In the last few years, I have given my bookshelves a break by giving away 1600 books, mostly books of theology and practical ministry. In my most recent purging last fall in preparation to paint my office, I parted company with books containing wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers from the 3rd through 5th centuries.
Thumbing through them one last time, and reading a recent piece by Desert Father scholar Dan Clendenin, I remembered these early Christian hermits who often practiced severe self-discipline, simplicity and frugality. These early influencers fled the corruption of the church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the desert. Some of these saints were eccentric folks who lived rather bizarre lifestyles, some living in silence for months, others not bathing for a year or more and most committed to fasting from food for lengthy periods.
More than their austere practices, I am drawn to the desert monastics’ profound humility and realistic view of life. They were not afraid to embrace their brokenness, wounds or inner demons. They were quick to acknowledge that lifelong struggle is a necessary virtue.
As we step into a new year with enough uncertainty to go around, considering some nuggets of wisdom from the desert mothers and fathers might be just what we need.
Never stop starting over: Aresenios, a desert monk in the 5th century, said, “My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before thee, but grant me, in thy compassion, the power to make a start.” Every year, indeed every day, is new. “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Live intentionally, not aimlessly. “Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God,” said St. Mark the Ascetic in the 5th century. “A journey without direction is wasted effort.” To be sure, God has a purpose for your life.
No matter what, never despair. “It is a trick of the devil to lead us to despair by reminding us of our past sins,” said St. Makarios of Egypt in the 5th century. And St. John of Karpathos quipped, “Even if you fall a thousand times … rise up again each time.”
Pray simply. Abba Macarius stated in the 4th century: “It is enough to say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’” In simple words: “Lord, help!”
Renounce all self-justification. Abba John the Dwarf declared, “We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.” We all know the challenge of that one: “Own your stuff.”
Stop judging others. Abba Macarius said we never must judge our neighbor at all in whatever way. He taught the other monks to cover the faults they saw, as though they did not see them, and those they heard, as though they did not hear them. Truth is, we have no idea what burdens most people carry or what kind of internal pain they live with.
Stay put, taught the desert mother Syncletica in the 4th century. “If you find yourself in a monastery, do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another.” When a monk pressed her for more clarity, she said to him, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Admit your brokenness. “The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. That person never belittles anyone,” said St. Maximos the confessor in the 7th century.
Celebrate theological modesty. St. Peter of Damaskos reminds us “that we do not know wholly even what is given in part, but know only a part of a part.” Be very careful about saying, “This I know that I know that I know.” Don’t be so sure.
Be ruthlessly realistic. Expect trials and temptations, said St. Makarios of Egypt in the 5th century. “Not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were completely free from anxiety.”
Always think good of everyone. “Show great gentleness to everyone,” said Evagrios the Solitary in the 4th century.
Read the obituaries. You read that right. St. Gregory of Sinai said, “When the death of Arsenius drew near, the brothers saw him weeping and asked, ‘Truly, Father, are you afraid?’ ‘Indeed,’ he answered them, ‘the fear which is mine this hour has been with me ever since I became a monk.’” At the moment of our death, we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life.