Reflections on the Desert Fathers and Mothers - Part 3
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 reflecting 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.
When one embarks on the spiritual life, one begins to enter into the grand journey of discovering you’re own spiritual rhythm. There will be moments of deep emptiness, moments of despair, moments of great hope, moments of tranquility and peace, as well as many other profound experiences. One of the great teachings of the Christian mystical tradition, as it spans two millennia, is discovering the rhythm of your own inner life. How we respond to these moments is driven by the makeup of our internal world. And we can actively choose to shape that world.
Our responses to accusation, disappointment, betrayal, lust, desire, pride, and many other daily human experiences is, in part, dictated by how our hearts have been formed. What the Desert Fathers and Mothers can offer is an understanding of the interior life that is absolutely timeless in its approach.
Just one facet of their teaching is an understanding of attachments. In commenting on the nature of being attached to things, Abba Zosimas said (regarding possession of a worthless nail).
“Who would ever fight or argue over this; or else, who would keep a grudge or be afflicted over this? Unless it be someone who has truly lost his mind. Therefore, a person of God, who is progressing and advancing, should consider the whole world as this nail, even if that person actually possesses the entire world. For, as I always like to say: ‘It is not possessing something that is harmful, but being attached to it.’”
An attachment is essentially described by the fathers of the desert as the thing that drives emotional turmoil, especially if you are deprived of it. Possessing a thing is not inherently evil, but finding solace in that thing is. Why? Because, then that thing, whether an actual possession or an ideology, begins to define you. Finding your personal worth in your possessions, your ideology, or your relationships presents a whole swath of problems. When we find personal value in people, ideas, places, or possessions we begin to cannibalize those things on the altar of self-worth.
What happens if you’re deprived of that thing?
Who do you become when you do not have what you desire, or what brings you comfort?
To these fathers and mothers, the point of the spiritual life was to be detached from things in order to be attached to God.
This understanding has been incredibly helpful to me in my daily life. Take for instance, one example of an argument I narrowly avoided with my wife. We had arranged for a babysitter because we had a meeting to attend. When I got home from work, the house was pretty messy. I was beside myself with frustration because the babysitter would be there shortly, and the house would still be unkempt. I was frustrated that she had not cleaned the house. I basically gave her the silent treatment for the next half an hour.
The next morning, I was still a bit frustrated and when I tried to pray, it was all I could think about. It slowly dawned on me that I had promised my wife to be home by a certain time, and was late in getting home. I also failed to realize that my wife, who was quite pregnant at the time, had cleaned the bathroom so the babysitter wouldn’t have to deal with our cluttered toiletries. The greater realization was that I was actually driven by the babysitter’s opinion of my house. My attachment to the notion of someone else’s opinion had driven my treatment of my wife. After realizing that I was quick to repent.
When external matters define you, you begin to sacrifice your humanity for something material. You are a not an Apple, Android, Honda, Ford, Mac, or PC person. You are you. And you are uniquely you. But the path towards discovering your unique self is not a natural undertaking. It is almost as if you must un-discover you in order to discover you.
That was the purpose of the desert to the fathers and mothers. It was a removal from all that they had been, in order to discover what they could become. The spiritual life slowly de-constructs you. And the disciplines of the desert fathers have helped me to wade those waters, and I believe they will help you, and anyone else engaging the life of Christ for that matter. As 2 Corinthians 10:5 helps us to understand, we erect knowledge and opinions that stand in direct contrast to the knowledge God has about you. Only in the process of deconstruction can we actually begin to come to grips with who we are.
In the next post, we will deal with the discipline of fasting and the the theory of weeping. But in the meantime, did you know I have a online shop? In it you will find an mp3 teaching that specifically deals with a number of stories from the desert fathers. It is called Compelled by Love. If you decide to purchase it, I pray you are impacted by the stories contained therein.