22 November 2011

Detachment: Letting Go

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (11)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

An acquaintance of mine is going through all the things her deceased parents left behind in their house. It's been a trying time for her, deciding what to keep and what not to keep, of the things not to keep whether to throw them away or give them away (and to whom), of the things to keep, where to put them. My wife and I have determined to do our best not to keep everything, every photo, every souvenir, every knick-knack, memento, every birthday, Chistmas, or other card. Our possessions can weigh us down. They can be oppressive for our heirs. A certain amount of detachment would be quite liberating.

For the desert monks, detachment was the first step in their new life. Matthew 10.21 was a key text for them: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come; follow me." In response to this the monks left behind their goods. Of course, most of them didn't have much to leave behind to begin with. But even so, whatever they had, as is the case with most of us, meant a lot to them, especially any of those things which had more in the way of sentimental than monetary value. Even the poor can become attached to their possessions, making detachment a struggle even for them.

Whether we are rich or poor, we can still be too attached to our possessions. It may be the case that the more one has the more one has to lose. But anyone who has something has something to lose. And any loss can be uncomfortable, even painful--so painful we might wish we'd never had anything in the first place.

But even in the desert there is no less of a need for detachment. It was still possible to accumulate goods even in the confines of one's cell, a sufficient number of goods to yield a pleasant life even in the desert. The desert fathers were quite aware of this. So even those little things one might collect in his cell had to be surrendered. If I had become a monk as I once thought to do, and assuming I'd been allowed to keep writing materials in my cell, I might have come to a point of being so attached to them that my abbot would have made me give them up. That's a painful thought.

To the desert monks the more of God one wishes to possess the fewer of this world's goods one should possess. We might better put it this way: The more we desire to be possessed by God, the less we should be possessed by our goods. The issue is not our ownership of goods, as much as it is our attitude to the goods, specifically, how attached we are to them. It is possible (however unlikely we may think) to own many goods, to be very wealthy, and at the same time totally detached from those goods, thoroughly unimpressed with the extent of our property.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, it is recorded that Abba Euprepius was held up, he helped the robbers carry things out of his own cell. After the robbers left, he noticed that they had left something behind, so he sent someone after them to return it to them. The Sayings contain several similar stories the point of which is that we can own things without those things owning us. We can easily let them go, even if under coercion.

Perhaps a greater lesson, on the subject of detachment, concerns our reputations. In the battle against the passions, we need also a certain detachment from care about what others think of us. Fear of what others may think of us can lead us into sins no less than our love of our possessions can lead us to sin in order to acquire more of them. The sad fact is, that too often we really care more what other people think of us than we do what God thinks of us. On one hand it's easy to understand: God is more forgiving than humans. As David observed, it's better to fall into the hand of God than into the hands of men. But God would have it the other way round, being more concerned with his opinion than with that of other humans.

Another story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers illustrates what this sort of detachment looks like, and requires:

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian and said to him, 'Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.' So the old man said, 'Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.' The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, 'Didn't they say anything to you?' He replied, 'No.' The old man said, 'Go back tomorrow and praise them.' So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, 'Apostles, saints and righteous men.' He returned to the old man and said to him, 'I have complimented them’. And the old man said to him, 'Did they not answer you?' The brother said, 'No.' The old man said to him, 'You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak? So you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.' The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Macarius of Egypt, No. 23.

The point is clear enough. Those who have taken up their cross to follow Jesus, who have died to themselves, just really shouldn't care what others think of them. We do too many things to win praise and avoid scorn. The desire to possess a certain reputation, like the desire to possess goods, is something from which we need detachment.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

Part 6, The Goal of the Monastic Life

Part 7, The Walk

Part 8, What's Hindering Us? Understanding the Passions

Part 9, Spiritual Warfare: Battling the Passions

Part 10, Spiritual Warfare: Three Tactical Errors
12 October 2011

Spiritual Warfare: Three Tactical Errors

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (10)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In the battle against the passions (i.e., spiritual warfare) there are three tactical errors we can make, three approaches to Christian living that should tell us we have gone wrong. A knowledge of these wrong ways will keep us from injuring ourselves.

The first tactical error involves the body and the belief that a purely mental approach to the spiritual life can and will bring the growth we seek. we need to bring the body into our spiritual life. The fact is, we really have no spiritual duties which do not require us to employ our bodies. Even if a purely mental approach to spiritual living were acceptable, that approach would still involve the use of our brains, a physical organ.

Nevertheless some of the desert monks went wrong by deciding that the body is evil. Many of the monks who believed this were Syrians and were influenced by Manichaeism (e.g., Augustine). The Manicheans, like many Greek philosophers, thought of the soul as being a prisoner in the body, needing to be set free. Monks of this persuasion engaged in all sorts of activities intended to deny the body's urges: living in trees, eating grass, binding themselves hand and foot, preaching that marriage is evil and the sexual intercourse (even with one's spouse) was sinful. These monks counseled Christians not to accept communion from married priests because, being married, he engaged in sexual intercourse.

This teaching, thankfully, was condemned at the Council of Gangra, in the fourth century. Naturally, that hasn't stopped anyone continuing to teach these things. Nevertheless, they commit a tactical error in their warfare against the passions, going about achieving growth in the wrong way.

The fact is, the body, while capable of being employed in the commission of evil, is not itself evil. And Christian theology does not know a soul trapped in a body. In Christian theology, the human is a conditional unity of material (the body) and immaterial (the soul, or spirit), both given by God.

Now, we may not engage in the same body-denying practices as those monks influenced by Manichaeism. But we may nonetheless think we can control our bodies' sinful impulses by various other means, such as, for example, the well-known practice of self-flagellation, performed by some Roman Catholic monks. We might attempt fasting to the extent of starvation, as if starving ourselves is a successful means of doing away with gluttony, pride, or lust.

The fact is, while all our spiritual duties may involve the body, when it comes to sin, sin starts, not with the body, but in the human heart. It is the heart of man that is desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17.9), not the body of man. So our efforts in resisting the passions are not to be against the body, as if that is the problem (i.e., that which hinders our growth in love for God and others), but for the body. Since we have no spiritual duties which do not employ the body, we want our bodies to conform to godliness. Abusing our bodies, regardless our intentions, will not move us so much as a millimeter in the direction of holiness.

The second tactical error is the practice of any rule for the rule's sake. We cannot practice disciplines as if the disciplines are ends in themselves. Fasting is good spiritual discipline, but undertaken for its own sake, it's just refraining from eating, and nothing more.

There were those desert monks who thought they would be saved by practicing the Church's rules. And while Protestants don't necessarily believe they can be saved by their rule-keeping (though some do seem to come very close), they do often live as if they can lose salvation by failure at rule-keeping. Then there are those who would say that while justification is by faith, sanctification is by obedience; that is, sanctification is God's reward for obedience. But since sanctification, like justification and glorification, is part of our salvation, the implication of this approach is that salvation is at least somewhat the result of works. Don't get me wrong, like all Reformed theologians I too believe that obedience and good works are essential to salvation, but not as cause is to effect. They are essential, according to the, Confession in that they are "the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life" (emphasis mine).

In the denomination to which I belong, the rules we live by are the Ten Commandments as explicated in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. One perennial debate concerns what it means to keep the Christian Sabbath. Of the Sabbath, the Confession, Chapter XXI, section 8, says:
[The] Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Is eating out in restaurants after Church consistent with keeping the Sabbath "holy unto the Lord"? This is very contentious. On one hand are "strict sabbatarians" who would say that the Confession does not say the Sabbath is "kept holy unto the Lord" and leave it undefined. Keeping the Sabbath "holy unto the Lord", according to this section, is defined as being "taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy." In what way, they ask, is visiting a restaurant consistent with that? Is it a public or private exercise of worship? A duty of necessity? Mercy?

On the other hand are those who say that the strict sabbatarians need to be freed from their legalistic ways. Eating out is really something akin to "plundering the Egyptians" (see Exodus 12.36). (I would point out that, while eating at a restaurant on the Sabbath may not violate the Sabbath, when the Israelites plundered the Egyptians, they didn't pay the Egyptians for the goods they received. The Egyptians today aren't giving their goods away.)

Some are just about rule-keeping even if it means being a jerk. I try to imagine how Jesus would respond to an invitation to eat at a restaurant on Sunday. Some people think they know he would because he ate with publicans and sinners. But this begs the question. If true observance of the Sabbath means not eating at restaurants, then Jesus wouldn't accept an invitation to dine out, just because he ate with publicans and sinners any more than he'd hire a prostitute just because he ate with publicans and sinners.

