Final Thoughts - Desert Fathers and Mother Series
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I've written 52 articles (designed to be read over a year) on the fathers and mothers of the Egyptian desert in the 4-6th century. This week I’m offering a final reflection on the series.
If you are just joining me on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
The Normal Life
As esoteric as the Desert Fathers and Mothers appear on the surface, I was fascinated by the true portrait of humanity that painted itself through their teachings. Even though they had gone to the extreme in their lifestyle, they never became un-relatable. The depth of teaching on the heart of man is deep, profound, and simple.
Even though we look at these figures that loom as larger than life, what they say pierces right to the heart of what it means to be human. After having spent time reading them and familiarizing myself with the context in which they write I couldn’t help but think it seemed entirely normal for them to have fled to the desert to seek God in silence and solitude. Their example seems so provocative not because it is abnormal to desire to be with Jesus, but because they went to a greater length than most of us would. We become uncomfortable with their example precisely because we are unwilling to embark on the same journey. I can think of a thousand excuses when challenged by these men and women, but realistically, encountering the heart of the Father doesn’t make you more respectable, it makes you more radical.
So much of the Christian life is about withdrawal. When we encounter the heart of God withdrawal becomes commonplace. Is it so odd that in circumcising their hearts, they circumcised themselves from society? The bible calls followers of Christ aliens, foreigners, and sojourners. The Desert Fathers and Mothers merely practiced this in reality.
Rather than reading about them as individuals of old, we must force ourselves to ask the same difficult questions. In what ways could I remove myself from that which tempts me? How deeply do I recognize the barren desert of my heart? Should I practice a spiritual withdrawal to draw closer to Christ? Can I find periods of silence to allow the thoughts of the Father to penetrate my innermost being? How distracted am I by daily life? Is my baseline Christ and His life, or is it a thousand other things set to distract me?
Frankly, the Desert Fathers and Mothers were confronted with a society not that dissimilar to ours. Abortion, hyper-sexuality, extravagant loan interest, economic inflation, social economic programs that failed, a steadily increasing divorce rate, a greater economic divide between upper and lower class, and atheistic philosophy had become commonplace. Around the beginning of the first century AD, Caesar Augustus recognized the moral decay in society and attempted to alleviate this by elevating the status of the temples and the priesthood to unprecedented places of power and financial prestige. Even the pagan rulers knew something was wrong.
By the time the Desert Fathers and Mothers arrived on the scene, Roman society had been decimated by war, famine, disease, and political manipulation. The unprecedented rise in wealth had created a stagnant pool of moral decay. In that context, the withdrawal to the desert begins to make an incredible amount of sense. Are we on the cusp of such a moral decline? Time will only tell.
What I’ve learned…
These men and women have helped me learn how to respond to life, rather than remain a passive participant. I’ve discovered grace to help me wrest control away from the dictates of my own fallen-ness.
When I am offended, I have learned to accuse myself before I accuse others.
If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, “Who am I? and do not judge anyone.” Abba Joseph of Panephysis
When I am angry, I have learned that the person who is the source of my anger is my greatest blessing, for they have revealed a root of anger in my heart.
Why, my wretched soul, are you acting crazy? Why have you become anger, like those who foam at the mouth? With precisely this anger you show that you are ill; for, if you were not ill, you would not have felt pain. Abba Moses the Ethiopian
When I am tempted, I have learned to turn my thoughts heavenly, rather than fighting a battle I cannot win.
When I am not recognized, I have learned to find recognition in Christ.
Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of men, let us rejoice that we are honored in the sight of God. Abba John the Short
When I am hungry, I have learned to find a new source of sustenance in Him.
When I pray, I have learned prayer is merely offering my heart.
If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us. Abba Arsenius
When I have trouble praying, I have learned prayer is as simple as a heart turn.
Prayer is the communion of the intellect* with God. Abba Evagrius the Solitary
(*Intellect is not so much the mind as it is the higher portion of your being)
When I am dejected, I have learned that the human is a wholistic being, and things that seem separate from my rejection can influence my emotions.
When I am anxious, I have learned to look for my root attachments.
I have learned that I can have a silent heart in the midst of great chaos.
I have learned that prayer and love are deeply intertwined.
The soul that loves God finds rest in God and in Him alone. Abba Isaac the Syrian
I have learned that great experiences do not sustain growth, but rather that humility sustains growth.
I have learned to embrace silence as the avenue God uses to reveal the thoughts of the heart.
I have never let a thought that would bring the anger of God upon me enter my heart. Abba Silvanus
I have learned to submit to solitude, and in doing so God shows me what my soul longs for.
I have learned not to consider my closeness to God, but rather my distance, in order to prove the need for diligence in approaching Him.
When you think that you do not need tears for your sins during prayer, reflect on this: you should always be in God, and yet you are still far from Him. Then you will weep with greater feeling. Abba Evagrius the Solitary
When I speak, I have learned to weigh my words.
I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent. Abba Arsenius
In all this writing and studying I feel as though I have barely begun to scratch the surface. I will continue to search, because each nugget of spiritual wisdom aids me in my endeavor to be formed in the image of Christ. While the written series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers has drawn to a close, and this is the final reflection on that 2-year long endeavor, my goal of re-presenting these spiritual giants to this generation is only just beginning.
We have a video series on the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers well underway. I am presently working on a series of devotionals based upon the Desert Fathers and Mothers to help you, the reader, engage a deeply spiritual life from the perspective of Christian desert spirituality. We have many more projects planned in the coming years. I am excited to see what God intends to do.
Thank you so much for journeying with me. Your comments, conversations, and support has been so impactful. To know that each one of you has been impacted in some of the same ways I have been has been mind blowing. And it all started with the thought, “How come no one has done this yet?”