One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.
There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.
But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.
In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).
St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)
The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.
The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.
Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.
Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well.
The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.
To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.