Whatever we do on the Sabbath, much depends upon how we go about it. What is our attitude about it? What is our motivation? Is the most important thing that there is (arguably) a rule which is just to be followed? Or is something about our practice motivated by the desire to grow in love for God and others? As I observe arguments back and forth between the two camps, I notice a great deal of vitriol; and I don't know which side is worse, or correct.

Whichever side is correct, being correct, rather than growing in love for God and others, seems to be sole motivation, even if it means destroying opponents in the process of arguing the case. And the bottom line is this: if our sabbath-keeping doesn't somehow increase our love for God and others, there isn't much to argue about either way.

Fortunately, one's position on the Sabbath is not grounds for excommunication. I do, however, have some scruples about eating out and shopping on Sundays. I acquired these scruples listening to an interview with D. James Kennedy. He was asked about his own Sabbath observance and answered that it was not his practice to do any eating out or shopping on Sunday. In explicating his position, he told a story of being in a restaurant with his wife. During the course of their meal, Dr. Kennedy struck up a conversation with one of the employees. At a certain point, Dr. Kennedy asked the gentlemen he was talking to about his church attendance and the man said he didn't attend church. Curious, but not argumentative, Dr. Kennedy asked why. The man replied, "Because of people like you." The man's point was that, apart from a large demand, he wouldn't have needed to work on Sunday. In other words, "Don't pretend to care about where I am on Sunday morning when your presence in the afternoon for lunch requires my presence in the morning to being preparing for your lunch." This may be something to consider when thinking about our Sabbath observance as something which should increase our love for God and for others.

The desert monks thought love mattered much more than when and where food was eaten. The story is told of two old monks, nearing the time of their departures and wanting to visit with each other a last time.
One day, Saint Epiphanius sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, "Come let us see one another before we depart from the body." When he came they rejoiced in each other's company. During their meal they were brought a fowl. Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion. The old man said to him, "Forgive me. But since I received the habit and became a monk, I have not eaten meat that has been killed." Then the bishop answered, "Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me. And I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone." The old man replied, "Forgive me. Your way of life is better than mine." ~ From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, "Epiphanius No. 4."

The point is obvious. Abba Hilarion made a big deal out of food. He said he couldn't eat meat because he vowed never to eat meat when he became a monk. For Epiphanius, forgiveness was more important. Members of various schools of thought give the appearance of being more concerned with having the higher ground in their arguments, than with the practice of Christian charity. Our sabbath-keeping cannot become an end in itself.

The third tactical error is probably the most dangerous. It is the belief that, since good works do not make one righteous, we need not bother about them. In the history of the Church the relation between faith and works has been highly contentious, particular in the West, where it resulted in the “Great Western Schism” (i.e., the Reformation). Historically, however, the contention has usually involved the assertion that works do, in fact, make us righteous.

The desert monks were not immune to this, and had their own skirmishes, most notably in the fourth century. The chief defender of the orthodox position was St. Mark the Ascetic. In his book, On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works, he says that no one can be made righteous before God by doing good works. It was precisely because some of the monks had made this error in their battle against the passions that he wrote. The people who moved him to write, believed that they could merit God's favor, even their salvation, by praying, fasting, attending worship, engaging in vigils, and so forth--things we should be doing. Those who make this error have made the mistake of believing God owes them something in return for their labors. They believe that when they leave this world, God is going to weigh up their good deeds on a scale against their bad deeds. If the good outweigh the bad, then he owes them.

Here is what St. Mark (Text 22) had to say about this error:
When scripture says he will reward every man according to his works, do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in himself. And God is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our creator and redeemer.

Our good works are essential to our salvation, but they don't save us; they are expressions of our faith in Jesus Christ. Works are meaningless without faith. Words worthy of any Calvinist writing on the subject.

In general, Reformed Christians don't have much difficulty believing that works won't make us righteous. If anything, we're so successfully convinced of this that it's difficult to get us very far at all in scrupulous obedience to the moral law. After all, if works won't make me righteous, the lack thereof won't make me unrighteous. One could easily believe that Reformed Christians believe that since works of obedience don't make us righteous, then disobedience won't make us unrighteous. Consequently, it's easy for one who asserts the necessity of obedience to be labeled a legalist. And the issue isn't so much gross, and obvious, disobedience, but of subtle acts of disobedience.

For example, the Larger Catechism asserts (Question 138) that among the duties required by the 7th Commandment is the preservation of chastity in ourselves and others and that (Question 139) among the sins forbidden by the 7th Commandment are "lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others."

Interesting things begin to happen if and when one attempts to talk to Reformed people about the clothes they wear (or don't wear), the songs they not only listen to but enjoy, the movies they watch and encourage each other to see. Many Christians who object to pornography, don't object to the near- or virtual pornography they watch. We are supposed to be promoting our own chastity and the chastity of others. Is one with a "crush", or worse, on an actor or actress really doing that? If one cheerfully sings, "Save a horse, ride a cowboy instead" is one really promoting chastity?

It would be beyond my scope to pursue this further. I need only say that, while the Reformed may have little to fear when it comes to thinking works can make them righteous, their spiritual state is hardly better, for that reason alone, than the state of those who do.

The fact is, according to the Confession, Chapter XIX , in the battle against the flesh, obedience, while not justifying, is indispensable:

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them...in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to shew what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, shew them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man's doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and not under grace.

The kingdom of God is a gift of God's grace. So while, we cannot count on acts of obedience to earn our way to heaven, when done in faith, we can count on deriving great spiritual benefits from them.

So, there are three tactical errors in the battle against the passions: (1) believing that the body is evil; (2) confusing the means of battle with the ends, living by strict observance of rule and disciplines; (3) misunderstanding the relation of obedience to salvation.
16 August 2011

Spiritual Warfare: Battling the Passions

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (9)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

Last time, I provided a brief resumé of the passions, with a view to discussing the battle against them. Now I want to discuss entering the arena of spiritual warfare. As I said last time, most people in evangelicalism, or at least the most visible stream, are inclined to think of spiritual warfare as taking on the devil, and his minions, personally. In point of fact, however, for the longest time, and certainly for the desert fathers, spiritual warfare meant taking on one's self, taking on one's passions.

Battling the passions is a matter of fundamentals. In terms of what we must do, it's very simple. But in terms of the strength required even to do the simple, it's quite difficult. But it is still about basics.

When I played basketball, the bulk of our practice consisted in dribbling the ball up and down the court, running back and forth, stopping and turning, passing, lay-ups. No fancy stuff. One of our drills was to practice dribbling the ball up and down the court, passing, and doing layups with our non-dominant hand.

As a musician, most of my practice sessions consisted of playing scales and arpeggios, over and over and over again.

Most of our success at the difficult depends very much on mastery and maintenance of basics.

A focus on the basics is, likewise, essential if we are serious about the spiritual life. Without hard work, we simply cannot get very far in our relationship with God and others. This is the hard work of holiness, or sanctification, in which, according to, the Confession of Faith, Chapter 13 the "several lusts...are more and more weakened and mortified." Contrary to those who think they are resisting "legalism", God calls us out of our comfort zone of casual obedience to his explicit commandments and into the work of radical obedience to all those other duties which are implicit in those commandments.

The term employed by the monks in referring to this work is asceticism, which comes from a Greek word meaning "to train." The ascetic life is a life of training for warfare. The monks believed it was impossible to get closer to God without some form of asceticism; one cannot grow in grace without it because even in our sanctification the flesh struggles against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. The Confession (chapter 13, again) refers to this mutual struggle as "a continual and irreconcilable war...in which...although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." The ascetic life is all about preparing and keeping fit for this war. The ascetic life is all about death to self.

And this is where we as Reformed people have to agree with the monks about the relation between asceticism and a closer walk with God. "If any man," says the Lord Jesus Christ, "would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16.24). St. Paul "beat" his body, making it his servant (I Corinthians 9.27). The ascetic life is all about death--death to self. This is an important fact; if we don't understand it, then we won't understand much about desert theology. If we don't understand asceticism as death to self, as beating one's body to make it one's servant, then we won't understand, for example, what St. Anthony was doing up on top of a pole. It looks like nonsense, but it isn't. It is an extreme denial of creature comforts. It is a radical demonstration of death to self, radical because the problems which concerned them were radical.

Many of the ascetics earned the title "Soldier for Christ". This isn't too difficult to explain: soldiers must die to their comforts. "Soldiers for Christ" train and discipline themselves in order to reach a goal, specifically, love for God and others. When (with "the continual supply of strength" from Christ) we fight against our sins -- fasting, praying, meditating, engaging in works of mercy and so forth -- these practices clear the ground in our souls so that God's grace can take root and grow. These spiritual practices clear away the stone and rubble in the soil of our hearts so that God's grace can water them and we can grow closer to him. This is the goal of asceticism: to clear the ground so we can grow in grace and in knowledge of the Lord (see 2 Peter 3.18).

