Heaven in the Desert: Anthony the Great and the Longing for God

anthony-arabic

Feast of St. Anthony the Great / Twelfth Sunday of Luke, January 17, 2016
Hebrews 13:17-21; Luke 17:12-19
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In the year 270, a twenty-year-old man whose parents had recently died stood in church and heard these words from Matthew chapter 19: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow Me.” Coming from a wealthy family, he gave half of his inheritance to his sister, sold the rest and gave the proceeds to the needy, and then walked alone into the Egyptian desert to find God.

Out there in that emptiness and silence, his heart’s desire for Heaven was stirred so deeply that he found himself in constant prayer. His connection with God became so deep that he was always looking for new ways to give up what he did not need so that he would have more time, more focus for prayer. He became obsessed, driven by his need for God. He eventually was found doing battle directly with demons who came to him in physical form, so intent were they to distract or destroy this man who loved God so much. He was a real threat to them.

Yet to the world, he was useless. And even to many in church life who do not understand its inner power, he was useless. All he did was pray, but because of that, Satan himself took notice. Here was a threat to the powers of darkness, all because of one quality: the longing for Heaven.

The desire of that young man, whose name was Anthony, was not merely to have some kind of mystical “moment,” as though prayer in the desert was a kind of spiritual tourism. Rather, Anthony’s desire was really the desire for Heaven, for a reality beyond what we experience in this life, and he knew that the desert held for him the key to finding Heaven for himself.

And yet how many are really looking for Heaven? One of my favorite writers, C. S. Lewis, put it this way: “…when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.”

The key to the hearts of all people, whether they know Christ or not, is that desire for the eternal. Every one of us has it, whether we know it or not. St. Augustine famously said in one of his prayers, “Our hearts shall ever restless be until they find their rest in Thee.” In each human heart, we find that restlessness. There’s something not quite right, something not at peace, something that cannot bear the thought of just continuing like this forever. Even those who have met Christ and have responded in faith have the restlessness within, because there is still spiritual work to do.

When a Christian encounters another person—not just a brief hello, but a true encounter—we begin by trying to see the longing for Heaven in that person. We cannot approach them as activists or ideologues trying to win people to our cause or ideology or as advertisers trying to sell a product. Rather, we approach people by becoming aware of their brokenness and their need for the Saviour, Jesus Christ, the One Whose presence is Heaven. When we do that from our hearts, we cannot help but approach them in humility and gentleness, permitting their total freedom, no matter how much we disagree with them or don’t like them.

In Orthodox tradition, the longing for Heaven is sometimes called “nostalgia for Paradise”—a reference to what we lost when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise. It is an inner memory that all human beings have, and it is why we long for truth, for justice, for love, for beauty, for what is higher and better than anything in this world. It is why we reach not only beyond ourselves but also beyond this temporal existence. It is why we know that there is Someone beyond all this, Someone Who is not bound by the corruption and limitation of this world.

This longing is the basis for our pursuit of the spiritual life, for our work with one another in the Church, and also for the Church’s encounter with the world.

And even while we emphasize in our preaching that our desire for Heaven cannot be fully satisfied in this life, we still know that even in this life, there can be a connection with Heaven. What we are doing here and now in the Church is not only preparation for the life of the age to come, but it is also participation even here and now in that life. We are building for the age to come, but there is even now a benefit from that labor.

We are not merely hoping to “get to Heaven when we die.” That is not what the longing for Heaven is about. Heaven is the presence of God Himself, the full realization of His Kingdom in the age to come. But that Kingdom is also here and now. That Kingdom has been established with the coming of Christ. So even though it is not yet fully available, it is even now available.

So this is a critical starting point, a critical beginning—we have to find that longing for Heaven within ourselves, that desire for God. If we do not recognize that in our souls, being a real Christian is going to be tough. Our “Christianity” will become about much smaller things—perhaps being “a good person,” perhaps agreeing with certain beliefs, perhaps being “involved” in church life, perhaps merely just some kind of “membership.”

But if we do know that longing, if we do feel ourselves reaching beyond this world for something higher, something better, something nobler and more beautiful, then all the rest of this can make sense. All the rest of our participation in church life—with each other, in the sacraments, in our encounter with the world—all this makes sense, because we are reaching toward Heaven.

The life of St. Anthony the Great, the young man who walked out into the desert and whom we celebrate today, is not for everyone. Most of us are not called to leave life in this world entirely behind as he did. Most of us are not called to set aside active service in the Church to be devoted every minute to prayer. But all of us are called to share one thing with him: the longing for Heaven, the desire for God. And all of us are called, like he was, to set some things aside and to spend time simply being with God, loving God, mystically connecting and communing with God.

