The Zen Masters of Christianity

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”  Luke 6:37

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  Luke 6:36

“Judge each person with the scales weighted in their favor.”  Mishnah Avot 1:6


On my visits to the homes of other faiths, I have been captivated by the stories of the rabbis and the Zen masters.  Like Jesus’ parables (my favorite part of the Bible), their stories are short, down-to-earth, and turn our thinking upside down and inside out.  Imagine my delight when I bumped into the Christian version of the Zen masters – the Desert Fathers.

While elsewhere in the Roman Empire – where the Church Fathers were sorting out and locking down the creeds, doctrines, and authorized scripture of the faith – the Desert Fathers (and Mothers too!) were taking a more direct route to the Eternal.  They left the world behind and went to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to live a life stripped down to its essentials.  The desert – a hard, austere place where they could not hide from themselves, a place where they could stand alone and vulnerable in the presence of God.  A place where they could take up in earnest the task of soul-making.

Out of their experiences came stories of their hard-won insight.  Here are three of them.

There was a monk who kept a woman in his cell so indiscreetly that word began to get around.  Some of the monks living nearby decided to do something about it.  Knowing that Abba Ammonas was in the region, they asked him to go with them.  The offending monk, seeing them coming, hid the woman in a large water jar. This was spotted by the Abba when they approached the monk’s cell.  The Abba walked in, sat on the jar, and commanded the cell to be searched.  When the monks had searched everywhere without finding the woman, the Abba said, “What is this?  May God forgive you!”  After praying, he made everyone go out.  After they had gone the Abba got up, took the monk by the hand, and said: “Brother, be on your guard.  Pay attention to yourself.”

By sitting on the water jar, the Abba filled two needs with one deed.  He must have seen the blood in his brothers’ eyes and a mob mentality brewing.  Sitting on the water jar short-circuited the brothers’ desire to be judge, jury, and executioner, and prevented them from violating what I call Jesus’ second commandment, “Do not judge.”  It also gave the Abba the opportunity to chastise the wayward monk in private and give him the mercy of a second chance.

The next story is about St. Moses the Ethiopian.  Moses was the leader of a notorious band of robbers known for their violence.  At some point (there are various accounts) he turned away from his evil ways and sought refuge with monks at Scetis in the desert south of Alexandria.  Aware of his reputation, the monks looked past his sins – and there were many – and accepted him in.  In this story, Moses pays their forgiveness forward to one of his brothers.

A brother at Scetis committed a fault.  A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to attend. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, “Come, everyone is waiting for you.”  So, he got up and went.  He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him.  The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, Father?”  He replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.”  When they heard that, they said no more to the brother and forgave him.

The last story is also about St. Moses:

Moses was zealous in all he did, but became discouraged when he thought he wasn’t perfect enough. The abbot Isadore saw his struggles, so early one morning he took Moses to the roof.  As dawn broke, Isadore said to Moses, “Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day, and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative.”

Sometimes it’s good to remember that Jesus’ command of not judging also applies to judging ourselves.  All of us are works-in-progress, flawed, with rough edges that need to be smoothed.  Change comes slowly like the dawn.  Be patient with others and yourself.  When intervention is needed, never strike at the heart.  Tough love is best served sweetened with dignity, mercy, and the encouragement that comes with the new day.


Prayer: Eternal God, silence my judgment voice and help me see the struggles – my own and those around me – so I can understand and do what I can to transform struggle into growth. Amen

Joe Bulko