“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3
In one of the meditations from her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story about one of the Desert Fathers, from among the legendary third century monks who escaped into the wilderness to live simple solitary lives, whose tiny cell was once invaded by robbers who announced they had come to steal the few possessions he had. “My sons,” responded the gentle monk, “take all you want.” After they had stuffed everything they could find in their bags, they started off. But when the monk saw that they had left a little bundle hidden from view, he picked it up and chased after them. “My sons, take this, you forgot it in the cell!” he shouted.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I were inclined to chase after thieves who had broken into my home and absconded with my stuff it would be to get it back and maybe teach them a lesson or two, not to hand over more. You see, I’m pretty attached to my possessions, which I had after all worked hard to acquire, and not just the expensive treasures either, but ordinary household items as well. (I’m still hoarding toilet paper from the pandemic induced scarcity that occurred eighteen months ago.) These things belong to me not some thief who did nothing to earn them like I did, right?
The Desert Father apparently didn’t see it that way. Instead, he was simply following the teaching of Jesus that if someone wants to take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well, as in “here, you forgot something when you were stealing me blind, take this too.” Makes no sense, does it? Except, the conclusion of the story is that the thieves were so amazed by the monk’s humility that they brought everything back and returned it.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Based on that, all I can figure is the monk must have believed the thieves needed his possessions more than he did – unlike me who guards his treasures (and still hoards toilet paper). Barbara Brown Taylor added another tidbit I had not considered, one that is common among all the great wisdom traditions, “that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.” The Desert Father obviously did not suffer that impediment.