Just like Anthony, we have to act to see Christ, to connect with Him, to reach toward Heaven. That is why we come to church, why we come to confession, why we receive Holy Communion, why we study the Scriptures and the doctrine of the Church, why we tithe and sacrifice, why we visit the sick and the lonely and the broken, why we bring the faith to those who do not yet have it.

I love to keep coming back to these questions: Why am I here? What am I doing in this holy place? And what am I doing with my life?

There is a reason for everything we do, and it is this: We desire God. We long for Heaven. We know that our hearts will never be satisfied and at rest until they are at rest in Jesus Christ.

What would make that young man walk out into the desert to look for God? It is that restlessness. It is that sense that something is wrong with the world. Sometimes, the only way for us even to begin to see that is for us to calm everything down, turn everything off, set everything aside, and then listen.

I want to tell you about one of the practices that I have recently rediscovered. It is something that I used to do more often, but then lost somewhere along the way. Oh, I would come back to it now and then, but it wasn’t part of my life, not in any serious way, not until someone recently reminded me. And what was it? What did I lose track of? It was silence. I have to be silent before God.

Yes, we pray, and we use words. We pray with words both together and alone. But there is something we also need, something that Anthony knew that made him walk out into the desert alone. We need silence—not just peace and quiet, time to relax, etc. That is not what I mean. We need an active silence, a silence of presence, a silence where we perhaps read the Scripture for a few moments, stand before our icons with a candle burning, and then open our hearts to the One Who made us, the One Who knows us, the One Who loves us without reservation or condition.

That is why Anthony went into the desert. And that is why we ourselves have to find these little desert moments, where we can come back to God and unfold our longing for Heaven.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

6 comments:

  1. When I was 9 or 10 I was already experiencing a homesickness, or longing, for God. I didn’t even know Him. I barely knew of Jesus either. The Holy Spirit- what’s that? I was living in messed up home environment and praying every night God would let me die in my sleep. Somehow I knew I couldn’t kill myself but I really wanted to. I know God was there with me and has been there with me throughout my life. I can’t even explain how I am not dead. So now I have emotional issues that probably make me think way differently than lots of people, including other Christians. You wrote so much here I identify with. It is my hearts desire to leave “society” and be somewhere in quiet wilderness to just BE WITH The Lord and his creation. The feeling is so overwhelming that I’ve wanted to even leave my husband and kids. (Don’t worry, I know God would not want it that way. And my duty is to pass on the faith & God’s love to them.) I don’t know how to draw closer to Him in the “noise” of life we live in. I am finding small ways but “stuff” always gets in the way. I take responsibility for not being more stubborn and resilient to seek Him out harder, but I am weak and pathetic. So Your words for us stuck in “everyday life” are helpful to me and I will try and focus on that better. But I know I will never feel satisfied, however one can be satisfied in this instance, until I can escape this wholly unnatural way of living which violently obscures God from our view. I want to read more about Saint Anthony but I think it will make my obsession worse. So I might want to wait. I know many Christians say people who think like me are wrong . Perhaps they are right. I only know what is on my heart. God direct my path. +++
    Please forgive my rambling.

  2. “The key to the hearts of all people, whether they know Christ or not, is that desire for the eternal.

    … we have to find that longing for Heaven within ourselves, that desire for God. If we do not recognize that in our souls, being a real Christian is going to be tough.

    Why am I here? What am I doing in this holy place? And what am I doing with my life?

    There is a reason for everything we do, and it is this: We desire God. We long for Heaven. We know that our hearts will never be satisfied and at rest until they are at rest in Jesus Christ.”

    Why do we have that desire? Some may say because of the inability to be at peace with, and in, the world.

    I would say that it goes much deeper than that, that innate to our creation as mankind, and each of us, is the Breath of God, that indwelling Spirit, the Light that is the life of man. This is how we recognize each other as human beings. This is the essence of Nemaste’: “My spirit sees and honors your spirit.” We cannot recognize other creatures in the same way. (Sure, we may attribute to our pets and other animals a similar spirit, yet, unless our socio-psyche is damaged, we do not commune with them: it is our imagination that tells us what we think they are responding towards our feelings and comments to them.)

    Recognizing that God-given Spirit within ourselves goes along way to healing our brokenness.

    May it be blessed.

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