The question arises, is there a right way and a wrong way to engage in these spiritual practices? The simple answer is that there is indeed a right way and a wrong way to engage in these practices which have been handed down to us. I'll treat the wrong way in my next post.

The right way involves acknowledgment of two very important truths regarding our attitude toward discomfort and our understanding of Christian perfection. The first thing we must do is to make friends with discomfort. In fact, we should actively seek it out; if we don't we'll really be running from it. All the important things we do, even getting a university degree, involve discomfort. For that matter, holding a job isn't exactly a day at an amusement park. But if we are serious about growing in love for God and others, then the discomfort we experience in acquiring education or holding jobs, is nothing compared to that in acquiring greater love for God and others. Many people have acquired Ph.D. degrees and hold lucrative jobs, despite the discomfort involved in both; and they also have little love for anyone but themselves.

Instead of running from the disciplines of praying, fasting or meditating (dismissing them as Romish and legalistic), we should embrace them. It is not as easy to cultivate devotion to prayer as it may seem. Fasting and meditating don't come much easier. The fact is, there is no way to grow without discomfort. We could not have become adults without going through the difficult, uncomfortable adolescent years. We should, therefore, learn to expect discomfort, even physical discomfort, in spiritual growth. Asceticism teaches us not only to expect it, but how to handle it when it comes. And it will come, especially if, motivated by a desire to grow, we seek it out.

The monks were not unaware of the difficulties associated with spiritual growth. They spoke or wrote often of the struggles that life with God demands. Life in the desert is a continual combat requiring constant effort. Mother Syncletica said: "Those who go to God have many struggles and hardships, but afterward the joy is unspeakable. Just as those who wish to light a fire are first bothered by the smoke and have to cry, but in this way reach their desired goal...so we too must kindle the divine fire in us with tears and troubles."

Clearly, the monks believed that with hard work, empowered by God's grace (it is, after all, by grace that we are saved) human nature can be changed. Let me emphasize: only by the working of God's grace can human nature be changed. God must change us; we cannot change ourselves, only some of our behaviors, which isn't good enough. For those of us who need great changes, that it good news indeed.

The second thing to take note of in discussing spiritual practices is the precise nature of Christian perfection. Jesus said, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5.48). This isn't to say, as we now understand the word perfect, that the Lord demands that we be flawless. We should not look forward to a time, in this life, when we have achieved such spiritual growth that we have no room for more. That is how the Greek philosophers understood perfection, and is the sort of perfection Plato thought worthy and possible. Perfection, for the Greeks, implied the absence of any need or room for growth, a state of flawlessness. But if we were seriously to pursue this sort of perfection, we'd end up as Pharisees. This understanding of perfection will lead to obsession with rules.

St. Gregory of Nissa understood Christian perfection as dynamic, not static. To live in the temporal--to be human--is to experience change and to be changed. Just getting old will put us through changes; and we must grow and mature spiritually as these changes take place. Spiritually, we are always in motion, moving towards God or, possibly, away from God.

Therefore when we talk about the disciplines; when we talk about engaging in prayer, meditation, silence, fasting; when we talk about perfection--we should understand that we are on a journey. We should understand ourselves as being in motion. At this very moment you are moving towards God or away from Him. The disciplines do not get you to a place at which you have arrived. They keep you toward a goal.

What does this mean for the way we practice spiritual disciplines? Isn't asceticism legalism? In a word, no. Legalism is an attempt to earn something from God. We aren't trying to earn anything. We are trying to grow in love, for each other and for God. The key to this growth is obedience. And the key to obedience is discipline, or death to self. The question isn't so much whether Reformed people are to engage in asceticism. The question is: What does Reformed asceticism look like? The Larger Catechism informs us that God has given us the Scriptures to tell us how we may glorify him. In an age when Christians are reluctant to talk about obedience to the law and to exercise church discipline, as a radical solution to a radical problem Reformed asceticism is radical obedience to the moral law.

The desert fathers have something profound to teach us: No matter how long and hard we try, we never "arrive" in our spiritual life in this world. This is an important truth. I think one (but only one) reason many Christians fall into sin is because they achieve a level of spiritual growth and mistake that level for having "arrived". Obviously, when we reach a destination we stop moving. But we overlook an important fact: we are still temporal creatures.

If we come to believe we have arrived, we'll have a certain satisfaction. But this sense of satisfaction, because we are temporal creatures, will wear off. In response we will seek new sources of satisfaction, more stimuli. It is highly likely that these stimuli will be sinful ones.

So, what frame of mind should we be in as we practice the disciplines? The same frame of mind we are in when we practice our physical disciplines. We eat, knowing we shall have to eat again. We bathe, knowing we shall have to bathe again. We sleep, knowing we shall have to sleep again. We do these things, and many others, knowing we shall have to do them again, because we simply must. We must do these things just to live, even to live healthier than we might otherwise. If we do not do these things, we deteriorate. It is the same with the spiritual disciplines, we do them in order to live healthy spiritual lives rather than subsistence level spiritual lives.
03 June 2011

What's Hindering Us? Understanding the Passions

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (8)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

Love is the goal of the Christian life. God calls us to enter into the love life of the Holy Trinity. But, for most of us, despite all that God has done for us something always gets in the way of love. We find ourselves not loving as we should. Why is that?

This is the heart of the struggle in desert theology: confronting the darkness which lingers in us. The monastics were led into the desert to seek radical solutions to radical problems. The worldiness at the core of those problems was a failure of love, a failure to love God and others more than ourselves, substituting a love for the world and the things in the world for that love which we should have. This love for the world and the things in the world is the "darkside" of the Christian life.

We live our lives in a tension between the "spirit" and the "flesh". The life of the Christian is a daily confrontation with the "flesh" by the power of the Spirit. The desert monks were aware of this battle and conceived of this struggle as a battle for their very souls, at least insofar as those souls live in this, the temporal world. To put it into Calvinist terms, the issue was sanctification, not justification. The battle is sanctification.

The Westminster Confess of Faith, Chapter thirteen, says that our sanctification, although throughout our whole persons, is in this life "imperfect...there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh" (section two) and it is in the course of our battle that we "grow in grace, perfecting [our] holiness in the fear of God" (section three). Our holiness cannot be static; we must grow and, in this growing, make our holiness more complete. This spiritual battle is best summarized perhaps by I John 2.15, to which I've already alluded:

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.

There it is: the whole struggle is against the world, the flesh and the devil.

How do the sacraments relate to this? Has God given us any weapons to employ in our struggles against the flesh? In a word, yes. In order to engage in this struggle we must go back to the beginning of our Christian experience, our baptism. Our baptism shows us how to fight the world, the flesh and the devil. The baptismal texts demonstrate that baptism is the beginning of our Christian life. Through faith, God forgives our sins, takes us as his children, conquers the powers of darkness by the cross and breaks the power of sin. As St. Paul puts it, we are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6.6). The flesh no longer dominates our hearts. We may sin; but sin has no dominion over us, unless we give in to it!

Nevertheless, even without dominion, sin remains in us until we leave this world. But we no longer need to yield to its power. Through the Holy Spirit, we have a renewed nature, able to obey God or to obey the world, the flesh and the devil. As St. Augustine said, we are able to sin and able, by God's grace, not to sin. In heaven we will be able not to sin and unable to sin. In the meantime, the battle continues apace.

One of the names given by the monks to these battles is The Passions, which amounts to just another name for the flesh. In Galatians, Chapter Five, St. Paul says, "Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want."

Whether we call them the passions or the flesh, we are talking about the same thing: a life controlled by sin. These are the things which get in the way of the Spirit, who produces God's love in our hearts.

The monk who explained the passions most clearly, I think, was Evagrius of Pontus, in his Praktikos. He came up with a list of the passions (or tempting thoughts, or logismoi): gluttony, avarice, impurity, depression, anger, restless boredom, vain-glory, and pride (sections 6 through 14 of the Praktikos).


Gluttony is not simply over-eating; it also includes desires for unnecessary variety in food, or simply a preoccupation with food over and above the need for nourishment. Gluttony involves any preoccupation with food such that we live to eat, rather than eat to live. In C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, (Letter XVII) Screwtape discusses an element of gluttony that often goes unnoticed: gluttony of delicacy, as opposed to gluttony of excess:

[Some] would be astonished...to learn that [their lives are] enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed...by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided...a human belly and palate...produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?

At the very moment of indulging our appetites -- however slight -- we are certain that we are practicing moderation in food. At the very moment of believing we are being so spiritual, we are in fact being some of our most sensual.

For some of us, food is the major cause of the poverty of our spiritual lives, the root of all our disobedience. The reason many of us are not the sort of people we want to be is that we are out of control; we just have no discipline. If we were able to better control our diet, we might likely be better able to control our wills. If we would better control our wills we might likely live closer to God.

