In the silence of the desert, in the solitude of the cell, free from worldly entanglements, one could ascend to the contemplation and knowledge of God, and loving union with Him. This inner tradition of becoming “sharers of the divine nature” (2 Peter: 4 ) — all but lost to modern Christianity — survives, almost unchanged over the centuries in certain corners of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg is the founder of Monachos.net, the world’s premier site on the Church Fathers, monasticism, spirituality, and Church history and theology. He can also be heard on Ancient Faith Radio on his podcast ‘A Word From the Holy Fathers’. Hieromonk Irenei is one of Orthodoxy’s most gifted thinkers, writers and public speakers and this is his exclusive seminar in southern California in 2010.
We began yesterday with a discussion of what mystery means and what the life in Christ may mean from the perspective of mystery. I tried to put some of this into the framework of the popular language and vocabulary of mysticism and why I am nervous when people try to describe Orthodox Christianity as a “mystical” religion or try to compare it with other forms of mysticism, as if consolidating mystery into a thing were a possibility. Orthodoxy, as we discussed last night, sees mystery everywhere, if we understand mystery to be the true depth of creation that God has fashioned which goes beyond what our senses normally perceive, beyond goes beyond the very shallow and superficial understandings of creation, of the person of God that we normally hold within us and normally foster.
Yet, for Orthodoxy, mystical is almost always an adjective. It describes something—it isn’t a thing in its own right. I referred last night to the icon above the Heavenly Gates in the Orthodox Church—μυστικός δείπνο or mystical supper. We use mystical in this way—to describe something like communion or to describe life. There is a great deal of language in Orthodox literature of the mystical life—a life that’s lived to its fullness in Christ. This makes it not a distinct thing from ordinary life but simply suggests to us that the way we live life normally is a shallow reflection of what life actually is. Life, if lived to its fullness, is intrinsically mystical. Life lived in its fullness is a life that joins the human person to God.
Mystical life is not a life that you learn to fasten on to who you are. It is a life that discloses who you actually are. All you have to do to live a mystical life is to live a human life, or, more properly, to stop living a subhuman existence, which is the way most of us pass our days—living out a life that is more defined by our sin and our limitation than it is defined by the fact that we are creatures fashioned into God’s glory in his image capable of living in communion with himself. That is true human nature.
When we see great saints transfigured (I’ll talk a little bit this afternoon of St. Gregory Palamas, St. Simeon the New Theologian—saints that are very famous in the Orthodox world for visual transfiguration and transformation), the important thing to remember is that what one beholds in those moments is not some supernatural phenomenon, but it is actually a normal, human person. What makes the person look different, miraculous and wonderful is that we behold the human person in the full glory of God rather than in the debased limitation of sin, which is how we normally see one another.
What I would like to talk about this morning is some of the practical manners in which the traditions of Orthodox Christianity go about encouraging the living of this natural life, this normal life, which is by definition the mystical life. I want to look, for various reasons, at a specific set of Orthodox traditions and personalities—those known to most people as the Desert Fathers. One of the main reasons that I am choosing to talk about the Desert Fathers is that they are very, very popular. Many people have heard of them, many people have read them, and many people like them. Can I just see a show of hands of people here who have read or heard some snippet of the Desert Fathers? A fairly good showing. Can I see a show of hands of the number of people who have read the corpus of St. Maximos the Confessor? Aha. Four or five. This is about right. The Desert Fathers are in many ways far more accessible to us, or they seem more accessible. They are simple and brief sayings gathered together that seem very applicable to our life. The question I want to ask is, “How? How are they applicable to our life?”
One of the best studies in the English language of monastic traditions in the Early Church is a book by the Anglican vicar and scholar Derwas Chitty. In 1966, he published a volume entitled, The Desert a City. The book and the study were not very popular in his life. No one paid it a considerable amount of attention. Only at the end of his life—he died rather suddenly—and after his death did the value of the book, to historians and religious scholars, start to become clear. It is now, although quite old by academic publishing standards, still a seminal and classic text on what happened with the rise of the monastic movement.
He took for the title of the book—The Desert a City—a line out of the pages of St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria who was himself a biographer, a spiritual hagiographer of St. Anthony the Great, one of the founding fathers of monasticism. Chitty took this line where St. Athanasius writes, under the influence of St. Anthony, “The desert became like a city, filled with monks leaving the cities to populate a new city as their spiritual homeland.” Chitty, when writing about the advent of monasticism, found in this image of a barren, deserted, lifeless place, suddenly teeming with life, the absence of civility suddenly becoming a city itself all eager for citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, a vision that he felt would encapsulate or could encapsulate the whole phenomenon surrounding the rise of what we now call simply “desert monasticism”.
There is an endless series of paradoxes to the desert life. One finds life in a place that is normally associated with death; joy in a place that requires physical toil and labor. Yet, as Orthodox Christians, we hymn from every Pascha until the Ascension that the world has been transformed. Death isn’t what we think it is. Death has been defeated. It has been trampled down. It has been conquered. Life is what reigns, and it reigns in the most impossible of places—in a tomb, which is not normally the home of life. However, in our icons, the tomb and the cave of Christ’s birth are indistinguishable iconographic entities. They look the same. The place of death has become the place of life.
