Coptic Pope Shenouda III’s book Discipleship is filled with wonderful reflections on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. He begins with the claim that all who wish to follow Jesus, must be his disciple (8), and he defines discipleship in a twofold way: first, it involves not merely learning but developing “a way of life,” and second, “discipleship has certain conditions which should be fulfilled in practical aspects of life” (10). The primary condition is love, for, as Jesus said, the world knows Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another. “If people did not find in the Lord Jesus’s disciples that mutual love, then those disciples had no right to say that they were disciples of Christ! It was an essential sign” (11).
The task of discipleship also involves renouncing the world; “it is a basic principle, then, in discipleship for the Lord, that you leave everything for His sake, or that you are at least ready in you heart to leave everything, without feeling any regrets” (12).
(I asked a friend what he made of this statement, and he said, “[T]he Desert Tradition actually notes that the intent is more significant than the practice. The central issue is the purity of heart, not ‘performance righteousness.’ So I think [Shenouda III] is correct.” Which I found helpful.)
Next, Shenouda moves into a series of chapters about sources of learning, sources of discipleship. He begins with the Desert Tradition’s tendency toward seeking “beneficial words.”
The spiritual person becomes a disciple of the beneficial word. He searches for it from all sources: firstly from the Bible, then from the sayings of the fathers and the teachers who may be depended on, and then from any other source. Even if it should be a word that has come from the mouth of a sinner, it still might be beneficial (14).
He then tells the stories of two saints—Saints Ephram Al-Surriani and Anthony—who received beneficial words from women they met. Ephram Al-Surriani was struck by a woman who stared at him. “It’s natural that I should look at a man, because women, when they were created, were taken from the body of a man. But as for you, you ought to look at the ground, because you were taken from the soil of the earth.” (A wonderful bit of counsel against lust.) Anthony was struck by a woman stripped naked in front of him. She advised that he should move to the “heart of the desert” if he wished to avoid such sights. And the Desert Tradition was born (14–15).
He also tells the story of St. Marcarius, who asked for a word from a young boy; “Discipleship need not be hampered by a person’s age or situation. Blessed are those who live as disciples, ready and willing to learn, throughout their lives” (16). And from this story, “we can deduce that one of the characteristics of discipleship is humility. It begins with a person feeling that he needs to learn, and to ask, and to seek guidance” (17).
Most important is that the learning become engrained in our life through concrete practices. Shenouda says,
By practicing such exercises you will be putting what you have learned constantly before your eyes, and it will warn you whenever you are likely to break your new pattern of thought, or behavior and fall back into old ways (18).
The next chapter focuses on people’s lives and how we can learn from watching people. St. Snba Shishoi, when asked to teach a young pupil, said, “I am neither a leader nor a teacher. But if that young man wishes to learn something, then if there is anything that I can teach him, let him look at how I behave, and how I act, and let him do likewise, without my having to instruct him” (20). Likewise, Shenouda continues,
As another example we have the occasion when Pope Theophilus visited the desert of Shihit. The fathers said to St. Anba Paphnuti: “Say something to help the Pope.” And he replied to them: “If he has not been able to benefit from my silence, then it is unlikely that he will be helped by my words, either.”
So in fact one should be a disciple of silence as much as of beneficial words (21).
He also counsels against trying to be a “carbon copy of one particular person.”
For there isn’t a single human being in whom all the virtues are to be found. Also, what suits one person’s particular character, may not suit yours at all. So just take from everyone those beautiful qualities in him which you admire. And take as much of those qualities as you feel is right for you and in whatever way suits your character, your mentality and situation (22).
Shenouda also notes that we can learn from a person’s flaws, taking steps to not have similar flaws in our own character (24).