As Calvinists, we might be tempted to dismiss this sort of concern as legalism and fear it more than gluttony (whether of delicacy or excess). But the Larger Catechism says that among the duties required by the Sixth Commandment ("Thou shalt not kill") is "a sober use of meat [and] drink" (see question 135). More than likely, excess in food and drink are in view. But the more general issue is sensuality. And sensuality is indulged just as much in delicacy as it is in excess. The battle in sanctification is a battle against all forms of sensuality. (On my view, no one today is better at excusing sensuality, in the name of avoiding legalism, than Protestants and Calvinists.)


According to Evagrius, avarice, or greed, is unwillingness to shares one's goods with others. We look for our security in earthly possessions. We give in to thoughts such as that if only we had well-paying job, or some other material advantage we would then be secure. We have a tendency to covet what others have, not content with what God has already given us -- even if He has given us much less than what others possess. But it isn't just possessions. Sometimes avarice manifests itself as a refusal to receive help from others, or shame when one must receive such help. If we loathe receiving help from others we are not truly free from avarice. According to Evagrius, this love of money is rooted in fear of a difficult future:

Love of money suggests: a long old age; hands powerless to work; hunger and disease yet to come; the bitterness of poverty; and the disgrace of receiving the necessities [of life] from others. (Praktikos, section 9.)

So perhaps we are content with our material goods at present; but when we contemplate the future and see ourselves old and alive way past our ability to earn our own living and stricken with the ailments which come with old age, it is then that we can be susceptible to greed. (I'll say it: this explains why a great many people not only attempt to accumulate all they can and not share, but also why they vote the way they do.)

We must acknowledge that God has some people in this world precisely to be cared for. Being cared for by others is God's provision for their security. Conversely, those who are not the ones cared for by others should be the ones caring for the others. On this subject, it is interesting to note that the Larger Catechism also includes as duties required by the Sixth Commandment, "comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent." Moreover some of the duties included in the Eighth Commandment are "giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others...and [endeavoring] by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own" (emphasis added).


Impurity is a focus on sexual lust. For monks, it was (and still is) included in the temptation to leave the celibate life for marriage. But for Calvinists there is, even if we accept some form of monasticism, no such thing as a "temptation" to leave the celibate life for marriage. And a desire for marriage, in and of itself, is not evidence of sexual lust. There can be no contemplation of marriage without, on some level, the contemplation of sexual relations with whomever one wishes to marry, especially if one wishes to have children with one's intended. (This is one of the reasons I believe in the shortest possible engagement periods.)

However it goes without saying that those who don't live in monasteries experience impurity, in the sense of a passion that focuses on sexual lust. We non-monastics probably have more ways of indulging those passions than we might like to think. The fact is most of what many people wear is intended neither to cover nor to make attractive, but rather to make them alluring. (Ladies, men know why shirts are designed -- and worn -- to reveal the maximum amount of cleavage, and to draw attention to the fact. We may be a bit dense at times, but we easily get that much. Trust me.)

Most of our efforts at physical fitness also have the same purpose, not just physically fit bodies, but "hot" bodies. We desire, to be blunt, to be the objects of sexual desire, more bluntly, the objects of illegitimate sexual desire. (Spare me the hate email. Just deal with it.) Again, the Larger Catechism knows about lust, as a passion against which we must battle daily. Among the duties required by the Seventh Commandment are "chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others", as well as "modesty in apparel" (question 138). Among those things forbidden by the Seventh Commandment are "unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, [and] immodest apparel" (question 139). And, as if that isn't enough: "all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others" (emphasis added). Ouch.


Sadness, or gloominess, as Evagrius called it, has its roots in unfulfilled desires. At some point in the monastic life, monks might somehow be reminded of home and family, and the life they had with their families. Monks might then experience a sorrow over those things given up for the monastic life. Adding to this sorrow is the fact that this life is gone forever. He could leave the monastery and return home but, depending upon how long he has been in the monastery, there is nothing of that former life for him to return to.

Additionally, it might be understandable, for example, for a monk to experience sadness at times over the fact that he'll never marry or have children. He might also experience sadness associated with the fact that he will live and die in the obscurity of a monastery, never leaving his mark on the world, or making a name for himself. As non-monastics we can experience this when contemplating what we've given up to follow Christ. It may even strike us when we come to realize that our lives are not going to be what we thought they'd be when we were young. We are not doing the work we thought we'd do. We are not going to have, or do not have, the spouse we'd hoped for. We have an illness we never counted on. Any number of disappointments can bring on gloominess.


Anger, according to Evagrius, is the worst of all because of its destructive power. He described is as "a boiling up...against a wrongdoer or a presumed wrongdoer." It's destructive force is most keenly felt in prayer, when it seizes our minds causing us to see the face of the wrongdoer while we attempt to pray. Then, at night, it can rob us of necessary sleep. We might well understand how anger can be the root cause of all acts of violence, especially murder. But it is also anger, not lust, which is the passion behind most, if not all, acts of adultery.


Acedia, or restless boredom (also sometimes called the noonday demon) was, to Evagrius, the most burdensome of the passions. Imagine a monk, in the desert, taking a break from his labors. There he stands, or sits, the noon time sun beating down on him. Additionally, depending upon his labors and how long he has been a monk, his joints may ache, his back also. He stands there, thinking, "What in the world am I doing here? This is nonsense. I miss my family. I should never have left them. I should have married that girl. I am so miserable. I made a mistake becoming a monk. I was a dumb ass for coming out here!"

It is easy to see how such thoughts can tempt a monk to forsake his vows. And it's no use pointing out that this wouldn't have happened if he hadn't become a monk. This sort of thing happens in business when we sign contracts. It happens in many marriages. ("This is not the man [or woman] I thought I was marrying.")

It happens (or can happen), in short, any time we make promises and then set to work keeping them. It happens to students in university. They begin their studies with enthusiasm which over the years turns into a restless eagerness to finish up and get out of school as soon as possible. It happens in our work, and not just when we've had a bad day. At some point we may think, "This is a dead end. I wish I could quit this job and do something else, like...horticulture." There's nothing wrong with quitting university, or a job. This is just to say that "restless boredom" is not experienced by monks because they are monks.


Vainglory is the need for praise and recognition. Not that there is anything wrong, in and of themselves, with being praised and recognized. But at times the desires for these things can lead us into sins, especially if we do not receive the praise and recognition which we believe are rightfully ours. For example (and church choirs are always good for examples of this sort of thing, sadly) a member of a church choir may be accustomed to having a microphone near him, or even in front of him, during Sunday morning worship. Let's say there was no particular reason for the microphone to be where it was; it was just there. One Sunday morning, he enters with the other members of the choir to find that the microphone has been moved. He is offended, or his feelings are hurt. Why was it moved? Did someone in the congregation ask that it be moved because they don't like his voice? Was it moved simply because the person who moved it didn't like him? The real question is this: Why does it matter where the microphone is? For whom do the choir sing? The congregation? Or for God? If for God, then no matter: God hears very well without your microphone. But if the placement of a microphone really matters, then God is not the choir-member's intended audience. Vain glory, not worship, is the motivation here. And that, to put it gently, is not good.


Pride is, of course, the opposite of humility. This is the holding of too low an opinion of others, and too high an opinion of ourselves. The antidote, obviously, is humility, seeing no one as unimportant, or less important than one's self. Perhaps Evagrius puts it better:

The demon of pride conducts the soul to its worst fall. It urges it: (1) not to admit God’s help; (2) and to believe that the soul is responsible for its own achievements; (3) and to disdain the brethren as fools because they do not all see this about it. This demon is followed by: (1) anger; (2) sadness and the final evil, (3) utter insanity and madness, including visions of mobs of demons in the air.

Pride is a pernicious passion and, like gluttony, can be indulged while seeming to be humility. Take, for example, what Evagrius says about admitting God's help. Actually, take any help at all. Sometimes, we don't want help not because, in our humility, we don't want to put people out, though that's what we'll say, but rather because to accept help is to say, "In this matter, I'm incapable." It may even be that there are things we won't attempt because we do not want to be seen attempting, but failing to succeed. Often we'll hear someone say of another, "He fears failure, so he doesn't try." More than likely, the truth of the matter is he doesn't fear failure itself because failure is something to fear. He fears failure as the demonstration that he was incapable. He fears failure as a wound to his pride. This, I believe is why many Christians are not eager to employ their spiritual gifts, to put themselves "out there".

Pernicious as pride is, it may affect our attitude in receiving help. Rather than accept help as something done out of the kindness of another's heart, we may tell ourselves, and others, that, in fact, the help received was our due. The one who helped us did nothing deserving our gratitude; he only did what he was obligated to do.

