Abba Daniel of Sketis
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.
Who was Abba Daniel of Sketis?
Abba Daniel resided in the desert of Sketis in the latter half of the fourth century. There are a number of other men in the desert tradition that go by this name, but not much is known about this Daniel.
Daniel was fondly regarded by Abba Paphnutius, one of the foremost leaders in the community of Sketis. Paphnutius mentored Abba Daniel with the hope that one day Daniel would one day become his successor. Though Paphnutius was considered to be prophetically gifted, in his preparation of Daniel he never saw that Daniel would pass away before he could fulfill his father’s goal.
As far as the life of Daniel goes, he was known as a man “marked by the grace of humility.” He was gentle with his fellow monks, as well as pure in thought and deed. When he was elevated in position over that of his fellow companions by Paphnutius, he never lost his humility.
Where some may have let the position sink into their heart and elevate their own self-opinion, Abba Daniel remained incredibly humble. When Paphnutius would come visit, rather than taking his rightful position as leader, he would defer to the elder Paphnutius and serve him as best as he was able. As any great leader has learned, those who embrace the greatest servitude see the greatest authority. As Jesus said, “The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Those who wished to find great blessing in the kingdom of God did so by laying down their lives for others.
The teachings of Abba Daniel are recorded by Abba Cassian, one of the most significant men in the history of the desert movement. Abba Daniel was notable for his incredible understanding regarding the difference between the lust of the flesh and the desire of the spirit.
The Teachings of Abba Daniel on the Inner Life
Abba Daniel’s teaching starts with the question posed by a man named Germanus about the nature of prayer and solitude. Specifically, Germanus wanted to know why, when attempting to pray he could at times be filled with the “…utmost gladness of heart, together with inexpressible delight and abundance of the holiest feelings,” and why at other times his time seemed so ineffectual.
Anyone who has ever gained traction in the spiritual life is well acquainted with this phenomenon, but few are able to answer the question as to why it happens. One day we can be so full of spiritual vigour and the next feel as though our spiritual life is languishing. One day we feel so near to the Holy Spirit, as if we could almost lose ourselves in the ocean of his infinitude, and others we feel as dry as a desert wind. Germanus asks a question most of us have asked of God at one point, “Why do I feel so full of Your life at one point, and so destitute of Your blessing in the next?”
When we move from a time where we are full of the life of the Holy Spirit, to a time where we are not, often our recourse is to redouble our efforts, only to fall short of the life we feel we once lived. The effort we put in seems as if it is for nought. Many of us end up thinking there is something wrong with us or that we have somehow lost the favour of God. Perhaps, somewhere along the line, we have sinned egregiously and are unaware. Sometimes we go so far as to think the Lord has abandoned us (if that were even possible).
But to Abba Daniel, the fact that we are unable to resurrect our spiritual lives is precisely the point. Once we have moved thoroughly searching our own hearts under the gaze of the Holy Spirit (Proverbs 20:27), we can get to the real work of spiritual formation that seasons of dryness bring.
Seasons of Dryness
Daniel gives two general reasons for seasons of dryness. The first is that we would see the weakness of our own heart.
“…observing with all humility the weakness of our own heart, we may not be puffed up on account of the previous purity of heart granted to us by His visitation…”
Our inclination when we have made progress in the spiritual life is to account our progress to our own effort. One day of dryness has the potential to teach us otherwise. You cannot create the presence of God, he alone grants his presence. This is an ever present lesson of the spiritual life. You are moved not by your own effort, but by his favour, love, and blessing. It is his choice.
The second reason given by Daniel is due to the fickleness of human nature. He says,
“…men are generally more careless about keeping whatever they think can be easily replaced.”
That being the case, periods of dryness teach us the value and preciousness of the presence of the Lord. If it is not ours to easily gain, we learn to preserve his resting within us with all care and to pursue him with reckless abandon. Dryness teaches us the effort required on our behalf to prepare us to house his presence.
