Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Bible and the Desert Fathers

The Bible will always be my primary source of inspiration, guidance and instruction, and the place where I most encounter God. However other writings have recently been challenging me called the writings of the desert fathers and mothers. If we think we live in an age of challenge and compromise, they were there first. For the first three centuries the early Church was persecuted relentlessly with early writings reporting the gruesome torture and death - often for public entertainment - of martyr after martyr. Amazingly the "blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church" to quote Tertullian, an early Christian apologist (AD 155-240) and nothing that the successive rulers and emperors could do could stop the march of Christianity until early in the fourth century the emperor Constantine was converted and gave the Church the freedom to worship without fear.

But with that new found freedom came what some people see as the inevitable compromise. As Christianity became the 'in thing' and popular among the people it started to become more and more watered down. The disciplines of the Christian life which has sustained the faith of the Church and strengthened people to face the prospect of ridicule, arrest, torture and death, were no longer practised with the same commitment and vigour, and those who had dedicated their lives to Christ's cause and took His commands seriously, started to search for ways of keeping the fire of their faith burning bright. They became hermits or monks, many seeking out men and women known for their sanctity of life and joining communities of followers who listened and put into practice their teaching. These saints became known as the Desert Fathers - and Mothers - and we have a collection of their sayings and stories which have been collected together and are available today. They make challenging reading and continue to be the source of instruction and inspiration for Christians today who seek to lead an authentic Christian life.

One of the best collections can be found in a book of sayings and stories collated and translated by Benedict Ward SLG. Here are a few that I have selected. What stands out is how thoroughly Biblical, short and memorable they are. The following are from the life of the greatest desert father Anthony of Egypt who lived from Ad 251-356:

Someone asked Abba Anthony, "What must one do in order to please God?" The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, "This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.

He also said, "Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." He even added, "Without temptations no-one can be saved."

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Abba Anthony said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility.'" 

Another personal favourite is Mark the Monk:

“Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort.”

“Understand the words of Holy Scripture by putting them into practice, and do not fill yourself with conceit by elaborating on theoretical ideas.”

“A humble man who lives a spiritual life, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will relate all things to himself and not to others.”

Arsenius - born in Rome about AD 360 - was a well-educated man of senatorial rank, who was appointed by the Emperor Theodosius as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and became an anchorite (a religious recluse). He died in AD 449.

"I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent."

One of the emperor's officers brought him the will of a senator, his relation, who was lately dead, and had left him his heir. The saint took the will and would have torn it to pieces, but the officer begged him not to, saying such an accident would get him in trouble. Arsenius, however, refused the estate, saying "I died eleven years ago and cannot be his heir".
Finally from a Desert Mother Amma Syncletica (Fifth-century)

“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of one’s own thoughts.”

“Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honor and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.”

“All must endure great travail and conflict when they are first converted to the Lord, but later they have unspeakable joy. They are like people trying to light a fire, the smoke gets in their eyes, their eyes begin to water, but they succeed in what they want. It is written ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29), and so we must kindle divine fire with tears and trouble.”

There are many many more that continue to inspire and challenge me. How we need such people and examples today.

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