Life can blossom where you don’t expect it. This is really what is implied when the angel says that phrase that starts off the fullness of Christian belief, “He isn’t here. He has risen!” The world is a different place. Christian people are able to stand before the empty tomb and say with Paul, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, angels or principalities, powers, or things present or things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8).
The mystery that is manifested in the utterly simple words of the angel, which is proclaimed in the unwavering words of the apostles and handed down through history, comes to us in a variety of different ways. The Church espouses a broad selection of means of handing on what it has received. One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity in the Orthodox understanding is that it is something that is handed on. You cannot invent it. You cannot create it. You have to be given it. You have to receive it. Christ hands it to his apostles and they hand it on to the followers surrounding them. They in turn hand it down to us, and we, here in the twenty-first century, receive it. It is a gift given to us.
The word “to hand on” in Latin is predizione (“tradition”). It is a verb—“to tradition something”. We often think of tradition in a very debased sense, as if it’s a kind of a thing to set alongside with our favorite thing to compare it to—Scripture and tradition—as if they were both entities in and of themselves, and we would then decide whether we like this one or this one more. Or are they equal? Sometimes the Orthodox, for lack of a better way of explaining it, say, “They are equal for us.” No they’re not. They’re not things that can be compared. Tradition is an action, a handing on. The Scriptures are part of the fruit of that act of handing on an experience of God to another generation.
The Church has other ways that this has been handed on over time—the canonical corpus of the Church, lots and lots of canons. These exist not simply to be rules—you must do this and you mustn’t do that—but to give shape to a life that allows for authentic experience. The canons are pastoral tools. They exist in order to help us live a life where the experience of God is possible and to help prevent us from the pitfalls that normally stand in the way of that life. We have long, patristic tracts—long patristic tracts in some cases—that defend in minute detail very specific dimensions of that confession so that, when it is handed down, it is not perverted and it remains the same confession that Christians have always believed.
This even happens in our iconography. We see icons all around us. Icons are not free form paintings. They follow rules that are designed to ensure what they convey to us is true, that what we receive from them is not falsehood but the truth. So there are very strict rules on why Christ’s corona—his halo—looks different from everyone else’s. There’s a reason why the phrase Yahweh (in Greek Ho Ôn) is always in his halo. There’s a reason that the Mother of God, the Theotokos, wears certain colors in a certain order. These things exist to ensure that we receive truth.
For all its organization—all of its rubrics, canons, scriptures, patristic texts, iconography, hymns and liturgical typika—with all of this, the core of Orthodox Christianity still rests with that which gives meaning to all of these things, which is the human encounter with the living God, the fact that my heart and your heart can receive Christ and know him. The Church, quite rightly, lives out its calling to be universal, catholic—we believe in one catholic Church, universal. Our mission is to the whole world, as Christ himself says in the Great Commission. It touches all of creation, not just people, but our mission is to sanctify the world—the plants, animals, trees, the rocks, and the water are made holy in this confession.
But at the core of this universality is the person. Christianity starts with a person in every act, with my heart, with your heart. All of creation is centered precisely there in the human heart—what St. Maximos calls the microcosm of the entire universe. It is the person who receives the Holy Mysteries. It is a person who receives into her body the blood and body of the Lord. It is a person who receives anointing. It is a person whose sins are offered up in confession. These cosmic mysteries that literally change the universe always exist in the heart of a person.
So, for the Fathers of the Church, the human heart is an important thing. I touched on it a little last night. I want to give you a definition of the heart that comes from one of the Desert Fathers—Macarius the Great. I think it’s the best definition of the heart in terms of it being a practical definition.
The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there and lions. There are poisonous beasts and all the treasury of evil. There are rough and uneven roads in that little place. There are precipices, thoughts. There too are God and his angels. There is life. The Kingdom is there. There too is light, the Apostles, the heavenly cities, the treasures of greats. All things lie within that little space.
The Macarius who penned these words (there are several saints Macarius of the desert) is a great Syrian master of spiritual writings—one of the lasting figures of that movement in the desert which so moves and inspires people in our own generation. The definition of the heart that Macarius gives us is something which reveals the intense mystery of human life. There is more to us than we see. Dragons and lions, God, and apostles, mountains are often tamed within. This is why St. Isaac of Syria, for example, would say, “If you wish to find the Kingdom of God, look deep into your heart, and there you will find the ladder that leads you to the Kingdom.”
This emphasis on the heart and how it can be discovered and liberated, made whole, and redeemed, is an important part of the life of what we think of as the desert monastic community. The sayings of this community (and we shouldn’t say “this community”—there were many communities over a large geography and over several centuries, but we will think of them as a whole for the sake of brevity this morning) and our main witness to this life is the Apophthegmata—the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. They are available in English in a very good translation by Sister Benedicta Ward in England. If you don’t have this, I would be surprised and you should get a copy.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are sometimes single sentences and, at times, are very short sentences. Some of the longer might be a paragraph in length. These are not things that the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert wrote down. They are sayings heard—what is called in Greek “a word”. In tradition, you would go to a wise elder and say, “Give me a word, Father, some spiritual advice.” And the Father would give a word and leave you alone. You would digest it and then go and ask for another word. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are the collection of these “words” as they were remembered by the disciples of these fathers over time.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is probably the singular most popular collection of ancient writings among Orthodox Christians and, indeed, among many non-Orthodox Christians as well. It’s interesting and somewhat revealing that something in our culture, from the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, that these writings above all strike interest.