The next chapter focuses on learning from death “the lessons of being detached, of the transitoriness of the world and the futility of all desires” (26). Shenouda tells another story from the life of St. Marcarius:
St. Macarius…said to the young man: “Go and praise the dead.” And the young man [went] and said to them: “O righteous ones, 0 faithful saints…” [Returning to Macarius], the saint had asked him: “Did they make any reply to you?”…The young man replied, “No, not at all.” So the saint said to him: “Then go and criticize them,” which the young man duly did. The saint then asked: “And did they make any reply to you this time? Were they upset by your condemnation of them?” To which the young man replied, “No, not at all.” At which point the saint said: “This is how you must be, then, if you wish to be a monk. Be like these dead souls. Do not rejoice at praise, and do not be sad at being disapproved of” (27).
Shenouda spends the next chapter talking about learning from books, saying, “[A] person must choose carefully the books which he reads and from which he learns, and must read them selectively and not embrace unquestioningly all of what he reads.” Additionally, “A person also needs to distinguish between just reading, and actually putting into practice what he is reading about” (31) because “[l]earning from books has two sides to it: knowing it in one’s mind, and living it in one’s life. And in order to integrate what you have read, you have to practise spiritual exercises” (32–33). It is important, says Shenouda, to take spiritual growth step-by-step, not jumping too far down the spiritual path all at once.
The next chapter presents an extended meditation on the things we learn from nature (36–48). Those lessons include
- Order and intricacy
- How to work tirelessly
- Obedience and devotion by freely giving of self
- Cooperation and teamwork
- How to act without care for what others think of us
- Wisdom and how to bear fruit at the right time in the right place
- Strength and resistance
- How to acclimate to one’s environment
- How all things work together for good
- Humility and acceptance
- How God provides care
My favorite story from this chapter concerns the notion of humility:
A person might look at manure as something offensive because of its rotten smell and unattractive appearance, yet the manure itself is quite content to be as it is, and God who created it is quite able to change it. For it might become part of the food which a tree absorbs to be carried along to feed its buds and then turn into fruits, which a person eats and which then goes to build up that person’s body and become part of its tissues.
I wonder if people would be more humble if they were to realize that some of their tissues had, once upon a time, been manure in the earth?! (47–48).
The next chapter continues along the same line, focusing on things we learn from animals (50–53). These lessons include
- Simplicity and innocence
- Frugality and how to be satisfied with what we have
- How to sing joyfully
- How to work hard
- How to organize
My favorite story from this chapter focuses on the notions of frugality and being satisfied with what we have.
I was sitting before my cell in the monastery garden once, and there were a few seeds on the ground which might have been dropped by one of the farm workers. A sparrow came to feed on the seeds, and I imagined that it would eat until it had had its fill from this source of provision. But it took one or two seeds and flew off, leaving all this goodness behind without minding or regretting it (50).
Next, Shenouda shifts his focus to what we can learn through worship. He says that everything done in church can benefit the contemplative person. “In all of this, without their being aware of it, the belief in eternity becomes firmly established in them. (55)”
Next, he spends a chapter discussing things we learn from events. Shenouda says, “Every event that takes place bears deep within it a useful lesson for anyone who wishes to profit from experiences in life, and who desires to be a disciple.” He also says that we can learn from the movements of God in our life; “We can learn lessons from God’s care and concern, from God’s justice, and from His patience and long-sufferings” (58).
The next chapter discusses having a spiritual director, saying again not to try to copy everything they do but to learn from them and integrate their actions that uplift one’s own character (64). He also reaffirms that spiritual growth comes through step-by-step actions.
So it is not good for a person to jump rapidly along the spiritual road, and try to cover it too soon, but rather he should take it calmly and deliberately, in a balanced way, and he must take it one step at a time, until his footsteps are firm and steady, remembering the apostle’s advice: “…Not to think [of oneself] more highly than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). Nor must he go rushing to the next particular step, until he has mastered the one before. And he should not try to put pressure on his guide or spiritual father to allow him to go too quickly (66–67).
Pope Shenouda ends his book by saying that a person must be humble in order to be a disciple. “Dear brothers and sisters, the spiritual life calls for a humble heart, and in being a disciple there is humbleness” (71). And again, “Dear friends, be humble and be disciples. And remember your guides who have spoken the word of God to you” (72).