Desert Mamas

Let Us Eat the Phlegm

in her book, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Benedicta Ward translates the following story of our Christian desert teachers:

At a meeting of the brothers in Scetis, they were eating dates. One of them, who was ill from excessive fasting, brought up some phlegm in a fit of coughing, and unintentionally it fell on another of the brothers. The brother was tempted by an evil thought and felt driven to say, ‘Be quiet, and do not spit on me.’ So to tame himself and restrain his own angry thought he picked up what had been spat and put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Then he began to say to himself. ‘If you say to your brother what will sadden him, you will have to eat what nauseates you.’

In case you missed it, one brother coughed up phlegm onto a different brother who grew angry from being spat on. The spat upon brother chose to fight the internal battle of anger rather than say anything to the sick brother and possibly hurt him.

So he eat the phlegm.

My beloved denomination is sick. Many of us are spewing up all sorts of phlegm onto one another. We are become angry that someone would say something repulsive; that someone might act against the “code of conduct” and even the Book of Discipline - that someone might spread their “disgusting” theology. Too many of us become angry and choose to correct, embarrass or even reprimand another (always in the name of love).

I desire the heart (and stomach) to eat phlegm. I desire to address my inner conflict and anger knowing that is where the enemies last stand will be. Or in the spirit of another desert saying:

If anyone speaks to you on a controversial matter, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say, “Yes.” If he speaks ill, say, “I don’t know anything about that.” Don’t argue with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.’

The world will be at peace not when we stop fighting, but when humanity is at peace with ourselves. For that internal peace will guide our actions toward one another. We do not have a denomination in conflict so much as the people that make up the Church are not at peace with our own selves. How do we overcome the internal anger and conflict within? Eat the phlegm.

Failing to Acquire the Fire We Desire

A few times a year I hear some variation of being on fire. Someone might say, “I was on fire for God after that experience.” Or perhaps giving voice to an aspiration one might say, “I want to be on fire for God.” Of course there is the idea that the church is too lame/boring/irrelevant and if only it were “on fire” then all would be right with the church. We talk about being on fire in all sorts of ways with the understanding that there is something overwhelmingly positive and admirable about being on fire.

However much we might long to be on fire, it seems that too many of us are not. How is it that we can desire something so deeply, so often, and so intensely but rarely acquire this fire we desire?

Photo by  Siim Lukka  on  Unsplash

Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

Amma Syncletica is one of the few desert mothers that we have some writings of. She puts her finger on perhaps why we are not on fire as often as we might desire:

“In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to life a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said, Our God is a consuming fire - Hebrews 12:24). So we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and heard work.” - Becoming Fire, Edited by Tim Vivian.

This saying has multivariate meanings to be sure but one of those is the pain, tears and work that is required on our parts to help foster the ignition of fire. Some of the smoke of practicing the disciplines is that they do not “produce” anything or that we might even feel silly doing them. Praying to God does not seem to make anything happen and we might even feel like it is magic thinking to talk to an ineffable and immeasurable God. So just as we begin to step away from the work of kindling the fire.

in our efforts to fully immerse ourselves in the waters of life, we might overlook that if we want to be on fire for God, that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for water-soaked wood to catch fire. Jesus had to go to the desert. The disciplines are often practices that draw us into emptiness (fasting, sabbath, giving, serving, etc.). The spiritual life might be thought of trying to dry us out so to catch fire. No wonder we are unable to acquire the fire we desire. Immersed in waters of business and novelty we are unable to dry out and catch the flame.

How Do We Treat The Demons?

Over the past couple of years I have found a new life by reading and studying the wisdom of the desert Abbas and Ammas. There are many stories and "words" in this wisdom and I am not the first to explore this vast landscape. Through my studies I have come to see there is at least one thing that distinguishes that desert Abba/Amma from the student. And it is in how they each relate the the demons. 

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti -  Kimbell Art   Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti - Kimbell Art

Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS  Museo Nacional del Prado  ©   By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS Museo Nacional del Prado©

By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

Demons was a word to describe the different temptations these early hermits encountered. The demons tempted them to eat, drink, fornicate, wander, etc. There were as many demons as there were people who were tempted to abandon their quest of Love for God and all. 

Beginners would do, perhaps as we all might do, seek for ways to banish the demon. It makes sense that if you see a demon that you would want to banish and destroy it. Beginners would soon discover that the demons were too powerful to defeat. 

The more seasoned monks turned from trying to defeat the demons to tolerate them. It was a fact of life that temptations would come and it was a matter of keeping their rule of life that one could tolerate the existence of the demon. This is a significant turn in the life of the monk as they moved from desiring the death and destruction of the temptation to learning to keep it at bay.

However, the Abbas/Ammas took the next step. They did not tolerate the temptations they learned that the temptations were the way to love. That to disengage with the temptation or to even work for its destruction meant that the monk never experienced the Grace of God. 

This three fold movement - destruction, tolerance, embracing - requires a deep dedication and devotion to love even the most vile and evil. This does not mean the Abbas/Ammas delighted and let the temptation/demons do as they pleased. Abbas/Ammas fought with the demons all the time. It was in the fighting with the demons that the teachers came to see what the demons have to teach each of us. 

There are temptations in your life. There are people and forces in your life you may even call demonic or evil. And to be sure, there is evil in the world. There is evil in the world that is to be confronted - slavery, hate, enslavement, war, etc. These early monks were talking less about social evils as much as they were talking about the evils that come into our hearts. The desert wisdom is not clear on what to do in the face of injustice, Jesus had much to say about that. The desert wisdom is much more directive on what to do in the face of the demon of the soul. Do we desire it dead? Tolerate it's existence? Or can we cohabitate with it?

WeCroak app and the desert wisdom

Hoping for a better year is rooted in our clinging to life. And while life is good, when we cling to life we fear death. When we fear death then we are not living the Christian life. Christian spirituality is, at its core, about embracing death. Not in a macabre or violent way, but in a way the trusts that death is not the last word. Embracing death removes any fear we have of death and when the fear of death is removed then power of death is gone - because the only power we give death is fear. 

There is a little app on my phone that I have been living with for a few weeks now called WeCroak. I came across this app in a wonderful little write up in the Atlantic and I cannot recommend this app or the Atlantic article enough. The only thing the app does is remind you at five random times in the day that you are going to die. In fact the message looks like this:

https://www.inlander.com/spokane/searching-for-the-meaning-of-death-theres-an-app-for-that/Content?oid=7382589

https://www.inlander.com/spokane/searching-for-the-meaning-of-death-theres-an-app-for-that/Content?oid=7382589

While the creator of this app was inspired by the practice of reflecting on death in Budhaism called Maransati the centrality of death is present in many traditions. Jesus talked about picking up your cross and the desert wisdom placed death at the center of many teachings. For instance here is this clever little story:

 "They told the story of a hermit who was dying in Scetis. The brothers stood round his bed, clothed him, and began to weep. But he opened his eyes and began to laugh; this happened three times. So the brothers asked him, "Abba, why are you laughing when we are weeping?" He told them, "I laughed the first time because you fear death; I laughed the second time because you are not ready for death; I laughed the third time because I am passing from labor to rest, and yet you weep." As he said this, he closed his eyes and died."

In the coming year, may you let go of clinging to life so that you may embrace death - even just a little bit. I know it is scary, however it is when we let go and trust that death is not the last word we experience resurrection. 

At least that is the Gospel.