Another set of writings—at least the first sections of it—come from this period. This is the Philokalia, which was not very popular until recently when, in 1979, Bishop Kallistos and others (Palmer and Sherard) produced an English translation of the first through fourth volumes with the fifth still pending. Now this has probably become the second most popular collection of patristic text among a wide readership, despite the fact that the Philokalia is, within the Orthodox tradition, considered an extremely advanced text which monks are normally forbidden to read until they have advanced to a certain degree. On a popular level, everybody reads it. That is, unless you come to me for catechesis, and I add it to the “don’t read” list. This is not because it’s bad—it’s a very holy collection of texts. But it’s a practical handbook, and the thing that we need to admit (and we don’t like to admit, I think, because it somehow feels out of our grasp) is that the Philokalia is a monastic book—it’s for monks! That doesn’t mean it can’t have value for other people, but it’s written for monks—how to live the monastic life well. Even the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, despite the fact that they’re pithy, short and brief and therefore they seem very accessible, we have to acknowledge is a monastic handbook. This is how to live out the monastic life of renunciation. Yet more people read these texts than in any generation previous today.
So, there is a great and vexed question that emerges out of this—“What are we to do with these monastic texts so that they have a healthy value for us who strive to live the life of Christ in the world, not in the enclosure of the monastery?” Granted, there is value there—of course there is. We have to be wise enough to see it and not to simply take on board a life that is not our own. It’s no good to “play monk”. If you want to be a monk, there are places you can go, there are things you can do. But it’s no good to play monk anymore than it’s good to play family or play marriage. These are both very specific callings. Pick one! Then, when you are in it, realize that it’s blessed by God, and it’s holy. One of the things that I find very annoying and frustrating as a monk are people constantly trying to play monk—to absorb as much of monasticism as they can. It defaces the sanctity of marriage, which is the first thing that God blesses—the married life. God calls us to different things, and we should respect and love them in their integrity and take from the other traditions what can help us live within our own context and calling—the life that leads to communion in Christ.
So, how do we do that with the desert? How do we find in the Desert Fathers an avenue towards the mystikos vios—the mystical life of communion in Christ? If the writings of the Desert Fathers are simply historical documents that told us how they lived and what they did and what they said, they could almost certainly be relegated simply to the annals of interest for historians. But that’s not what they do. They’re not the type of history that just satisfies the intellectual curiosity. They recount an engagement with God of a radical sort. To me, what is remarkable is not the fact that they often recount quite radical practices—fasting from everything for weeks before receiving communion, never speaking a single word to a family member, living in caves in complete isolation. In many ways, these are radical things. That’s not really what makes the Desert Fathers unique. What makes them unique is their radical insistence that the life in Christ is possible, that a transformed life is attainable. End of story.
There’s a stark, simple, literality to the belief in the Desert Fathers that, if you follow Christ, he will draw you to himself. No questions, no doubts, no attempts to soften the blow of what’s required. If you do it, he will receive you fully into his life. There’s an insistence on the practical possibility of a transfigured life, and an insistence that a transfigured life really means a transfigured life!
One of the most touching stories from the Desert Fathers is the story of Abba Joseph of Panephysis. He went on to become a very respected elder of the desert, but the story is about his youth. He was a novice at one of the monasteries. He went to an elder of that community and said in the traditional way, “Father, give me a word.” He wanted advice. The account goes like this. Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph, and he said to him, “Abba [Abba means “Dear Father”], as far as I can I say my little office [i.e., the monastic rule of prayer]. I fast a little. I pray and I meditate. I live in peace as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”
There’s nothing in this saying that leads us to believe that he is lying. We’re given to believe and, indeed, in his later lectures, he was a devout, humble man. He’s not bragging. He’s confessing to his elder that he really is trying to do everything set before him—I fast as far as I can. I try to be at peace with everybody. I really try. I say my prayers. I go to the services. The problem isn’t that he is confessing what he does. The problem is that last sentence—“What else is there?” This is the Christian life. I fast, I’m kind, I live in peace, and I go to the services. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the holy life we want. Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to Joseph, “If you would only will it, my child, you could become all flame!” Wow! When I was younger, I loved that image.
That the desert became a city that so many people went to and enrolled in the monastic life is a miracle in its own right. But the deeper miracle is the approach to divine communion and transfiguration that enabled this barren desert to become such a place. This is the inner message of the Desert Fathers—you can live a Christian life. And if we’re honest with ourselves, if we’re really honest with ourselves, most of us doubt that a lot of the time. “I could, but…I have this.” “I’m constrained by this….” “I could live a holy life, but….” The message of the Desert Fathers is “you can”—full stop. And, if you are willing to do it, as Abbot Lot says to Joseph, “If you would only will it, it could happen.” If it happens, your life will be transformed. How could it not be, if what happens is that you’re drawn up in to the life of God himself?
What are we to do in the city? We don’t live in a desert. What do we do here? How can we make this city into a desert? Athanasius talks about the desert being made a city. For us, the task is how to turn the city into a desert. How do we take the place where we live and find in it an avenue for the attainment of holiness and transfiguration?
The city in the ancient world was a place of lusts, gratification, social life, and where every whimsy could be met. The desert was a place of death. The monks didn’t flee to the desert because they had a romantic notion that it was all pretty, silent and quiet. Therefore, I can go there and get away from it all. They went to the desert, because, in the mindset of the ancient world, the desert is where the demons live—it’s their home turf. They were going into the battleground to fight. That’s why they went to the desert.