I believe that pride best explains the shift in attitude on the part of welfare recipients. When I was a child, welfare recipients received their assistance with a bit of shame. When I saw people at the supermarket pay for their purchases with food stamps they did so in haste, handing over the stamps collecting up the bags and making a hasty exit. Most often, though there were exceptions, the people I observed purchasing groceries with food stamps did so only to purchase necessities -- not candy bars, soft drinks and so forth. Times have changed. To say there is a sense of entitlement is to assert what is now a truism. The recipients of assistance have nothing for which to be grateful; they receive only what others are obligated to provide them. And, in fact, to listen to some of them, those others are not providing as much as they are truly obligated to provide.

It should be easy to see why these passions, or tempting thoughts, hinder our walk with God and each other, why they hinder us from growing in love for God and others. There has for decades been talk of "spiritual warfare". I noticed it first as an adolescent, long before I embraced Christ. Always (or perhaps merely frequently) talk of "spiritual warfare" is talk of warfare against personal demons (I mean "personal demons" as opposed to "tempting thoughts".) I recall walking through a mall about twenty years ago, passing a group of women "binding" Satan, who was, I supposed, also visiting the mall that day. Who knows? Maybe he was.

But for most of us, the passions, not personal demons, are the true objects of our warfare. God calls us to fight the passions with all the spiritual resources he provides. The Orthodox Church's liturgy provides her congregants a special prayer, of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, during Lent when, in her calendar, the fight is at its height:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

The most famous, or well-known, resource employed by the Eastern Orthodox is of course, the "Jesus Prayer": Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the (or a) sinner. The most practiced are reputed to be able to recite the prayer non-stop, even in their sleep.

What resources have the Reformed? According to the Confession, even though we have been accepted by God "in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, and can neither "totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere...to the end, and be eternally saved" we may, nevertheless, "through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in [us], and the neglect of the means of [our] preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby [we] incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have [our] hearts hardened, and [our] consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon [ourselves]" (Chapter 17.1, 3).

In mentioning "means of preservation" the Confession indicates that we, too, have resources by which to resist the passions. In fact, as I'll explain in a subsequent post, they are not very different at all from those employed by the desert fathers.
29 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (7)

The Walk

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

The last post was on the purpose, or end, of the monastic life. This post begins a look at the means employed by monastics in achieving that end: the monastic disciplines.

For most of Protestant and Reformed Christians, apart from Sunday worship and, perhaps, mid-week services and Bible studies, the fundamental discipline is the quiet time. This is that time of day, typically (or so it appears) in the morning, when we do our daily Scripture reading and prayer. But in my experience, most Christians still find themselves hungry for more than that. It helps in many, important ways, but it doesn't fill other of our needs. This hunger, satisfied wrongly, explains most of the sins Christains commit. But I don't intend taking that up, not directly.

What to do? Here is where the desert fathers and mothers are at their most helpful. Contrary to what, again, seems to be the majority report among many Prostestants and Reformed Christians, the desert fathers and mothers affirmed Scripture reading and prayer, but they also recommended other practices that many of us won't consider, or at least not to the extent that they would, and did, endorse. I can speculate as to three reasons: love of pleasure; laziness; and a mis-placed fear of legalism.

Most famously, monks engage in fasting, solitute and silence, meditation, confession, spiritual "parenting" -- all in addition to church worship and availing of the sacraments. I will delve into these in future posts, but for now the question is: How would you describe your psychological style? Creative, delighting in the aesthetic? If so, then you will bring this to the living out of your spiritual life. You are edified by the visual and musical aspects of worship; and your worship style leans in that direction. Perhaps for you the preaching of the sermon is what really grips your attention in worship; perhaps theology is your thing -- then your psychological style is intellectual and, again, this is reflected in your worship. If you are really on the quiet side, then the quiet time, alone with God is your preference. Others find their style expressed in social work, working among the poor, the sick -- cooperating with organized charities.

The fact that we are different and that our differences play a significant role in our spiritual lives was not lost on the desert fathers. They understood very well that this variety of spiritual temperament required a diversity of spiritual disciplines to cultivate our relationship with God and others.

The idea of "cultivation" is important. If we naturally incline to one or two specific disciplines and avoid others, it is to those others we should devote more time and energy. Disciplines which are easy for us simply do not strengthen us; in a meaningful sense, they aren't really disciplines at all. So if Bible study and prayer come easily to you, then you may actually need solitude and silence. In my experience, most people, even most Christians, really cannot handle too much in the way of silence, or solitude. They must always have some noise, almost regardless the type or source, including music which is listened to "just for the beat" or a television which is turned on, but not watched, regardless what the show is, just to have some noise, just so that there not be silence. Some must always be hanging out with friends; some are so averse to solitude that they seem to exercise poor judgment in making friends, simply so as to have someone -- anyone -- to "hang" with. On the other hand, if you enjoy solitude, then the discipline for you may be something like regular attendance at corporate worship, group Bible studies and the like. Most of us will need the advice of another, more mature, to help us discover which are the disciplines we should concentrate upon most.

Finally, there are two things to keep in mind. First, this walk never ends, not in this life. We never arrive; we keep walking. Second, the test of "progress" is not our facility with the disciplines. You may find silence and solitude become easier and easier to endure. You may find it easier and easier to pray consistently. You may read the Bible through several times a year. But the only meaningful test of "progress" is whether you are growing in love for God and others, and dying more and more to sin (and not just the obvious ones). Answering the question, "Am I growing in love for God and others?" requires painful honesty with oneself, an honesty which is very difficult to achieve. This is why one of the disciplines (as I mentioned above) employed by monastics is spiritual parenthood. Reformed and protestants call it counseling. Frankly, monastics would find our "counseling" a little on the wimpy side, I'm afraid.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

Part 6, Goal of the Monastic Life

20 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (6)

Goal of the Monastic Life

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

What were the desert monastics up to? What was the purpose of their asceticism? Why so much emphasis on fasting, prayer, silence and meditations? Among those of us in the Reformed Communion, the answer given is usually simple: They were pursuing a life which would justify their claims to perfection, or at least to being holier and more righteous than non-monastics. To a certain extent this criticism is justified, especially since this was very much the case in the west at the time of the Reformation.

But then, church history doesn't begin with the Reformation. And Calvin had a higher view of the monasticism of earlier times than he did the monasticism of his day:

"[I]t is to be observed, that the ancient mode of living in monasteries was very different. The persons who retired to them were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity and patience. The discipline practised by the monks then resembled that which the [Spartans] are said to have used under the laws of Lycurgus, and was even much more rigorous. They slept on the ground, their drink was water, their food bread, herbs, and roots, their chief luxuries oil and pulse. From more delicate food and care of the body they abstained. These things might seem hyperbolical were they not vouched by experienced eye-witnesses, as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. By such rudimentary training they prepared themselves for greater offices. For of the fact that monastic colleges were then a kind of seminaries of the ecclesiastical order, both those whom we lately named are very competent witnesses, (they were all brought up in monasteries, and thence called to the episcopal office), as well as several other great and excellent men of their age. Augustine also shows that in his time the monasteries were wont to furnish the Church with clergy." (Emphasis added.)

In this posting, I explained the radical problem which, to the monastics, required a radical solution. The situation among monastics in the east was for the most part much different from the west.

In asking what is the goal of the monastic life, we could ask, as well, what is the goal of the Christian life? For the desert monastics, the goal of the ascetical practices was the same as the goal of the Christian life. Often, I think, this fact is lost on us precisely because of the asceticism itself. We cannot see the forest for the trees (those ascetical practices). Moreover, the aforementioned loathing of ascetical practices and easy dismissal as works-righteousness also hinders our vision. We Reformed and (by virtue thereof) non-monastics don't engage in such practices and we're living the Christian life; therefore, the monks, having added to the requirements as it were, are attempting acts of supererogation and, for that reason, not living the Christian life. They are in fact sinning greatly.

What in fact compelled the monastics to go into the desert was the command of Jesus to "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5.48). Jesus's words there, seeming to suggest that we must have a completely, flawlessly obedient life, might depress us, given what must surely be our knowledge that we cannot be perfect. But the message from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5.48 isn't about flawlessness; rather, they are a restatement of the Two Great Commandments: (1) that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Deuteronomy 6.5) and (2) that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19.18) (cf. Luke 10.27).

What Jesus is asking of us is a life of perfect love, for God and for others. We were created to give and receive love. God created us for love; and he redeemed us for love. Love characterizes the Holy Trinity. The fundamental relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is love. Out of that love relationship, we were created and redeemed. And for the sake of that love relationship, we were created and redeemed. The center of all things is that love which exists in and among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The life of the Godhead is an eternal love life with each other. As the church fathers have put it, the members of the Trinity interpenetrate each other (perichoresis). Or, better, as Jesus himself put it: "I am in my father and my father is in me" (John 14.10) and "...you are in me and I am in you." (John 17.21).

