paul drives me out…” Paul’s humility won the day. His simplicity drove out the demon. May the Lord help you win the crown of true humility and the grace of blessed simplicity.