I was reminded of this as an undergraduate student in a rather stern way by Sister Benedicta Ward, the woman I mentioned who translated the Desert Fathers and who was my instructor. She asked me to write a paper on St. Anthony of Egypt going into the desert. I thought, “Ah, at last I can write about this subject that I love so much.” I produced this very grotesquely flowing, florid essay about it. It went on and on with, “he saw the supreme silence in the beauty of the barren place, and his heart was called to the calm and the stillness and the quiet beauty that comes from the stones and the sands.” I was rather quite proud of this. It took me a long time. As I was reading my essay aloud to her in the traditional Oxford way, I was waiting for her comments, and I could just see her face drop as I went. She just looked down. Her one word in response was, “Rubbish!” That’s not why they went. They went because they wanted to fight. The desert is a place where walls and houses can no longer protect you. That’s where the voice of the will is magnified, because there are very few other voices around. Oftentimes, in the midst of the world, we don’t confront our will, because we’re too busy confronting everybody else’s. So our will, which is broken and pained and hurting, doesn’t get looked at. In the desert, you can’t avoid it. It is a place where delusion runs rampant, where people start to believe things that aren’t true. A classic example is seeing an oasis where there isn’t one. It’s true on an interior level also. It is a battleground—spiritual as well as physical. You have to fight—literally—for every mouthful of food that you receive. The early monks viewed themselves as spiritual warriors, not afraid of the fight, but precisely desiring to take it up and be warriors for Christ. This is why monks have always in the Orthodox Church been paralleled to military soldiers. This is the spiritual infantry of the Church.
I remember how confused I became one time when I was serving vigil. When you serve vigil, vestments come on and off, back and forth, and I had to put on the philonion for the next part. As I walked back toward the altar, the bishop who was standing to the side whispered to me in very quiet tones, “Don’t forget your sword!” I thought, “What? Surely this is a problem of translation into English.” Don’t forget your sword. A soldier can’t be without his sword. He meant this—I had left my chotki on the table. I hadn’t put it back on. “Pick up your sword!” Monks were not about just living a nice, quiet, peaceful existence. They were about fighting.
The contest, the battle, is what we call asceticism. If this is not a word yet in your religious vocabulary, it needs to be—ascesis, asceticism. It’s the heart of Christian life. Ascesis is an old sporting word. It comes from ancient Greek games. It is the preparation an athlete would go through in order to prepare himself to compete effectively in the sport or games. That preparation required training, self-denial, self-control—you can’t just eat anything you want if you expect to be a good runner—and it involved oftentimes quite demanding physical labors, strict regimens that were given for what you could and could not do, and what you must do. It was oftentimes quite painful. Many of you who are “sporty” people at all know that stretching may feel good in the long run, but it can be quite painful in the short term.
Ascesis, as a theological concept, comes out of this. In order to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, the ultimate prize, as St. Paul calls it, preparation is required. You don’t just walk on in. You get yourself ready. This is not because there is some complex set of entry requirements to get into the Kingdom of God. But the Kingdom of God is about a transfigured life—a life drawn into Christ. The way I live my life right now prevents that. It doesn’t assist it. So ascesis is what we do in order to change our life, by God’s grace and by our efforts, to become a person capable of receiving Christ fully into my day to day life.
If you want to think of ascesis in the classical sense, there is a lovely, sort of moan that St. Anthony gives to God. He’s locked himself up in a barn for twenty years in order to battle the demons. He walls himself up so that nobody can get in. His disciples come and, through a window, pass him a loaf of bread every so often. For twenty years he lives in this isolation, praying and fighting the demons. After this long, long period, one afternoon something happens. I’ll read it to you. This is from The Life of St. Anthony written by St. Athanasius:
Looking up, he saw the roof as it were opened up and a ray of light descending to him. All the demons around suddenly vanished. The pain of his body immediately ceased. The building which, to his vision, had appeared broken from the battle, now was again whole. But Anthony, feeling this help, besought the vision that had appeared to him. He said, “Where were you? Why did you not appear to help me at the beginning of my quest? Why did you not appear and make my pain cease?” A voice came to him and said, “Anthony, I was here, but I was waiting to see your contest. And since you have endured and have not been worsted, I will always be your help and your succor. I will make your name known throughout the world.”
Two things stand out to me from that encounter. One is that Anthony had achieved such a level of holiness that he could raise a finger to God and say, “Where were you?” and God answers! So the man is obviously developed in the spiritual life. But the message we have to take away from this is that struggle and pain and work and labor are not signs that God is absent from our life. The growth into holiness is often a painful, fatiguing process. We have so conditioned our lives to living in a fallen, broken way, that to get out of that is hard.
To put it in practical terms, most of us eat too much. Let us say that, from tomorrow morning, we’re only going to have a banana in the morning and that’s it. Nothing else. It hurts! It’s not just “Oh, I really want more food”. Your stomach hurts. There’s pain. Your mind constantly thinks about food. We are trapped by the way we live our life.
To get out of it is a process that involves work and struggle. And one of the most common pitfalls in the spiritual life is that we associate struggle and pain with the absence of God. If God were really here, if he really loved me, he would help me. But as this story from St. Anthony’s life shows that is the way God helps us—to assist us in our suffering so that we suffer in a redemptive way, so that the suffering doesn’t destroy us but redeem us.
