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 Rufus?
Abba Rufus is another Desert Father about which little is known. He was an early Desert Father and, as such, was most likely a contemporary of Abba Anthony. It is noted that he passed away in peace, distinguishing him from some of the martyrs in the desert tradition, and possibly implying that he passed away before the barbarian invasions in the late 4th century.
Only two sayings of Abba Rufus have been commended to us by history. Both of them contain incredible wisdom.
This statement from Rufus is indicative of a large portion of what was the practice of the interior life in the desert.
The path towards interior peace is to dwell with the “fear and knowledge of God,” and to “hold off the remembrance of wrongs suffered and pride of spirit.” Both of those are fantastic points, yet require a bit of context. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the “knowledge of God” and the “remembrance of wrongs suffered” were two very specific things. We know we are to fear God and flee from pride, yet what of the other two?
The knowledge of God is, simply put, keeping the thoughts of the mind attentive towards God. In applying one’s mind towards God, the heart begins to follow, and when the heart follows, true knowledge of God dwells within the heart. This practice has been known as the remembrance of God. To the fathers, you can only practice remembrance of God or remembrance of wrongs, it is very difficult to practice both. Just try and sit quietly when you are hurt and offended, it is nearly impossible. Your mind is preoccupied with the wrongs suffered.
The remembrance of God is a constant theme throughout the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Rufus shows us that this prayer discipline has been a constant in the life of the desert.
The Remembrance of God
“Constant remembrance of God, the rays of which illumine the heart, is sufficient to abide in holiness for those of us who have pure minds.” - Abba Ephraim
To Ephraim, another Desert Father, the remembrance of God was the path of the heart. Keeping the thoughts trained towards God would eventually illumine the heart. The point of remembrance was to impact the heart, not the mind.
“If we remember the evils which men do to us, we destroy within ourselves the capacity for remembrance of God.” - Abba Macarius
Dwelling on offence leaves the mind preoccupied with everything that is not God.
“Watching means to sit in the cell and be always mindful of God. This is what is meant by, ‘I was on the watch and God came to me. (Matthew 25:36, paraphrased)’” - Abba John the Dwarf
The monk was to remain attentive to his thoughts, and his thoughts were to be directed towards God.
"Abba Macarius was asked, 'How should one pray?' The old man said, 'There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, "Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy." And if the conflict grows fiercer say, "Lord, help!" He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.'" – Abba Macarius
The practice of prayer was done in simplicity, keeping the mind trained to God with short phrases. These short phrases may have been spoken aloud or merely pondered. The repetition of a short phrase invoking the presence of God was one facet of keeping the mind trained upon Him.
"Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, 'You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.'"
The point of the practice of the remembrance of God was this, that you would become a consuming fire. Christ at the centre of the heart was the goal.
Forsaking the Remembrance of Wrongs Suffered
"Again, he said: 'The best way of putting your conscience at rest is not to judge your neighbor and to disparage yourself.'" - Abba Isaiah
Disparaging yourself was not to be self-defeating, but rather, to defeat the self. It was to be honest about what lay within your own heart.
"Do not disparage a layman in your mind, O monk; for the Lord alone knows the secrets of the heart. Honor all men for the sake of the Lord, that the Lord of all might also honor you." – Abba Ephraim
Our judgement of another demonstrates more so what is in our own hearts than what is in theirs. God alone knows the state of their heart and where they stand before him. Purifying the heart takes letting go of the perception we have towards those who have hurt us. After all, even Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God."
"When Abba Agathon saw anyone sinning, and his thoughts urged him to condemn that person, he would say to himself: "Agathon, beware, lest you do the same thing”; and in this way, he attained peace of mind."
If the first saying of Rufus perfectly encapsulates the spiritual life of the desert, the second demonstrates his depth.
Abba Rufus goes on to expound on this principle by using a vision another father had shared with him. In this vision, the father is shown four different monks. The first gives thanks to God in the midst of sickness, the second practiced intense hospitality, the third removed himself to solitude to seek God, and the fourth obeyed his spiritual father and remained in submission for the Lord’s sake. In this vision, the fourth monk is arrayed with more glory than all the others. In the midst of this, an angel says,
"He who practises hospitality acts according to his own will; but the last one possesses obedience. Having abandoned all his desires, he depends on God and his own Father; it is because of this that he has received more glory than the others."
If remembrance of God and not counting offences are two pillars of the spiritual life, Rufus has highlighted a third, submission. To the Desert Fathers, submission was so important it was heralded as the greatest virtue. If the spiritual man could submit to an imperfect father, then he was surely able to submit to God the Father. The first three examples are of monks doing worthy things, but only the fourth has denied his will. In denying his will, he has perfectly taken upon himself the life of Christ as witnessed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Countless stories are told throughout the history of the Desert Fathers of radical submission, and of God’s honouring towards those who have chosen such a path. Submission, was one of the prime virtues that a monk was to desire. Rufus even penned a psalm directed towards the great virtue.
Though what has been passed down of Rufus is not much, what he has to say encapsulates the spiritual life of the Desert. This little known father has given us insight into the deeper ways of God. Remember God, don’t remember wrongs, and practice submission. Rufus would be pleased by those principles.