What's the point? God created us and redeemed us out of his eternal trinitarian love life. And he calls us to enter into that very love life; he calls us to live life with him. As the Catechism puts it, our whole purpose is "to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever." However much we (or some of us) Reformed Christians may criticize the means, this life with God is the end or purpose of the monastic life. They, no less than we, seek to glorify God and enjoy him forever, specifically by growing in love for God and our neighbor.

There is a story by the 6th century monk Dorotheus which is highly illustrative of the relation between love for God and love for neighbor.

"Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centerpoint is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center. The straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. Let's assume for the sake of this analogy that to move toward God, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God the closer they become to one another. And the closer they are to one another the closer they become to God."

For those of us who eschew works righteousness, Dorotheus's analogy is powerful. He does not argue that in order to become closer to God we must love each other more, so that closeness to God becomes something like a reward for loving others. He says that we must love God. As we do so, we come closer to him and, since we are all moving from the circumference (i.e., our lives) to the center (i.e., his life) we also come closer to each other. Growing in love for each other; growing closer to each other -- these cannot happen by focusing on them. They can only happen by focusing the attention of our hearts upon God. Don't worry about loving me; worry about loving God.

So the goal of the monastic life, including their ascetical practices is love. The praying; the fasting; the silence; the meditation -- all are intended to draw the monk closer to God. Before we think that monks properly think of themselves as superior to non-monks we should recall Chrysostom's admonition: The only difference between the monk and the married man is that the monk has no wife. Nothing is demanded of a monk which is not also demanded of a married man. Nothing is demanded of a married man that is not also demanded of a monk. We all "must rise to the same height."

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

11 April 2011

Prepare to get schooled in my Austrian perspective

Sixteen months on YouTube, and still generating comments like it was posted yesterday.

05 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (5)

St. Anthony

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In my last post I mentioned that Pachomius had studied for a time with St. Anthony of Egypt. In this post I want to write a bit about St. Anthony.

Anthony was not the first Christian monk; neither was he the first to go out to the desert. But he is certainly the one most responsible for putting desert monasticism on the map of the Christian life. He is hailed as the father of the monks because of his impact on the movement as a whole.

Most of our knowledge of Anthony comes to us by way of St. Athanasius, the well-known defender of Nicene orthodoxy. During the time of the persecution of Nicene Christians, Athanasius went into the desert, and it was there that he met Anthony, who made such an impression on Athanasius that he decided to record Anthony's life (i.e., The Life of Anthony), one of the classics of Christian antiquity. (Well, I think so, anyway.)

Anthony was born in 251 and died in 356--105 years. When he was between eighteen and twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him their property and the care of his little sister. One day in church, Anthony heard the gospel reading in which Jesus says to the rich young ruler, "If you would be perfect, go so sell all your possessions and come follow me." To Anthony God on that particular day intended him to understand that passage as addressing himself, personally. So he sold most of his possessions and gave them to the poor. Later, he went to church and heard a story that induced him to sell everything he had; he did precisely that, taking up residence on the edge of the city under the direction of an old man who had been practising the ascetic life for some time.

What are we to make of this? Upon reflection, it is clear that Christ's command to the rich young ruler, was primarily for the rich young ruler, not to all, the point of the narrative being that at least one who would not follow Christ did so because he preferred the enjoyment of his wealth. Jesus does not call all of us to sell everything. Apparently, as far as Anthony was concerned, he was of a type with the rich young ruler. Very likely, upon hearing the gospel passage, he realized that he too preferred the enjoyment of wealth to the riches found in Christ. We would do well not to confuse our call with the call of others; otherwise, among other things, we'll all be vying for church pulpits! That being said, although he may not specifically require that we sell all our possessions, Jesus does nevertheless want us to be detached from the things of this world just as Anthony was detached. This detachment, however, must be first of all internal in nature. Anyone, really, can divest himself of all goods, and still be attached to the things of this world. Perhaps, unlike the rich young ruler we do not prefer the enjoyment of wealth, but rather the enjoyment of sex. If we are not prepared even to consider the celibate life, we may be no more ready to follow Christ than the rich young ruler. For some others, it may be neither sex nor wealth--alcohol, carousing with friends. Believe it or not, as innocuous as it may seem, if you cannot tolerate long periods without the company of friends, you may not be as ready to follow Christ as you think. On the other hand, if solitude is your preference you are in the same predicament. We must examine ourselves, and face up to what we find there.

But recall that the purpose of this detachment is not detachment for its own sake. The purpose of detachment is to free us up to serve Christ whole-heartedly. There is little good in detachment if, in your detachment, you are not serving Christ whole-heartedly.

Athanasius also informs us that St. Anthony went from place to place learning from others how to live the ascetic life. According to Athanasius, "He observed the graciousness of one, the eagerness for prayers in another. He took careful note of one's freedom from anger and the human concern of another. And he paid attention to one while he lived a watchful life, or one who pursued studies as also he admired one for patience, and another for fastings and sleeping on the ground. And having been filled in this manner he returned to his own place of discipline, from that time gathering the attributes of each in himself and striving to manifest in himself what was best in all."

St. Anthony didn't learn only from his observations of other ascetics, but he was also devoted to the Scriptures. "Not a word of holy scripture fell to the ground, but found ready obedience in the heart of Anthony." What sort of lessons can we take from this? First, Anthony learned from others, emulating those he thought superior to himself and he learned from scripture, putting into practice what he heard from it.

I doubt many, even many of us who are Reformed, truly compare favorably with Anthony. Many are content to learn the faith, meaning, specifically, learning theology in the academic sense as if this were the sum total of the Christian life. Oh, and obeying the Ten Commandments, barely. In most discussions faith and practice means theology and worship (meaning, the worship service, that is, Sunday mornings and, for some, evenings, and maybe Wednesday evenings). Expound a bit too much on practice (especially fasting) and you run the risk of being dismissed as a legalist. Suggest that regular times of church-wide fasting be observed (but not required) and you'll likely be warned that you are violating Christ's command about fasting in Matthew 6.16. After all, if everyone is fasting then everyone knows that everyone is fasting and that means everyone is practicing their righteousness before everyone else. Huh? You mean like in church when we're all praying and singing hymns before each other?

But I digress.

The fact is, for the most part, we learn for purposes of discussion, not obedient action. We may even prefer discussion to obedience. We may actually prefer to hear, rather than to do. In that case, Anthony teaches us an important lesson: that the goal of knowledge is wisdom, that is, putting truth into practice.

It should come as no surprise that Anthony (who was illiterate, by the way) became known throughout the empire for his wisdom and holiness. Once, the Emperor Constantius invited him to the capital for a visit. Anthony, honored by the invitation, nevertheless declined because he had asked another man for advice. His advisor, Abba Paul (who was also Anthony's disciple), said, "If you go, you will be called Anthony. But if you remain here, you will be called Abba Anthony". Incredible: Anthony asks his disciple for advice.

What does Abba Paul mean by saying that Anthony will be called, "Abba"? If Anthony were to have gone to the emperor, then the interview would have been on the emperor's terms. Anthony's presence would have been a show for the court, no doubt, a show in which Anthony, at the emperor's request would have done something wonderful or interesting, fascinating the court with his holiness. (In all probability, the audience would have been respectful, but in the end also aware that Anthony had come at the behest of Constantius.) If, on the other hand, the emperor were to come to Anthony the situation would have been quite different, but not contrary: Anthony would not have been entertained by the emperor's presence. The emperor would have a proper understanding of Anthony's motives. I mean, the emperor, not Anthony, would be the one to undertake the long journey into the desert, humbling himself in the process and being in the proper frame of mind to listen to anything Anthony might have for him. As opposed to entertaining him, Anthony could really help the emperor, if the emperor was willing.

I can't help but wonder how I would respond to an invitation from the White House. I know some people who "worked" their respective networks to meet and have their photographs taken with two presidents. It would be nice (not to mention self-flattering) to think I'd turn down the offer. But in my experience, most of us don't know how we'll act in a given situation until we find ourselves in that situation; and we're likely to disappoint ourselves and others. (I will admit the invitation would be particularly tempting if were extended by, say, President Ron Paul.)