It is here, I think, that the modern world has the ability to take from the Desert Fathers wisdom for its own day to day life. How to do it? How do we make a realistic beginning in taking the wisdom of these people and infusing it into our day to day life?
If the writings of the Desert Fathers are defined by any singular characteristic, it’s their practicality. They don’t talk a lot about theories,
theologies or philosophies. They talk a lot about how to weave a good basket, how to bake bread, how to make prostrations. There’s an utter practicality to the desert approach to the spiritual life. When we’re talking about mysticism and spirituality and other very strange words that we use without it meaning anything in the modern world (spirituality means something that comes from the Holy Spirit—nothing else), we’re sometimes frustrated if the guidance comes in things like, forgive people, work with your hands, be obedient, because these are not the things we associate or expect to hear. But the testimony of the Desert Fathers is that these are the way into a transfigured life. Practical.
St. Anthony’s life in the desert began when he walked into church (rather late, the case seems to be, so he’s following good Orthodox custom as he was showing up a ways into the service, just before the Gospel was to be read), and he hears Christ in the Gospel. He says, “It was as if, when I walked into the church, the Gospel was being read only to me—nobody else—just to me. Christ was speaking to me, Anthony, and he said, ‘Anthony, if you want to be perfect, go and sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.’”
Anthony did. He walked out, sold what he had (It took a little while for him to do it—he struggled at first. He sold most of what he had. He regretted that, and then he sold the rest.), and he went. How many of us when we hear that commandment try to spiritualize it away. It means I shouldn’t cling to things the way I normally do. It means I should be more self-sacrificial—I should give more. I shouldn’t be bound by the things of this world. For St. Anthony, it meant go, sell all you have, and give it away! Simple advice. Not easy advice, but simple. It demands a radical sacrifice. But it’s not hard. Painful, but not hard.
So, with so many Fathers in the tradition of the Church who, when they hear “you must not come to the Eucharist if you harbor hatred against a brother”, would literally walk across the empire to find someone they had wronged and beg their forgiveness, then walk back, and then receive Communion. Who, being told that anger prevents one from worthily receiving Communion, actually believed that that’s what it meant.
This practicality marks out the Desert Fathers in a remarkable way. If it’s to be practically significant for us, if the mystical encounter with the Redeemer that they lead towards is to have a place in our life, to shape us in the cities, we have to start by being as practical as they were. One of the biggest problems in the spiritual life is we like to theorize about it. We like to talk about it. This sounds a little odd coming from someone who is leading a lecture at a seminar. There’s a place for it perhaps, but the place is to prepare us for the action for the work, to help us get ready to go out and do the work that needs to be done.
The world around us, more and more, is a place totally enslaved by the intellect. Life as we live it is defined by what we think and feel. We are told explicitly in society that what we think is what makes the world for us. We can define our own morality, our ethics, society, legal systems, even good and bad by what we think. You can grow by thinking in a certain way. Mind, mind, mind, intellect, intellect, intellect and we never do anything.
The Desert Fathers give us practical advice on how to live a holy, transfigured existence. Here’s the first bit of advice that comes directly out of the Egyptian desert. It’s an anonymous saying. I find it’s a good way to begin the spiritual journey—one sentence: “You need a spiritual pilgrimage: begin by closing your mouth.”
There’s hardly a more fitting saying for the Fathers of the Church to give the twenty-first century than this one. Like most of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, it’s pithy and witty. You can remember it. It’s not a book that you have to find your way through if you want to find the good bits again. It’s short—you can commit the whole thing to memory and put it into action. It talks about really making a beginning. If you want to grow, you’ve got to start somewhere. This is the right place. Turn this off and growth can begin.
We live in a modern world that is fascinated with talking. We talk all the time. We are told if you don’t have something to say, you’re not important. You should always have something to offer any conversation on any topic, however trivial and pointless. Society is so crafted that, if we are in a context of trivial conversations which we realize are trivial and pointless, we still feel odd if we don’t contribute something. We find ourselves contributing unwittingly to things that we know have no value whatsoever. Talk, talk, talk. How can you ever hear anything from God if you’re always talking? How can you ever create the stillness and silence in the heart that is needed to receive the Lord if your mouth is constantly venting out whatever thoughts happen to be crossing your mind at the moment? Simply learning to be still and quiet opens the path towards transformation.
Similarly, we are not going to be able to hear things if we stop up our ears. There’s a wonderful saying to this affect by Abba John of Aponia from the desert: “If we purify ourselves of wickedness, then we will start to see invisible realities. But there is no point, while we are still blind, to question why we cannot see the light.” There’s no point in stuffing up our ears and then moaning about the fact that we cannot hear. We live in a life where we are constantly doing things that prevent us from seeing God. Yet we moan, “Why can’t we see him? Why aren’t I changed? Why do I not have the experience of God that I so desire?” We moan as if it was almost unjust. Surely God should do something about this! He should help me out. But Abba John says, “We plug up our ears and then complain that we can’t hear God saying anything to us.” We talk constantly so that, even if God were next to us speaking, we wouldn’t hear him. But our conversation is about God’s seeming absence.
