Growing in Holiness with the Desert Fathers
Antony said, “He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.”
The Desert Fathers are usually considered fanatics by some–literalists who read too much into the Gospel. But perhaps we may be the ones who are reading the Gospel in a very comfortable light. It is the radical nature of their commitment to the Gospel and their constant efforts to unite themselves in Christ while on earth that constantly challenge our view of holiness even today.
The reasons that pushed these men and women to lead harsh lives in the desert have been questioned throughout the centuries. Even though St. Anthony Abbott had introduced the eremetical (hermit) form of community life some years prior to the Edict of Milan–when persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire formally ended–it is believed that many early Christians felt that it was necessary to return to a more authentic, rigorous, and Christ-centered Christianity as during the time of the martyrs, which may have been one of the main reasons for the rise of monasticism. However, other factors influenced their decisions. Monasticism started mostly in Egypt where the translation of Sacred Scriptures from Greek to Coptic gave rise to many converts to Christianity in the area. An eschatological expectation was very much present among the early monks that may have also influenced their radical choice. At the same time, many had the need to flee from political and economic oppression, which led many non-Christians to the desert, which may have influenced the monks’ choice of a place. Nonetheless, these men and women embraced the Gospel message radically in their lives and sought to find themselves in Christ–in the rough and inclement desert.
The Desert Fathers believed in the power of prayer, fasting, living an austere life, charity, deprivation of sleep, and work as the way to achieve this union with God. However, for the Desert Fathers, asceticism was the means to achieve this union with Christ, but not an end in itself. In other words, for them asceticism was not simply spiritual athleticism, but a way to truly live the gospel. For instance, we know from their writings that they would break their fast if they had visitors in order to share a meal with them, because they knew the value of community with others. Hence, they understood the temptation of immersing oneself so much in an ascetic form of life that the original purpose it served could be easily forgotten.
Just as they longed to unite themselves with God we do so as well. However, as members of the mystical body of Christ we all have different vocations and different calls that may not necessarily result in becoming monks. So how is one to live as close to God as possible? Well, that is the mystery. But we can all do a little bit to defy the constant distractions we have around us to strip away all external factors that do not allow us to find ourselves in God. Consider these tips to start to create your own little daily desert:
- Turn your radio off while in your car sometimes even if you are alone or with company. This will give some rest to your mind and soul instead of trying to process the news or the meaning of the music you are listening to.
- Sit alone in a room that has no TV or radio or even a clock for several minutes. In fact, try to do it as long as you are able to. This is Archbishop Anthony Bloom’s advice in his book, Beginning to Pray: the time you can spend alone without any distractions or without getting bored can tell you how boring of a person you are!
- Turn your TV off – if you are like many of us, you have the TV on even if you are reading a book, knitting, cooking, or studying. A way of clearing your mind and thoughts and centering them in God is to take away the unnecessary noises or images that occupy our daily lives.
- Pray in front of a crucifix – Once you get more comfortable with silence, then you can start having a crucifix in front of you and engage in an informal prayer: just talking to God about your day’s events–what went right, what went wrong, what made you happy, what made you said, how you failed, etc. Of course pray the Rosary or the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy or read Scriptures in front of the Crucifix in that same room mentioned above and even if you start feeling uncomfortable, just acknowledge that God appreciates your effort, because you are doing in it as an attempt to get closer to Him and that is what most matters to Him.
- Pray the Angelus – at the sixth hour every day–6 am, noon, 6 pm. This is a beautiful way to be reminded of God’s presence in our lives and in our world throughout the day.
- Pray the Divine Office – Just like the Angelus this serves as a reminder of God’s presence, but also a way to sanctify our actions and our work throughout the day. During a silent retreat, we were suggested to set our watches or our computers (if at work) with alarms or reminders for each holy hour: 6 am, 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, 6 pm, and of course to make sure to pray night prayer before going to bed. If you can’t pray at work during the day hours, then you can take a break for a few minutes, look out the window, walk outside (if possible) and reflect on God’s creation and His love.
- Start a good hobby – whether it is cross-stitching, painting, reading, knitting, doing woodwork, lawnwork, or gardening (yes, labor around the house can be a hobby!) engaging in manual labor or crafts are a good way to be reminded of God’s gifts to us.
- Listen to Gregorian Chant – While at home or in the car, play chant. These beatiful tones and melodies will calm you and remind you of the radical way in which the Desert Fathers and monks today embrace the Gospel in their daily lives.