Voices from the Desert:
New Year's Resolutions from our Monastic Mothers and Fathers
For Sunday January 4, 2009
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Jeremiah 31:7–14 / Sirach 24:1–12
Psalm 147:12–20 / Wisdom of Solomon 10:15–21
Mother Syncletica (4th century).
Last month I called Palo Alto's Friends of the Library to help me purge my bookshelves. They hauled away thirty-two cartons — 1,002 books, if I counted correctly. What was interesting was not the books that I gave away, but the ones I kept. When I looked at the few books that I kept, I noticed that a large percentage of them came from the desert monastics of the fourth century.
About ten years ago I started reading the early monastics who fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. Especially formative for me was the Philokalia, considered by Eastern Orthodox believers to be second in importance only to the Bible. I also enjoyed contemporary overviews of these eccentric saints: Where God Happens (2005) by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and then In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (2003) by John Chryssavgis, Professor of Theology and former Dean at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Like John the Baptist in the gospel for this week, these "voices crying in the wilderness" witness to the central message of Jesus in powerful ways.
Saint Moses of Ethiopia (4th century).
I love the monastics for several reasons. Jesus fled to Egypt as a baby (Matthew 2:12–23), and in Luke's Gospel our first glimpse of him as an adult was when the Holy Spirit drove him into the desert to be tempted by Satan (Luke 4:1). Second, these desert dwellers were practitioners of healing, not abstract theoreticians. They sought personal transformation, not theological information. They believed the wisdom of Diadochos of Photiki (5th century) that "nothing is so destitute as a mind philosophizing about God when it is without him." Third, the desert monastics strike us as anachronistic oddballs today, and certainly no one would accuse them of being well-adjusted to society, either then or now. But we misunderstand them if we construe their bizarre lifestyles as a spirituality of superficial techniques. What they modeled, and what we should emulate, is a transformation of the interior geography of the heart whatever one's exterior circumstances. For them the desert was a specific place, but for us today it can also be a spiritual way. Fourth, I honor the desert mothers and fathers because I want to place myself in the mix of saints who have gone before me. Tradition, said Chesterton, "means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Finally, I love the desert monastics most of all for their profound humanity. These saints modeled what Chryssavgis calls a "spirituality of imperfection" in which one is not ashamed or embarassed to embrace and affirm one's brokenness, wounds, darkness, and inner demons. They comfortably acknowledged intense struggle as a necessary virtue, praying with Sarapion of Thmuis (4th century), "Lord! We entreat you, make us truly alive."
Salvador Dali, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1946),
the father of Christian monasticism.
Here are a dozen nuggets of wisdom that I've gleaned from the "sayings" (Greek, Apophthegmata) of the desert monastics. I'll resist commenting upon them; you can personalize them for your own journey.
1. Never stop starting over: "Abba Poeman said regarding Abba Prin that every day he made a new beginning." "My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start" (Arsenios, 5th century).
2. Live intentionally, not aimlessly: "Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort" (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century).
3. Never, ever despair, no matter what: "Let us eagerly draw near to Christ, and let us not despair of our salvation. For it is a trick of the devil to lead us to despair by reminding us of our past sins" (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). "When someone is defeated after offering stiff resistance, he should not give up in despair. Let him take heart, encouraged by the words. . . . God raises up all who are bowed down (Psalm 145:14). Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times. . . . rise up again each time" (St. John of Karpathos, date unknown).
4. Pray simply, not stupidly: "Often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God, and not leaving it to Him to arrange things as He knows is best for me. But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry that I did not ask for the will of God to be done; because the thing turned out not to be as I had thought" (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century). Abba Macarius said, "It is enough to say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: 'Lord, help!'"
Eight Desert Mothers.
5. Renounce all self-justification: According to John the Dwarf, "We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification."
6. Stop judging others: "The monk, says Moses, must never judge his neighbor at all in any way whatever." "They said of Abba Macarius that just as God protects the world, so Abba Macarius would cover the faults he saw, as though he did not see them, and those he heard, as though he did not hear them."
7. Stay put: Mother Syncletica (4th century), "If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another." "In Scetis a brother went to Moses to ask for advice. He said to him, 'Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'"
8. Celebrate theological modesty: "St. John Chrysostom says that we do not know wholly even what is given in part, but know only a part of a part" (St. Peter of Damaskos, 12th century).
9. Acknowledge my brokenness: "The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone. . . . He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress" (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). "A brother said to Abba Theodore, 'Speak a word to me for I am perishing.' Sorrowfully, the old man said: 'I myself am in danger. So what can I say to you?'"
St. Mary of Egypt (4th century).
10. Be ruthlessly realistic: "Saint Anthony said to Poemen, 'expect trials and temptations until your last breath.'" "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety. . . . Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety" (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century).
11. Always think good of everyone: "Show the greatest gentleness toward all people" (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century).
12. Read the obituaries: "When the death of Arsenius drew near, the brothers saw him weeping and asked, 'Truly, Father, are you afraid?' 'Indeed,' he answered them, 'the fear which is mine this hour has been with me ever since I became a monk.'" "At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life" (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century).
For further reflection:
* I like the two aphorisms that Chryssavgis uses to introduce the overall message of the desert monastics. From W.H. Auden's In Memory of W.B. Yeats, "In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start." Then, from Isaiah 35:8 (LXX), "The road of cleansing goes through that desert. It shall be named the way of holiness."
* See Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and John Cassian's (5th century) Conferences of the Fathers.
Image credits: (1) St. Mary Magdalen Orthodox Church, New York City; (2) The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt; (3) www.fotos.org; (4) www.catherinedoherty.org; and (5) www.iconsexplained.com.