The ways to begin to ascend into the Kingdom of God are to close the mouth and open the ears and use the eyes. To attain real prayer which leads to a transfiguration of life, we have to start with the practical measures around us with the body and the mind together. Once we make a beginning in this way, John says, you then have to target the things going on in the heart that are poisoning it. The idea of the heart being poisoned and cold is a consistent theme in the spiritual writings of the Church. Once you’ve slowed it down, you have to remove the poison.
One of the chief ways of doing this, according to the Desert Fathers, is to combat something. Know what it is? Pride? Thoughts? Passions? Anger. Of all the things that we expect, anger isn’t usually one of them. But for the Fathers of the Desert, it is an overriding spiritual vice—to harbor anger. It’s one of the chief stumbling blocks towards following Christ. If you are angry, you cannot follow him. You just cannot. We need to take that seriously in the modern world. Our anger always, always separates us from God, no exceptions. The righteous anger that we hear about in God is God’s property, not ours. We turn anger into a passion—something that controls us.
This is something that the Fathers need to tell us who live in the world. This is a passion that we have ample opportunity to succumb to in the world. There are many opportunities for anger. We are thrust into relationships that we don’t want with people at work. We might have to get on with people who irritate us tremendously. We live in a society that does things of which we do not approve. Even the people close to us do things that make us mad. They betray us. They sin against us. They slander us. They hurt us. And that’s what our friends do! We have enemies as well.
Anger is always around. The danger with anger is that we don’t seriously think to combat it. We think to combat the obvious sins—lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, whatever they may be. We’re going to get rid of those first and then I’ll work on my heart. Then I’ll get to that. I’ve got to get the big things out of the way, and then I’ll get to my heart, eventually.
This is what St. John Cassian says:
If we take St. Paul literally, we are not allowed to cling to our anger for even a single day. [He’s referring to Ephesians 4:26.] I, however, would like to make a comment. Many people are so embittered, so furious, and in a state of eternal anger that they do not only cling to their anger for a day but drag it on for weeks. I am at a loss for words to explain people who do not even vent their anger in speech, but erect a barrier of sullen silence around their hearts. They distill the bitter poison into their hearts until finally it destroys them. They could not have understood these people—how important it is to avoid anger. Not merely externally but even in our thoughts, because it darkens the heart with bitterness. It cuts us off from the radiance of God, from spiritual understanding. It deprives us of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
If we’re talking about the mystical life as a life in which we are joined to God through the Spirit, the Desert Fathers are telling us that the presence of anger immediately makes that impossible. Anger takes the place in the heart where the Spirit wants to dwell and fills it with poison, bitterness and guile. St. Paul says to get rid of it, immediately, the same day, and don’t let the sun go down on it. Yet, as St. John says, many of us have perfected the art of just burying it inside—as long as I don’t say anything to anyone…I’ll just keep it all in here. Then I’m only murdering myself.
Anger is the first step—Christian anger management—into the Kingdom of God. As I say, this is advice that the desert has to teach us in the city. We have to learn to take this seriously. It’s not something that we combat “down the road” in the spiritual struggle, but up front. If you want to live the mystical life, if you want to attain the Kingdom of God, start by closing your mouth and learning how to forgive.
Forgiveness is the way in. Forgiveness is the antithesis of anger. Forgiveness is what allows us to be wrong and respond in love. If we don’t develop and foster that as our chief aim in our spiritual life, in our ascesis with one another, the battle can never begin. You can’t fight the enemy if you’ve become your own enemy. You have to get rid of that first.
Here’s another saying from a Desert Father—St. John of the Ladder, whom we commemorate during Lent: “When you are ready to stand in the presence of the Lord, let your soul wear a garment that is woven throughout from the cloth of your forgiveness of other people. Otherwise, your prayer will be of no value whatsoever.” St. John of the Ladder is not one for mincing his words. If you’ve ever read The Ladder of Paradise, it’s a pretty forthright text.
But this is something that the Fathers of the Desert tell us. These are not little games we are playing. This is life! You may not want to forgive another person, but, from a theological point of view, who cares? Do it! Learn how to do it. Beg forgiveness as a first Port of Call. Offer it every time it’s demanded of you. There’s nothing worse for the spiritual life than for someone to come and ask for forgiveness and for you to deny it. You do them no harm. They will only grow. But you kill yourself! Your heart becomes stone hard.
These aren’t games that we play. “Otherwise your prayer will be of no value whatsoever.” We don’t believe that. We don’t take that seriously enough in the world. “Well, I’m really angry. I’m upset, but I’ll just stand here and grin and bear it.” There is a way out of anger. We have confession in the Orthodox Church that helps us discover in the heart where anger lives. Sometimes anger has burrowed itself so far in that we can’t find it anymore. We just know that something is wrong. Part of what confession is for is to be guided through your own heart, to have someone help you to see what’s there that you have become so accustomed to that it no longer bothers you, or it bothers you without being able to be identified. Use this gift. Confession out to be something that we run to with joy, because it’s an opportunity to find that which needs to be healed and to heal it.
Start the spiritual, mystical life with forgiving your brethren. In doing this, this city is a completely authentic arena for spiritual warfare. One of the temptations in the spiritual life is to think, “I could do it better somewhere else: if only I lived by that big cathedral…if only I were closer to the relics of St. My-Very-Favorite…if only I were on the Holy Mountain, on Mt. Athos…then I could be holy.” The city, this city, this town, this room is an avenue for spiritual warfare that is just as holy, just as filled with the potential for true growth as any in the world. You have to go nowhere other than where you are right now to grow in the spiritual life. In fact, many times the desire to flee, to find some better place, is itself a temptation. What we’re really saying is, “I don’t want to deal with it just yet.”
