Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lesser Known Fathers X: Shepherd of Hermas Part II

At some point after the initial visions, the Angel of Repentance explains commandments to Hermas, who, it seems, had begun living a life of genuine repentance after the shocking visits from the Church-woman.

The Commandments

The commandments of the Shepherd of Hermas emphasize a spiritual balance, with God at the forefront and a mind focused on the avoidance of excesses which twist the mind and the soul into the weight of sin.

The first commandment is the First Commandment, to love the Lord God as the only god, He Who "comprehends all things, and is alone incomprehensible," He Who "brought all things out of non-existence into being", a phrase which endures in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.

The second commandment is to avoid speaking or hearing slander. Instead, clothe one's self with simplicity and be generous.

Third, "Love truth, and let nothing but truth proceed from your mouth, that the Spirit that God made to dwell in this flesh, may be found true in the sight of all men." The Angel's third mandate is a psychological version of lex orandi lex credendi. As one prays, one believes; so as one speaks and acts, one thinks. Lying and misdeeds make one "robbers of the Lord" and alienate one not only from the community of believers, but from God Himself. This last point sends Hermas into disconsolate spirits. The Angel strengthens Hermas neither with self-help tips nor with affirmations of his inner good. Instead, the Angel continues teaching, "it behooves you as a servant of God to walk in truth, and no complicity with evil should abide with the Spirit of Truth," as he segues into the fourth commandment.

Fourth, the Angels relays God's demands for absolute purity and fidelity to Him within the bounds of marriage. Hermas' family lost the faith, either through disbelief, fear of persecution, or some other alienation to which the Angel alluded in the Visions. The spirit of fornication pollutes the heart and is death unto God. Hermas asks if a man whose wife is found in adultery is himself guilty of adultery. The Angel replies that so long as the husband lives with her in knowledge of her sin, he himself is an accomplice to her sin. "Let him divorce her," the Angel of Repentance teaches, "and let the husband abide alone: but if after divorcing his wife he shall marry another, he likewise commits adultery." Should the wife repent, the husband is bound under the pain of sin to accept her back into the marital union.

During the fourth commandment Hermas misspeaks in his assumption that the Lord "held me worthy" to receive special revelations about His value of repentance. The Angel disabuses Hermas of this misperception: "to repent is to understand." Repentance, the return to God, is a great understanding of sin and of God which compels the sinner to avoid sin for ever after. For modern readers, we may think of the immediate availability of forgiveness in Confession. Early Christians were not so easily persuaded with regard to forgiveness. Many thought Baptism should be enough to live a flawless life from the immersion in water until death. Forgiveness of sins after Baptism might be impossible. The Angel says that is not so. Remission of sins belongs to Baptism, but repentance and return to God is still possible for the baptized. This repentance is serious and not to be taken lightly. Repeated and abused repentance reflects insincere repentance and a double-mindedness, the stumbling block to God:
"But I say unto you," he said, "if after this great and holy calling any one, being tempted of the devil, shall commit sin, he has only one (opportunity of) repentance. But if he sin off-hand and repent, repentance is unprofitable for such a man; for he shall live with difficulty."
"Be long in suffering and understanding," begins the fifth commandment, "and you shall have mastery over all evil deeds, and shall work righteousness." Suffering purges one from the temptations and proclivities towards sin in the world, freeing one from sin and leaving one in cheer to serve the Lord. The Christian must avoid the "angry temper" of the devil, opting for the "long suffering" of God. Dwelling in both is, again, the troublesome double-mindedness. Suffering insinuates the heart and protects it against the trivialities and superficial concerns of the world for comforts, foods, and vain affairs.

The sixth commandment is a short parable about an angel of righteousness and an angel of wickedness, whose works in men speak for their causes. Hermas is to take their works at face value and, in accordance with the words of the Lord, to judge actions and works in order to understand them. By their fruits you shall know them, indeed.

Fear the Lord, but not the devil. This is the seventh mandate. One should fear and avoid the works of the devil, but for those who dwell in the Lord, there is nothing to fear of the person of the devil.

The eighth command is to show "no restraint" in doing good and severe restraint in luxury, drunkenness, and the works of evil. The unrestrained good's duty is:
"to minister to widows, to visit the orphans and the needy, to ransom the servants of God from their afflictions, to be hospitable (for in hospitality benevolence from time to time has a place), to resist no man, to be tranquil, to show yourself more submissive than all men, to reverence the aged, to practice righteousness, to observe brotherly feeling, to endure injury, to be long-suffering, to bear no grudge, to exhort those who are sick at soul, not to cast away those that have stumbled from the faith, but to convert them and to put courage Into them, to reprove sinners, not to oppress debtors and indigent persons, and whatsoever actions are like these."
"Remove yourself from a doubtful mind," is the ninth of twelve commandments. God does not bear petty grudges as men do, but loves to multiply His blessings upon His servants. Those who waver in their hearts merit little reward in prayer because their prayer is tepid. For "they that are complete in the faith make all their petitions trusting in the Lord, and they receive, because they ask without wavering, nothing doubting; for every doubtful-minded man, if he repent not, shall hardly be saved."

Tenth, put away sorrow, the "sister of double-mindedness." Sorrow is the worst of the passions of the world because it "destroys a man.... and crushes out the Holy Spirit." Sorrow is doubly crippling to the soul because:
"the sad man is always committing sin. In the first place he commits sin, because he grieves the Holy Spirit, which was given to the man being a cheerful spirit; and in the second place, by grieving the Holy Spirit he does lawlessness, in that he doth not intercede with neither confess unto God. For the intercession of a sad man hath never at any time power to ascend to the altar of God."

The eleventh commandment forbids the consultation of false prophets, who answer empty questions according to the emptiness of the enquirers, always mingling his falsehoods with an iota of truth to mask his duplicity and lend credibility to his advice. The Spirit of God speaks for itself and needs no consultation. Of all things other than the Spirit of God, men should be "aloof."

The final mandate concerns wicked desire and good desire. Wicked desire appeals to sex and luxury, yet it flees at the fear of God, which the repentant man inculcates into his heart.

The Angel then tells Hermas that he will depart. Hermas' nerves get the better of him and he pleads with the Angel's commandments. How can anyone really and thoroughly keep these commandments? The Angel's response, again, is very robust: if you do not believe these commands can be kept, then you will not keep them. If you do believe that they can be kept, then you will keep them. The Angel then quiets his consternation and returns to a more gentle approach. God is a God of strength, whereas the devil can only persuade by means of fear. The Lord's Angel of Repentance is with Hermas—and, presumably, with all who repent—that he may
"make you strong in faith. Trust Godthen, you who on account of your sins have despaired of life, and who add to your sins and weigh down your life; for if you return to the Lord with all your heart, and practice righteousness the rest of your days, and serve Him according to His will, He will heal your former sins, and you will have power to hold sway over the works of the devil. But as to the threats of the devilfear them not at all, for he is powerless as the sinews of a dead man."

The message of the commandments is to keep God at the forefront of a temperate mind, by which the faithful servant will abide in the Lord and avoid sin. Those who ignore the commandments of God or deem them impossible to follow weigh themselves down by their sins and make the works of the devil apparent to the faithful. How relevant Hermas remains to us today.

The last installment will be on the parables.

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