Abba Daniel even takes it one step further, he claims that it is for our greatest benefit that we feel forsaken of the Lord. After all, even Jesus said, “It is to your benefit that I leave…”
Periods of dryness invoke the internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Abba Daniel explains this by expounding on Galatians 5:17.
“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”
The internal conflict of flesh and spirit teaches us to “not do the things that you wish.” To Daniel, flesh in this context spoke to the carnality of man and his evil inclination, and spirit indicated the good and spiritual desires of the individual.
Without that internal struggle mankind would have no moral compass, no bearing for righteousness, no plumb line for the spiritual life. The struggle actually reveals that there is a deeper principle at work in your heart, the movement of the Spirit. If the spiritual life was not filled with struggle how would one ever know what is contrary to God? The very fact of the struggle proves regeneration has taken place. Without internal struggle there is no regeneration and without regeneration there is no perfection.
The internal war of the spiritual individual becomes crystal clear in periods of dryness. It is the lust of the flesh set against the desire of the spirit, and it is set in place to teach you what you ought to resist, and by extension what you ought to pursue for your growth. In fact, many of the desert fathers and mothers (including Daniel) taught that if the internal struggle ceased, we should be cautious. Lack of internal struggle most likely meant the struggle was hidden and deep, not extinct. Again, the struggle against sin proves the regeneration of the individual.
To Abba Daniel, the Galatians passage taught us much about our internal struggle. It was not primarily a struggle with sin, but rather a struggle with desire. In which way would our desire be oriented, towards that of the spirit, or that of the flesh. He laid out numerous distinctions between the two.
“The flesh delights in wantonness and lust: the spirit does not even tolerate natural desires. The one wants to have plenty of sleep, and to be satiated with food: the other is nourished with vigils and fasting…The one lives on the esteem and applause of men, the other glories in injuries offered to it, and in persecutions.”
Abba Daniel recognized that there was essentially one massive hurdle to spiritual maturity, the lack of effort required for growth. The problem as he saw it is that many wanted the benefit of spiritual maturity without undergoing the internal work necessary to find spiritual maturity. Abba Daniel recognized that people want to be free of rejection without suffering rejection, to find purity of heart without a life of prayer, to life virtuously without the energy of a virtuous life, to practice humility but retain worldly honor, to find simplicity while attaining many possessions, and to serve Christ in order to be praised by men.
The perception of man’s inner life and the reality of a man’s inner life are two vastly different things. Many people think they are good and honorable people without ever having sacrificed for another. Abba Daniel said that the individual wishing to make progress…
“is anxious to pursue future blessings in such a way as not to lose present ones.”
Ultimately, according to Abba Daniel, the struggle of flesh and spirit has the potential teach us three things. The first to convict our lack of effort and general apathy, the second to show us the corruption of our internal world and our need for grace, the third is that what we have attained in the past does not protect us in the present. Really, if we want perfection we need humility, and humility will always recognize need before God.
Eventually, as we move through seasons of dryness and the internal struggle of the spiritual life, we will find that we have come to retain something of the Spirit of God within. We find purity of heart, purpose of heart, interior peace, and not because we have done something special, but because we have embraced what it takes to grow closer to God. We will find a sufficient amount humility that shows us the only way higher is to go lower. It is the never changing principle of the Creator of this universe, those who humble themselves will be exalted in due time.
The last struggle, according to Abba Daniel, is that against spiritual pride. When we have attained some level of spiritual advancement and gotten some measure of the Spirit of God, the temptation is to claim the advancement for ourselves. But in actuality, the path of perfection can only be found through humility. The internal struggle convinces a man of his need for God. It teaches us that our internal life requires humility. Pride will cause the individual to grasp for position, influence, and power. To Daniel, man ought to spend his effort groping for God, not grasping for position.
If the flesh lives on the esteem of men, the spirit thrives on the esteem of God. And the esteem of God is the humility of man, and no one has ever gotten worse because they became more humble.
Abba Daniel passed away sometime in the late 4th century or early 5th century.