The Fathers say something about this as well. St. John Cassian once more:
If you want to set your lives aright and find peace and communion with God, finding people who will behave tolerantly towards you is not going to do it. It will come about, rather, by our learning how to show compassion to everyone. If we try to avoid this hard struggle of compassion by preferring a withdrawn and a solitary life, we will simply drag our unhealed obsessions with us into solitude. We might well have hidden them. We certainly will not have eliminated them. If we do not seek liberation from our obsessions, then becoming more withdrawn and less social may even make us more blind to them, since it will mask them.
This is practical spiritual advice, because the temptation is constantly to try to withdraw, not in the holy sense of giving up our connections to the world. But in the sense of trying to escape what fundamentally is a problem within. It’s an irrational desire—“I’ll run away to the desert and all the problems will be gone.” He says you’re just going to drag them into the desert with you. Right here is where you can be sanctified. This place, this life, is the avenue that can lead to your transfiguration, to the full reality of the Kingdom of God.
Remember the repentant thief. He found salvation at a place of execution—the least desirable place to go! Yet he found it and attained it in that moment. We have to make a start with what we have. This is the practical wisdom of the Desert Fathers that is necessary if we want to attain what Orthodoxy would consider a mystical life. This is sometimes frustrating to us, because this life is not one filled with dazzling moments. There may be a few of those here and there. It’s not a life that we spend trying to seek the next great experience, the next spiritual rush or spiritual high. Those are delusions as well. Is that really what we think Christianity is about—fleeting moments that we really like? Christianity is about a whole life change.
This leads me to the next great theme from the desert that can be used in the city to help us attain sanctification which most people will find even less a likely candidate—hospitality. St. John called our life “the hard struggle of compassion, a life that is lived in society amongst our neighbors.” If our calling is not to run away from this but to live within it and be transformed in it and to transform it, then our relationship to our neighbor is an essential part of our own spiritual growth. It starts with forgiveness and compassion, but it cannot end there. It has to build into a relationship of hospitality, which is one of the highest virtues in Orthodox Christianity. I’m not talking about “how about coming over for a cup of tea” hospitality.
I should have had a closer look about this space before I started this talk. Do you have an icon of the Trinity somewhere? Ah, yes. In that sort of diamond-shaped collection there—second from the top, the big one. What is the name of that icon? Rublev’s Trinity, yes. But what’s the actual name of the icon? “The Hospitality of Abraham.” We’ve removed most of the story from the icon. If you look at all the bigger versions, you have Abraham on one side and his wife on the other and a house. He’s entertaining these three mysterious visitors (Genesis 18).
For us, the best picture we can draw of God is a picture of hospitality. That’s the closest you can come to articulating the Trinity—mutual hospitality, an interconnection of love, of being in communion, where the life of each is defined by the life of the other, given to the other, received from the other. The closest approach we can have to such a God is to ourselves be hospitable, which is not about offering nice luncheons every once in a while to the book club.
That’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an approach to the other person which, starting from forgiveness and compassion, leads to other self offering—“I’m am willing to give myself to you, to offer myself for you, to receive myself you, when you come to me, to actually hear who you, to see who you are, to have a conversation, an encounter between us, not just an exchange of words, but two lives coming into communion with one another.”
We intuit this in the world by certain experiences of life. When someone is grieving—really in pain—what do they want more than anything else? Not somebody to talk to them. They want someone to be with them. We often say to listen to them, but often a person in intense grief doesn’t have to have anything to say. But they want somebody to be with them, to see them, to give something, even if it’s silence, to them. We intuit this reality even in secular situations.
But this hospitality, this offering of a life, my life for you, and for you to give your life back to me, and to come into communion in this way, is the closest that we can come as creatures to emulating the life of the Trinity, defined precisely through an image of hospitality.
A great desert writer, Bishop Theodorus the Ascetic, took special note of this and said the following:
The patriarch Abraham [who is theoretically in that icon] undertook the labor of hospitality, and he sat by his tent door welcoming anyone who would pass by. His table was open to everyone, even to the uncouth and the unworthy. He set no limitations on his hospitality. This was why he was counted worthy to receive God himself, to be present at that most wonderful feast when he entertained angels and the Creator of all. We too should love to practice an open-hearted hospitality so as to welcome not only angels but even the Lord himself into our life. For it was the Lord who told us “in so far as you do to one of these, you did it to me.” It is good to give yourself to all, especially those who are unable to repay you.
It is hard to be hospitable in the world in this way. He talks about an open-hearted hospitality, and he’s not being emotional, saying, “Do it with all you’ve got!” He’s talking about a hospitality that literally opens up one’s heart to another heart, a real person standing before another person. To offer that freely is a virtue that leads us directly to communion with God. It’s why in monasteries, in both the Eastern and Western traditions, hospitality has been a chief virtue. Monasteries always receive pilgrims. There isn’t really the possibility for someone to knock on the door of the monastery and say, “I’m in need of help. Receive me,” and they say, “No thank you, we’re not really interested.”