I recall having the opportunity, a specific invitation in fact, to meet the men in the band, Petra. At the last minute, I thought better of the offer and didn't take the opportunity. I'd like to say it was due to my having achieved a certain amount of the detachment we should have. Perhaps to a certain extent it was. I'd been contemplating becoming either a Benedictine or a Jesuit and, in addition to the Scriptures, had been steeping myself in classics of monastic literature. Detachment was the goal and I was taking a serious stab at it. But, right at the moment of declining the offer, I actually was pleased with myself for having done so. I thought I had achieved some level of detachment; but all I really did was appear to have done so. (This is one of many themes C. S. Lewis deals with in The Screwtape Letters.) Like I said: we disappoint ourselves.

There is a certain "glitter" which surrounds superstars, whether we're talking superstars in politics, the academic world, or the arts. And rubbing shoulders with them, for almost any length of time could possibly give us a high. If these are "spiritual" superstars then, of course, the high is a "spiritual" one. Perhaps, some sort of spiritual high is what Constantius sought in a visit from St. Anthony. To be sure, Constantius probably had some admiration for Anthony; but if he were to learn something from Anthony, then his going to visit Anthony was the best way. For one thing, a visit to the desert removes all the distractions of court life.

Perhaps Anthony's greatest example is the way he died. Says Athanasius: "It is worthwhile for me to recall what the end of his life was like. For even his death has become something imitable." Anthony learned from God that he was soon to die and made preparation. He entrusted himself to two of his disciples and as he lay on his death-bed, he "lifted his feet and as if seeing friends who had come to him and being cheered by them (for as he lay there his face seemed bright) he died."

It's easy for us in the West, especially if we are Calvinists, to dismiss this sort of thing as undue focus on humans rather than God--works righteousness, even. But Athanasius sought to inform the world about St. Anthony because, as he saw it, Anthony was evidence of the power of the gospel to change lives: "The Lord chose those who are his men like lamps to everyone so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life and may gain zeal for the way of virtue." In other words, God made Anthony's life known to the world then and now so that people could know that the gospel has power to transform lives and inspire zeal. God's power can transform lives and inspire zeal. The gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

Anthony often makes me wonder about the extent to which I myself have been transformed by the power of God and the extent to which the gospel makes a difference in the way I live. Of course, he's not the only one who makes me wonder about those things.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius
03 March 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (4)


You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

Saint Pakhom, also known as Pachomius, is recognized by most as the founder of Christian monasticism of the cenobitic type, the type of monasticism with which we are most familiar.

Pachomius was born in Thebes in 292 to pagan parents and during difficult times for the Roman Empire (i.e., the Crisis of the third century, 235-395), during which twenty-five emperors reigned and the empire experienced extreme military, political, and economic crises.

From what we know, we believe he was pressed into military service at the age of 20, during a Roman army recruitment drive -- a common occurrence -- and somehow ended up in prison.

During his imprisonment, Christians brought food and comforts to the inmates. This ministry to the captives made an indelible impression on him, and he vowed to learn all about Christianity when he was released. As things turned out, he was able to get out of the army without ever having to fight. He was converted and baptized in 314 in the city of Tabennisi; and became totally committed to his new faith.

He then came into contact with a number of well known ascetics and decided to pursue that path. He sought out the hermit Palaemon, who was living on the Nile River, and came to be his follower in 317. After studying seven years with Elder Palaemon, Pachomius set out upon the life of a hermit near St. Anthony of Egypt, whose practices he imitated until realizing that he was not called to the solitary life of the hermit. According to one story, he had a dream in which God told him to build a monastery and wait for God to fill it with men of prayer, desiring to become cenobitic monks like himself. According to another story he had a dream in Tabennisi in which a voice told him to build a dwelling to which hermits could come. (An earlier ascetic named Macarius had earlier created a number of proto-monasteries -- "larves" -- where holy men physically or mentally unable to achieve the rigors of St. Anthony's solitary life could live in a more community-like setting.)

Whichever story we accept as true, Pachomius's contribution to monasticism was the organizing of monks into communities of monastics living under a common rule, adding a social dimension to Christian monasticism which it did not have before him.

His first cenobitic monastery was in Tabennisi, Egypt and was established between 318 and 323. The first to join him was his elder brother John, and soon more than 100 monks lived at his monastery. By the time of his death he had built nine of these comminities in Egypt.

Given my own "flirtation" (if you will) with monasticism, I can't help but wondering how these hermit-cenobites lived. Pachomious divided his monks into twenty-four groups, which he named after the letters of the greek alphabet, ranking them according to his assessment of the depth of their spirituality. "Alphas" were beginner monks; and "Omegas" were the most advanced and spiritually mature.

The monks shared all things in common. They worked and prayed together. They ate together. And they practiced the rule which Pachomius had devised for them. They supported themselves by making and selling baskets, giving some of the proceeds to the poor. And, being monks, they engaged in all sorts of good works.

Getting back to the fact that these men and women went out to the desert as a radical solution to the radical problem of the worldliness that they believed had permeated the church, we might point out the obvious: Very likely, every Christian who wished to resist worldliness could not leave for the desert. Clearly that is still true. Nevertheless, there remains much to learn from Pachomius's lifestyle. I'll mention just three.

First, and this is of particular interest to Protestant and Reformed Christians, Pachomius was a man of the Scriptures. The Scriptures played a tremendous role in his life and in the life of his monasteries. We read in his biography: "When he began reading and reciting God's word by heart, he attempted to comprehend it inside himself according to the Lord's word, 'Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart.'" So Pachomius not only read the Scriptures; he knew them by heart. He required all his monks to memorize twenty psalms, and two Pauline epistles -- just to join his monasteries!

I think that last point requires some emphasis. The Scripture memorization was just to get into one of his monasteries. We can contrast this purpose with that of contemporary memorization, which is mostly of comforting verses, or proof-texts for whatever theological ax one wishes to grind. The Scriptures are not only sources of doctrine. They are the guide for our lives. It seems almost pointless to say, but the fact is, while evangelical Christians say that the Scriptures are the only rule for faith and practice that isn't always how it works out.

During the course of drafting this post, I read an article about a church in Colorado that has moved its main worship service to Tuesday evenings. The reason is that the people to whom this church ministers (to be generous) are out-door types who like to have their full weekends off, including Sundays.

And yet, the Scriptures -- the rule of both faith and practice -- say:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20.8-11).

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that these people would give to monasticism the same out-of-hand dismissal as your garden variety sabbath-keeping Calvinist. And if they were arguing with a Roman Catholic over justification by faith, they'd be able to quote chapter and verse, asserting that the scriptures clearly teach justification by faith, and insisting upon it during their Tuesday evening sabbath keeping.

And yet, whatever its ultimate excesses, especially in the West, monasticism was an attempt by serious Christians to practice what the Scriptures require, especially the so-called evangelical counsels of chastity, charity and obedience.

Second, Pachomius was known for his humility, particularly in regard to positions of authority in the Church. Very early in The Life of Pachomius we learn of a monk who came to visit Pachomius. This anonymous monk attempted the monastic life but ultimately was driven to insanity by the attempt, eventually committing suicide by burning himself to death. As it turns out, this monk was an arrogant man. More than likely, it was his arrogance which destroyed him. The incident left a great impression upon Pachomius, making him adament about not accepting any position of authority or power which might lead one to such suidical heights of arrogance. This included even the priesthood. We are told that the Bishop Athanasius desired to make Pachomius "father and priest" over all the monks within his episcopal territory. But Pachomius would not accept the position. For Pachomius, clerical offices were the beginnings of the lust for power. Furthermore, Pachomius placed all his monks under the same prohibition. Despite his refusal of authority, Pachomius was still a spiritual leader and father far beyond the confines of his monastery.

We can contrast this office-refusing humility with the sort of kingdom building one often sees even in particular churches. I don't know how many complaints I've heard in the twenty-three years I've been a Christian (I'm pushing 46) about choirs. Always someone in the choir is being slighted somehow. Some choir-members' talents are recognized and rewarded with a solo, others' are not. One can't help wondering who such choir-members think they are singing for. A solo? Really? Because God -- the supposed audience -- won't be able to hear you sing otherwise? Morons. Worse, kingdom builders. Trust me: even if you are one of a thousand singing in unison, you are indeed singing a solo.

Obviously, this sort of kingdom building activity isn't limited to choir members. In fact, they probably learn that garbage from their church leaders, who just may be worse in their kingdom building. I try not wonder too much, since I don't really know, but I often wonder if megachurches are not the result of attempts at kingdom building. If so, it need not be simply the pastoral leadership of these churches, but in some cases even more on the part of the congregation. One often feels as if members of those churches aren't a little proud of their large numbers, seeing in those numbers a work of God rather than of men. They should be quaking in their little booties.

Third, Pachomius and his monks did not give their attention solely to the evangelical counsels, hiding behind monastery walls and minimizing sound doctrine and theological controversy. They took part in those controversies. Pachomius is well-known for his defenses of orthodoxy against the Arians. (It was probably his defenses of orthodoxy which led Anthanasius to attempt to ordain him.) Pachomius and his monks were therefore also theologians par excellence.

