Desert Mamas

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.

The Greatest Wisdom From the Desert Christians - In One Line

I was sitting in my office the other day reading and trying to discover what the heck God would have for me to say on a Sunday morning, when a church member walked in and offered me a homemade blueberry scone. I accepted the gift, but stated I consumed a large breakfast about fifteen minutes just before. The young woman's face turned a bit downward as she realized that I was not planning on enjoying her gift. 

As she left I turned back to my reading material (The Wisdom of the Desert by James O. Hannay) and read: "So far as the advice of the greatest Fathers can be said to form a rule, it may be expressed in the words -- "Do not eat to satiety."

Simple meals allow us to receive hospitality from others.

Simple meals allow us to receive hospitality from others.

This is one of the few times that I sort of understood what the heck the desert mothers/fathers were talking about: Eating to your fill is unhealthy, but not because of the calories but because it denies hospitality. 

In not eating the scone, because I was full, I denied the hospitality of the young woman. I was not able to, because my stomach was full, to accept any more from another.

Clergy have been told that self care is important because you can only give what you yourself have. If you are empty, then you have nothing to give. 

This truth also holds not just if we are empty but also if we are too full. When we eat (or live) to satiety, then we are too full to accept anything else. This is an old truth but one that I often forget. 

Do not eat/live to satiety - you never know when Christ calls you to accept a new thing.

Watering a dry bit of wood for three years

By Michael Goltz

By Michael Goltz

People said that Father John the Dwarf withdrew and lived in the desert with an old man of Thebes. His spiritual guide took a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, "Water it everyday with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit." Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to live and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church, saying to the brothers, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience." - The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Paraclete Essentials 2010

The desert fathers and mothers elevated the virtue of obedience and, while this is still a laudable virtue, here in The United States obedience is not something that we hang our hat on. Freedom, sure. Liberty, you betcha. Rights of the individual over the whole. U.S.A.! This story is a story told to meditate about the fruits of obedience. I would like to bring to bring something else to the surface.

The Church is constantly in search for the next big thing that will keep people in worship, giving or at least happy. You see sermon series that are like if Weird Al Yankovic and Jesus got together to put a Christian sheen on some pop culture moment (such as iPod to "iPray"). You see theatrics that rival a broadway show or even an off the wall stunt like sitting on the roof of your church in a bed with your spouse (for those who have to click the link, I have done the work for you).

I get it. Traditional churches, like the one I serve, all need money to pay the bills. However, when the business voice of facilitating a community is louder than the Jesus voice that calls that community into existence, then we get some weird stuff. And even more than that, we become focused on the short term and we are quickly fearful when the numbers begin to show a downward slump. So we are quick to change things. Keep things fresh and new. Appeal to the new and abandon that which is not working. 

The above story of John the Dwarf reminds me that there is something to be said for sticking to something. People who study people notice that those with "grit" are those who live fuller and more complete lives. John the Dwarf was many things, perhaps we could say he was gritty.

Would you be willing to water dry wood for years not knowing if there will ever be fruit? Would you be willing to tend to a tedious task of walking all night and into the dawn with a bottle of water and resist the temptation to make the journey more efficient or streamlined?

This metaphor is about more than obedience, grit or faithfulness. It is a metaphor about the spiritual life. It is a life that is full of hope and faith that your teacher knows something that you do not know, which is why you water dry wood.