Philemon was a monk in the monastery of Gaza founded by Abba Seridos, relatively well known today because of the two “Old Men,” who I prefer to title “Elder,” bucking the trend of most writings, that is, Barsanuphius and John, as well as Abba Dorotheos. Barsanuphius in particular seems to have been a man with a most remarkable prayer life, and it was in an atmosphere soaked with holiness that Philemon writes. In this volume, we learn quite a lot about Philemon personally, something of his background, his baptism, entrance into the monastery and his communications with his elders. His view of himself is suitably humble, since humility is one of the major themes. The other two themes I would pick out are the love of God as seen in Jesus, and the holy Trinity.
It is a little strange to say that in reading Philemon, we are entering a world that is alien in many ways to the world we live in today, but that his writing is also wonderfully accessible, bang up to date as he meditates the deeds and sayings of Jesus, and as he looks at the way Matthew describes them. There are many things Philemon says that very much alter the way I think; sometimes this is because his meditation puts events into context in unthought of ways, but more commonly because of his love of God which sees things rather more clearly than I am used to!
Unsure quite how to give a flavour of Philemon’s outlook in terms of picking here and there to give an overview, I have decided instead to present his meditation on just one passage, Matthew 10:34–42, in which Philemon gives his understanding of Jesus’ instructions to his newly minted apostles. This was a real eye-opener!
“Whoever loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me.” These words were not spoken to the crowd but only to the disciples (cf. 10:1ff); they are not spoken in the plural form but in the singular, the “whoever” is “that person who,” and are for each disciple to receive into his heart, to examine himself and his love for Jesus.
Jesus spoke these words at a particular moment, not when he called the disciples on the sea shore or from beside the tax collector’s desk, but later, when the disciples had already been with him a good time. He said this when he was sending them out on mission, which supposes that they had already acquired a certain amount of experience (10:1,5). As he sent them, Jesus was confirming that they were indeed his disciples, that he was placing his trust in them and that he loved them; and he was inviting them to see if, for their part, the trust and love were reciprocated. This is important because once they had left, they would find they were on their own without him alongside them, on a difficult mission, exposed to wolves (10:16) and hatred (10:22). In such difficulties, without him, they would be exposed to the Tempter who would weaken them with questions about their love for Jesus. It is the same for each of us: it is easy to love Jesus when he is there, but when he is not, when we don’t feel his presence, it is more difficult because the Evil One sidles up and tells us, “He isn’t there anymore; he has abandoned you; you don’t love him enough; you are unworthy of him . . .” Love for our family then rekindles in our heart and we are tempted to go back to them. Therefore, it’s prior to such a trial that Jesus calls us to consider carefully: “He who loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Before sending us out, Jesus broaches another important topic, one he had never mentioned before and which the disciples had not discussed, not among themselves or with Jesus: each person’s individual cross! In fact, each disciple already carries his or her own cross, though we do so secretly because it is difficult to talk about, even to Jesus. This cross is made up of secret thoughts tied to the love of money, pleasure, glory or some other attraction . . . Each disciple bears, often from well in the past, their own cross, and, according to Jesus, it turns out to be ever present; it has not disappeared. Each disciple was still carrying it, in secret, and no doubt with a certain sense of shame, not daring to confess it. However each one was now to set out with their cross on a mission; and here was Jesus talking about it! What a relief! And what grace!
What grace it indeed is to hear Jesus speak to us about our cross, and for him to speak about it as a present reality and not as a distant memory. He was so right to speak about this before the disciples found themselves on their own, without him, with their cross always on their shoulders; once alone, they would meet that most difficult moment, the moment of truth and temptation when the Evil One draws near and speaks of their cross in a tone of reproach: “What are you doing there with your cross? Are you still carrying it? Hasn’t Jesus set you free from it? Your cross makes you unworthy of him, unworthy to follow him! The others don’t have such a thing and are more worthy than you; they are following him in purity of heart. You are unworthy of Jesus. Go back to your people, who doubtless love you more than he does; go back to those who love you and who you love . . .”
This moment of temptation is wonderfully anticipated by Jesus here. What grace! He talks about our cross before Satan does, and he talks about it quite differently: “You are carrying your cross, I know, and I have chosen you just as you are; I love you as you are, with your cross. Keep going as you are, carrying your cross. Go out on mission, even though you are still carrying it; it doesn’t make you unworthy of me, but it does make you more humble, and that is very important. Your cross will be a great school of humility for you and will always make you more humble; and the humbler you are, the more worthy you are of me, worthy of the mission I am entrusting you with . . . Your cross will also be a great school of prayer for you because you will be opening up to me, always, talking to me about the passions that make it up and which crucify you . . .”
So, it is in the context of being sent on mission that Jesus speaks to us in this way, helping us to truthfully check on our heart, with our cross on our shoulders. What Jesus has not said yet, because the moment to do so had not yet come, the great secret that he will open to us, is that he will help us bear our cross, that he will help out of love for us as no family member ever could. He will help us bear it until the day when he will take the full load, but this is later because the way of humility and prayer is still lengthy; later, because it is with him alongside, beneath our cross, that we will always be discovering more of how he helps us and loves us, and how our love for him is strengthened . . . May he be blessed!