"Unity" is the watch word d' jour and is often employed to minimize the importance of doctrinal differences. "Doctrine divides," we are told, and we need to not be divisive. We should be focusing on the evangelical counsels, feeding the poor and otherwise caring for ones forgotten by society. But Pachomius had no such sentiment. Yes, we should do those things; but we should also, and equal energy and devotion hold the orthodox ground. He had vowed, as a prisoner, to learn about and to serve Christ. And it made a difference whether the Christ he served was truly God and truly Man, or not.

Pachomius himself was eventually hailed as "Abba" (father) which is where we get the word Abbot. As I mentioned above, he came to found nine monasteries in his lifetime, and after 336, Pachomius spent most of his time at his Pabau monastery. From his initial monastery, demand quickly grew and, by the time of his death in 346, one count estimates there were 3000 monks in his monasteries, dotting Egypt from north to south. Within a generation after his death, this number had grown to 7000 and then moved out of Egypt into Palestine and the Judea Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually Western Europe.

He is also credited with being the first Christian to use and recommend use of a prayer rope. He was visited once by Basil of Caesarea who took many of his ideas and implemented them in Caesarea, where Basil also made some adaptations that became the ascetic rule, or Ascetica, the rule still used today by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and comparable to that of the Rule of St. Benedict in the West.

Pachomius remained abbot about forty years. When he caught an epidemic disease, he called his monks, encouraged them in their faith, and appointed his successor. He then departed the world on 9 May 348 A.D.

His reputation as a holy man has endured. No surprise, therefore, that he is currently commemorated in several liturgical calendars, and thought of fondly by a few Calvinists as well.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 5, St. Anthony of Egypt
23 February 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (3)

Theology of the Desert

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know...that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. ~ Deuteronomy 8.2, 3

As I said previously, the new privileges granted to the Church by Constantine resulted in a number of problems, problems which to some were radical problems, requiring radical solutions. Chief among these problems was people joining the Church for the social benefits they could enjoy. It was in reaction to increasing worldliness that lay people went into the desert to seek God.

Living arrangements varied. Some were hermits, living in complete solitude. Others were cenobites, living in communities with one another. Still others combined the two lifestyles, living in solitude for the most part, occasionally meeting together for worship and celebration of Holy Communion.

But, really, why the desert? It would be erroneous to assert that these were men and women who just couldn't handle the "real" world, or just didn't want to. Unable, or unwilling, to bear the burdens the rest of us must do, they escaped to the peace and quiet of the desert. In fact, their selection of the desert was motivated by the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, the desert was a place of death, scarce life, scarcer supplies of water. Famously, the desert was a place for the testing of men and women of God, a place of preparation. The Israelites were disciplined and fashioned by the desert, for God in the desert forty years, into the Army of God which ultimately took the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. John the Baptist seems to have been a permanent resident. Jesus spent forty days in the desert to be tempted and to have the finishing touches, as it were, put on his preparation for his earthly ministry. The desert is not a place for ease-seeking social drop-outs. It is a place for spiritual warfare. It is a place where passions are conquered, and sins is are destroyed.

The desert reflected the monks' spiritual values. There was a connection between their living environment and their inner lives. The nature of the desert, as one might imagine, encouraged asceticism. In fact, the desert forces asceticism on those who would live in it. The desert forces detachment. One learns quickly what to keep and what to discard for purposes of mere survival. One is required to decide ruthlessly upon what must go and what must remain. That which interferes with survival must be let go. The same for the spiritual life: whatever comes between one's self and God must be let go. For the monks, the physical demands of the desert matched the spiritual demands Christ makes upon us.

The desert forces one to contemplate what things separate us from survival, the same sort of contemplation which should tell us what things in our life come between us and God. Money? Ambition? Food? Desire for the opposite sex? Seeking to be desired by the opposite sex? Are we more focused on appearances than the inner reality of who we are? Are we, really, more than a little afraid to find out who we really are? (If so, God may show you; and it will hurt. Trust me.) Do we seek comfort, more than we seek God? (Let's try to be honest.)

God wants us to be free from these needs. In truth, they are not needs. The desert will teach you that.

The desert is a place of deep silence. Can we handle silence? Hours and hours of it? Some really cannot. Most have some type of sound pumped into their heads for almost as many hours as they are awake. The desert has no music for you, no talk radio, nothing to occupy you or to entertain you. Until you get used to it, silence can almost give you a headache, or even what Tigger (in an episode of Winne the Pooh) called a "hearlucination". You talk to your self a bit. Long enough and you'll start talking to cactus. You'll hum. Soon, hopefully, you'll realize you're wasting precious moisture; you're throat will go dry.

In many ways, the desert is the best of all teachers when it comes to self negation. It forces you to take a good hard look at yourself, especially as you begin to think about the things you miss about "civilization". The desert doesn't care about you. The desert doesn't care about your academic or professional achievements. The desert doesn't care if you are a high school drop-out or a Ph.D. It doesn't care if you are a movie star, a rock star, or a king.

Ladies, the desert doesn't think you're sexy. It doesn't want your body. It doesn't think you look good in those jeans. On the other hand, it doesn't think those jeans make your rear look big, either. The desert doesn't think you're hot in a bikini. It doesn't care about your measurements. In fact, the desert doesn't think anything of you at all. It won't remember your birthday, or your anniversary. It won't flirt with you, or anything else that may provide an ego boost. It won't watch chick-flicks with you or give you cards or candy on Valentine's Day. The desert won't take you dancing. It won't take you to a fine restaurant. On the other hand, it will never expect you to, as they say, put out.

Men, the desert doesn't care about your athletic prowess. It doesn't care how fast you run, or how much you bench press. It doesn't care how much money you make, or that you run a Fortune 500 company. The desert doesn't think you're hot; it doesn't care that you have eight-pack abs. It doesn't think you're great; it will never look adoringly at you from across the room. It won't fall for your sweet-talking bullshit. You have nothing to say that will entice the desert into going home with you for the night. The desert will never fall in love with you. It will never be impressed with you. It will never respect you. On the other hand, it won't disrespect you, either. But it might kill you.

The desert doesn't think you're eye candy, not even if you're Megan Fox or Brad Pitt. And it won't provide you with any eye candy, either. It has no amusements, no diversions, no distractions from the harsh reality of life within its warm embrace.

The desert doesn't care about your hopes, your dreams, your plans--or your regrests. The desert doesn't know you; it won't miss you when you're gone. The desert will give you no recognition, no honors. The desert doesn't care who you are; it doesn't care who you think you are. The desert can't hear you; it is not even listening to you.

The desert has no social justice to offer you. The desert will offer you no food, no water, no shelter, and no clothing. The desert doesn't think you have rights, not to free speech, not to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness; it just might rob you of life, liberty and happiness. The desert offers you no vote. The desert doesn't care what you think you're entitled to, certainly not at its expense. The desert will give you nothing, certainly not healthcare. More than likely, it will take everything.

When you are sick, the desert will not minister to your needs. When you rejoice, the desert will not rejoice with you. When you mourn, the desert will not mourn with you. And when you die, the desert will not know it. The desert will not eulogize you, memorialize you, or cry over the loss of you. The desert will not even bury you. The desert will leave your rotting corpse for the scavengers to feast upon. It will be as if you never existed at all. And, for the desert, you never did.

All these things the desert teaches you, while not so obvious in "the world", are true even in the world. No matter what you do, no matter who remembers you--the day is coming when no one will know, or care, about you at all. Joseph did many great things in Egypt; but one day a pharoah arose who did not know Joseph. So it will be with you, no matter who you are. Think of it: two thousand years ago, the word caesar meant something to the entire known world and could put fear in the hearts of men; now it is the name of a salad.

The desert will kick your ass and bring you down to size.

It does happen that some monks will forget the lesson. The humorous story is told of John the Dwarf. One day John decided that he had progressed far enough to have become more angel than man, and therefore better than his brethren. He decided he should be free of the requirements of labor and informed his elder: "I should like to be free of all earthly care like the angels, who do not work but ever offer worship to God."

John took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After just one week (I told you the desert will kick your ass) he returned to the monastery. When he knocked on his elder's door, his elder asked, "Who is there?"

"It is I, John, your brother," John said.

But his elder replied, "John has become an angel and is no longer to be found among mere men," and left him there, in his discomfort until morning. Then, in the morning, his elder opened the door and said, "You are but a man, John. And you must work in order to eat."

At this rebuke, John prostrated himself before his elder and asked forgiveness.

The desert can quickly whittle one down to size and put everything into proper perspective.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 5, St. Anthony of Egypt

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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