We do that all the time—not when someone knocks on our door at night and says, “Can I have a room?” But we do it when someone comes to us and we’re too distracted to want to pay attention to them, or they come to us to tell us something and we sort of listen to them. We smile and nod to ourselves, “That’s very nice, very nice…” But our thoughts are elsewhere. Our thoughts are not really there with that person. When they come to us and want to express grief and we don’t listen to their grief. We try to come back with prepared responses, little platitudes that we have been told will comfort them. But we don’t listen to another person. We are constantly depriving ourselves of the opportunity to live a godly life, because we don’t know how to give our heart to other people.
The world sometimes talks about giving the heart, but it talks about it in a very self-destructive way—“Give it away!” Well, we don’t want to give it away. We need it. The heart is who we are. But we talk in Christian terms about an ability to give freely without being depleted. The paradox of the Christian life is that the more you give up your life, the more life you have. The more you give your heart, the larger your heart becomes, until you give it completely and entirely, and you receive (in St. Theodorus’ words) not just men and angels, but God himself.
If we want to live a mystikos vios , life in all its real depth, the mystical life, we must start with a closed mouth, start by combating anger with forgiveness, and then learn to open ourselves to the people around us. Again, these are not what you would expect in a handbook on the mystical life. You would expect perhaps more esoteric sorts of things. But these are the handbooks for the Christian life—the words of the Fathers—and they are surprisingly ordinary. Here’s one of my favorites. I recently printed this out and put it above the desk in my school office:
Do not listen to gossip at your neighbor’s expense. Do not spend time talking with those who love to find fault in others. Otherwise, you will fall away from the love of God. You will find yourself alienated from eternal life.
You wouldn’t have thought that gossip was being written about in the 4th century desert. But there it is. These are men and women who attained a transfigured existence. Remember the Elder Abba Lot transfigured in flame, transfigured in fire. They did it because they knew that the way into the Kingdom of Heaven was a way of struggle and practical living out of the virtues.
You don’t have to engage in some odd spiritual mental discipline. You have to learn how to stop gossiping, how to stop judging, how to stop being angry. You have to learn how to start forgiving, how to be compassionate when everything in you fights that desire, how to open yourself even to the people who cannot possibly repay you. I always think that we should tack onto the end of that saying, “…and who do not wish to repay you.” Even they are people to whom you can give your heart.
If we do this—if we open up life to the real virtues of God in this way—we are enabled to do the thing we find the hardest to do when we are not following these instructions. We suddenly find an ability to pray, because prayer is fundamentally a simple thing. It’s not complicated. It’s utterly simple—it’s my heart taken up into God’s life. It’s not a conversation I have with God. It’s communion in God, a union with God. Adoption into God. Participation in God. The Fathers used many different titles. It’s a simple thing, and yet it is an impossible thing, if we forge of our heart something which cannot hear God’s voice, which cannot receive his presence, which will not receive his forgiveness. As we say in the prayer with which we began—“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” That prayer ought to frighten the daylights out of us, for the simple fact that we don’t forgive our debtors and we don’t forgive those who sin against us. That prayer is us announcing to God, “I expect from you what I’m willing to do myself.”
Christ knew what he was instructing when he offered that prayer. This isn’t a “feel good” thing to recite. This is a demand that you radically change your life, that you find the ability to forgive so that you can be forgiven. Again, it’s not that God doesn’t forgive you. God has forgiven the world. He’s forgiven you. But can you receive that forgiveness in a heart that is stone cold and to which the doors are locked and barred? We bemoan the fact that we don’t feel God’s presence in the house of our hearts. And yet it is we ourselves who have bound up and locked the doors and covered the windows so that he cannot get in.
Another saying from the desert reads simply this:
When you live the commandments, your prayer will be simple, completely simple. Both the tax collector and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase. One said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and the other, “Father, I have sinned against you.”
Prayer is simple and yet it demands a changed life. Abba Agathon of the desert described it as the hardest, simple thing to do. He said:
In my opinion, no other labor is so difficult as simple prayer. Every time a person wants to pray, our spiritual enemies, internal and external, come to disrupt it. For if we are deflected from prayer, the demons can do us harm. Whatever good work a person undertakes will produce success only if it is done with perseverance. But the labor of prayer is a warfare that will endure until our very last breath. We battle what is broken in us. We battle what comes to us from outside. And yet, the battle is not for prayer itself. The battle is for a quiet heart in which prayer can grow.
I’ll end with one final quotation from the desert:
A disciple should always carry the memory of God within him. Let that be what fills his heart. Let that be his defining characteristic. For it is written in the scriptures, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” You should not only love the Lord your God when you enter into a house of prayer. You should also remember him with deep desire when you are walking alone, when you are speaking with others, when you take your meals. For the scripture says, “Where your heart is, there also is your treasure.” Truly wherever a person’s heart is given, that is where their deepest desire will draw them. That, indeed, is their God. If the disciple’s heart longs always for the true God, then God will be the Lord of the heart.
The Fathers of the Desert tell us that we can prepare the heart for God through practical means of love and self-discipline and self-denial. If that is what we do, then we aim the heart at God and God fills the heart. If we aim the heart at the world, the world will fill the heart, and the world will become our God and that’s what we will worship. But if the heart is aimed towards God, by simple, practical measures, then God becomes the Lord of the heart, and the person attains the Kingdom itself. Amen.