Abba Ammonas The Bishop - Part 2
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
The Interior Life
Health in the interior life was of utmost importance to Abba Ammonas. The inner life could either be directed towards the love of men of the love of God, the chosen direction would establish the health of the individual. To Ammonas, the interior life was nearly synonymous with the will of man. The inner life of man was the thing “unseen” that demonstrated the eternal reality of God.
Those whose inner life is set ablaze by the fiery sweetness of God’s presence should be ever increasing…
“…in grace and in joy and in love of men and in love of the poor and good ways, and in all the fruits of holiness…”
And those who continue to ask, without doubting, will continue to receive…
“…stretch your thoughts up to heaven night and day, asking with all your heart for the Holy Spirit, and this will be given you. For such was in Elijah the Tishbite and Elisha and all the other prophets. And see that there never enter into your hearts thoughts of doubt. saying, ‘Who will be able to receive this?’ Therefore permit not these thoughts to enter your minds, but ask in uprightness and you will receive.”
However, pride and love of pleasure would hinder this growth.
“Remember that the dead body a man acquires comes from love of vain-glory and from pleasures.”
To properly address our inner life, we would have to deal with our source of motivation. Abba Ammonas taught that there were three sources of motivation for the will: the heart of man, the enemy, and God. Ammonas said that God only accepted what was his own, namely his will. The will of man will lead man to pride and pleasure, the will of the enemy will lead man to destruction, the will of God would lead man to God. An honest appraisal of the heart is required in order to root out the motivation for our actions.
One the greatest indicators of whether or not something is God's will is if it is sanctioned by the spiritual authority in your own life. Submitting to the leading of a spiritual father or mother would test the health of the heart. Submitting to the will of another ultimately tests the level of submission to God. And to the degree there is pain when you are not allowed to do what is in your heart to do, is the degree your own will is involved in the decision. When spiritual parentage blesses and recognizes the will of God in your life and action there is greater assurance that you are acting according to God's will.
The test of submission is the test of the inner life, and ultimately the inner life will be what enables you to hear the voice of God. We can be led astray by any number of good sounding pretexts. Eve believed that what she was doing was good and proper for progress when she partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. However, her own will was what caused her to fail to discern the voice of God. Ammonas said,
“If we follow our own will, God no longer sends His power which prospers and establishes all the ways of men. For if a man does something, imagining that it comes from God, when really his own will is involved in it, then God does not help him and you will find his heart embittered and feeble in everything to which he sets his hand.”
In this way, God demonstrates to the individual that their will is not the will of God.
The voice of God becomes less distinct the more we follow our own will. When we fulfill our will that desire is contrary to the voice of God, and eventually we dull our ability to hear him. It really is true that the more our own will is involved in the thing we are hearing the more potential for deception lies in the leading. God speaks about what we are to do before we know what that thing is in order to show us that it wasn't within our will to fulfill but his.
In order to deal with the heart, God will baptize those who desire to seek him into period of solitude in order to bring deep healing to the soul. This is the case throughout scripture according to Ammonas.
“This is why the holy fathers also withdrew into the desert alone, men such as Elijah the Tishbite and John the Baptist. For do not suppose that because the righteous were in the midst of men it was among men that they had achieved their righteousness. Rather, having first practised much quiet, they then received the power of God dwelling in them.”
The purpose of seasons of silence is to imbue the individual with the peace of God and the power of God. Throughout scripture men and women dwelt with God in silence in order to develop a deep level of trust and acceptance in the presence of God.
According to Ammonas, silence so takes hold the individual, they would rather remain with God than be sent to others, but are willing to pay the price of personal intimacy in order to bring healing to those entrusted to them.
“But those who are sent from God, do not want to go away from their quiet, knowing that through it they have obtained the divine power; but in order not to disobey the Creator, they go for the spiritual edification of men, in imitation of Him.”
Silence is so necessary that it will be impossible to avoid it. It is in periods of silence and solitude that we come face to face with the reality of our inner life. The things we are passionate about, in love with, draw comfort and identity from, will all come to the surface during these periods of isolation. The deep work of healing that takes place is necessary if anyone desires to be used significantly of God.
“For a soul cannot be sent into the midst of men for their edification if it has some defect of its own. And those who go before they are made perfect, go at their own will and not at God’s.”
Healing is a necessary component to usefulness. Without healing we will end up hurting the very people we are supposed to bring to life. Spiritual sweetness becomes our life and silence spreads that sweetness abroad throughout the heart of the individual.
Seasons of Testing
In the process of growth, the individual would periodically enter seasons where the Holy Spirit withdraws the presence of his sweetness in order to test the character of the inner life. It is not in the times of joy and sweetness that we discover our tenacity, but rather in the dry seasons we move through during the spiritual life.
“…after the Spirit has given them joy and sweetness, He then departs and leaves them. This is a sign of His activity and happens with every soul that seeks and fears God: He departs and keeps at a distance until He knows whether they will go on seeking Him or not.”
The response of the individual will prove the depth of their heart. Some will neglect their pursuit, preferring to shrink away from the challenge that presents itself. They turn to other outlets for fulfilment, and with time forget the previous intimacy shared in their moments of silence and solitude. Eventually, the test proves the depth of depravity that always existed, the heart hardens, the eyes of the heart grow dim, and the fading memory of a blessed life is a shadow in the mind of the individual.
But some will recognise the heaviness that sets in for what it is: the cry of the heart to abandon itself to God.
“If, however, they perceive this unaccustomed heaviness, in contrast with the joy they had before, and they ask God with tears and fasting.”
The test serves to prove their inner tenacity. They redouble their efforts in the midst of this perceived abandonment. Then God…
“if He sees that they are asking in uprightness from their whole heart and are denying all their own self-will, God in His grace will give them a greater joy than the first, and establish them more firmly.”
The test deepens their resolve and the depth the grace of God extends within their heart.
These seasons of trial work stability within the inner life. Ammonas refers to the example of trees to illustrate the immovability of those who weather the arid storm:
“And it is said of trees that the more they are troubled by winds, the more they take root and grow. So is it with the endurance of the righteous.”
These seasons of testing ultimately have vast ramifications for the depth of our faith. Testing produces endurance, endurance engenders hope, and hope and faith are intertwined.
“For if trial does not come upon you, either openly or secretly, you cannot progress beyond your present measure. For all the saints, when they asked that their faith might be increased, entered into trials.”
Where the enemy would rob us of faith, God seeks to produce faith by hope in him. The more we see his sustaining life within ours, the more our confidence in his saving grace is increased.
Lastly, Ammonas taught that the path to inheritance was honoring those who have gone before. As we imitate those who have gone ahead of us, their zeal becomes our zeal, and eventually we acquire the grace they carried. Ammonas elaborated to his disciples,
“…you sought God, imitating your fathers in the faith, so that you should receive the promises also, because you are reckoned their sons; for sons inherit the blessing of their fathers, because their zeal was like theirs.”
Ultimately, the inheritance that a spiritual father leaves his children is righteousness. What mothers and fathers earn in this life they leave to their children, what spiritual mothers and fathers earn in this life they leave to their children. Righteousness is an eternal inheritance that can never be taken. History has lost the date of this spiritual man’s passing, but we can honor his memory by practicing some of these principles. And perhaps, in some way, we can step into the righteousness he had acquired.