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Abba Agathon: A Stone in the Mouth
The more I read the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the more I see my contemporary distortions.
They used to say of Abba Agathonthat he kept a stone in his mouth for three years until he had learnt to keep silence.
Instantly, I recoil at Agathon’s austerity. What could motivate him to go to such lengths to acquire silence? Why practice such an uncomfortable discipline? Is the cost of asceticism worth the value of silence?
What is the value of silence, anyway?
Here’s where Quaker Brent Bill helps me:
“Silence takes us beyond the limits of consciousness and into the heart and mind and will of God ... When we discover the secret of being inwardly at worship while outwardly at work, we find that the soul’s silence brings us to God and God to us.”
Now, my mind is churning and I’m beginning to see the wisdom of Agathon’s practice. Now, I'm beginning to challenge my present-day biases.
What would I do to discover the secret of being inwardly at worship while outwardly at work? What would I do to live more completely in the heart and mind and will of God?
It's a simple practice, really: when you're not eating or drinking, place a stone in your mouth to prevent involuntary speech.
It’s genuinely creative.
It allows you to practice a spiritual discipline without interrupting your standard list of daily activities. These are my favorite kind of practices because they don’t require any additional planning or logistics.
I would have missed all of this if I would’ve immediately dismissed Agathon’s words as antiquated and severe. This is why I’m going to continue reading the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
The more time I spend with them, the more they show me my contemporary biases and distortions. I'm too quick to judge. I give too much attention to my modern preconceptions. Not that I’m abandoning my contemporary filter altogether, but these athletes of God are helping me not live exclusively by it.
Is placing a stone in my mouth all that different from some of my own contemporary ascetic practices?
I’m starting to think it’s not that different at all.
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Abba Agathon was an ancient monk and spiritual leader of the Egyptian Desert Mothers and Fathers, who lived in the 4th century CE. He was renowned for his wisdom, compassion and kindness, and was a major influence on the early Christian monastic movement. He is most famous for his saying “Anytime you are tempted to judge, remember this: nothing is outside the mercy of God.” This quote highlights Agathon's unique approach towards understanding and compassion; a concept that has been influential in spiritual and philosophical discourse throughout the ages.
Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers. United States: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2014.
Bill, J Brent., Bill, J. Brent. Holy Silence. United States: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.