The Desert Struggle

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 PhilokaliaThe 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.

36 comments:

  1. I offer God thanksgiving often for the revelation of the interpenetration of the seen by the unseen, the created by the uncreated and the glorified.

    I also give thanks for the gift of repentance because I find the tendency in my own heart to close down to the real and the present.

  2. Thank you for that beacon of light that reminds me that this war of good and evil is taking place within everyone’s heart and with God’s grace it can be won.

  3. Above all, guard your heart

    I’m reminded of the storey of an Anglican priest who was seeking a new parish. Leaving aside the troubling aspects of this, he had a good question in his discernment ‘is it’s desert dry enough’

    I have a friend in the States who will shortly be received into the Orthodox Church. I’m not surprised by this.
    For myself there is no such option which I suspect is for my good, if I dare say that here 🙂

    New Zealand is very dry!

    Staying put is hard counsel for the restless heart, but then our rest is closer to us than we are to ourselves
    Matt 11:28-30

  4. A truly interesting article about wonderful people and their relationship with God. Nevertheless, I cannot but ponder that the Desert Fathers and other ascetics lived solitary lives with no responsibilities but for themselves. I have great difficulty difficulty seeing the connection and relevance between those who only had to concern themselves with themselves and those of us with spouses, the responsibility of children, mortgages, in-laws, financial and medical struggles and many other issues, in a noisy environment about as far removed from the Desert Fathers as one can get. They are truly Godly people of great piety but surely there are other saintly exemplars with a more contemporary experience that is more relevant to the lives we lead today.

  5. St Anthony is the father of the hermits and a fascinating ascetic. He withstood the beating of the demons, but he still had to learn humility by a man living in the world.

    When he fell into a prideful thought, daring to ask God who is at the same spiritual level as him, the Spirit led him to a cobbler in Alexandria. Pressing him to tell him what he does, the cobbler said he divides his income between the Church and the poor, keeping only one third for himself and his family. St Anthony, having sold all his belongings and kept nothing, knew this was not it. He pressed him for more and was told by the cobbler that he prays that everyone goes to Paradise and he goes to Hell. Such was his contempt for himself and his love for others. St Anthony learned the lesson and departed praising the Lord.

    Ultimately everyone is subject to prideful thoughts. My elder, Fr Grigorios used to remind us that, whilst virgins, fasters, ascetics, priests and bishops can be found in Hell, no humble person will ever be found there.

  6. Wal,
    Most of the desert dwellers were not solitaries but lived in communities. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to survive in that setting as a pure solitary. But, in their day, there were also people in the cities who had children, spouses, medical struggles, etc. I would suggest, however, that once you get past the external noise of life, the inside of a married guy and the inside of a desert monk are quite similar. They are similar enough that one can teach the other.

    Yesterday (Sunday), on the Orthodox calendar, was the feast of St. Mary of Egypt, who was a famous desert-dweller. Though I did not mention her in the article, I had her in mind as I posted it. The Lenten experience (with its light practices of asceticism for those of us in the world) “rhyme” with the desert dwellers in various ways and it is of use to consider them and to listen to what they record of their experience.

    For example, they wrote, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” In a highly mobile society (Americans move, on average, every 5 years according to some studies), we move from place to place, from channel to channel, from house to house, sometimes from relationship to relationship, yielding to the same temptations that dogged the desert fathers (to keep moving from place to place).

    Wisdom comes, I think, far more from staying put, from sticking it out, from dealing with the “shame” of the place in which we find ourselves. It is, perhaps among the most difficult of struggles. I appreciate their thoughts on that topic, and it helps me (a householder) reflect more ably on my own temptations to quit and be done, etc.

    Human experience, at all times and in all places, is “relevant” to our lives – not just those whose lack of wisdom and insight has thrust them into the same morass that afflicts us all.

  7. Father,
    Remaining in our cell has many layers of meaning. It can also mean “remembering our place”, regarding our relations with others and respectful boundaries. In the US, we are taught to push boundaries, to compete, out smart, get ahead, to be “outstanding”, and last but not least, to be “gifted”. Ever looking out and presumably upward, we completely ignore what is before our nose or at our feet.

    We are all in a desert, lacking the water of love. Yet by the grace of God, some of us learn to live in the desert and thrive, indeed by loving others, caring for others, giving to others. In the grace of humility, such acts well up from the deep well of God’s love.

  8. Nikolaos,
    I’ve heard this story and others similar, that are so helpful to both monk and lay person. Where we are, and the path of life the Lord gives us to live, is where we experience the trials of the desert. no matter where that might be.

    May God grant that we keep to the cross we are given in the love and grace of God.

    I wonder who is the Fr Grigorios whom you speak of? He speaks wise words.

  9. Father,
    Please forgive me as I merely copy and repost your words. But they are very important and bear repeating:

    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.

    On occasion, due to workload or professional demands, I need to spend a day and night alone (sometimes longer-unusual experience for my marriage). On such occasions I may be away from home, yet my “cell” stays with me, such that I carry small icons of Christ and the Theotokos, I pray to them and call my husband before retiring to sleep. These moments when it seems I’m alone (and lonely for home), have been very salient regarding the presence of Christ, the Theotokos and the saints. And such moments evoke an abundance of gratitude, I’m not alone. We are not alone. Glory to God.

  10. The more challenging forms of ‘staying put’ seem related to ‘suffering’. Perhaps the utmost test of nobly “staying put” and escaping noxious self-consciousness, is once some protracted suffering befalls us.
    In such cases, successful perseverance “in one place” requires the trusting “acceptance” of the suffering (which God permits), its joyful reception as if from a redemptive and cherished Coach, rather than some remote ‘suffering-dispatcher’.
    The soul that continues committed like this goes through the most transformative experience possible according to our elders’ counsel.
    We then become truly free, but only when we manage (through Christ’s Grace) to let go of wanting to wander away from our “cell” (in the broadest sense); we become free when we stop wanting to be free from the suffering.
    We might routinely fail to do it, but it is precisely what we have witnessed -as the culmination of their transformation- in the saints.
    This fixedness and resistance to selfish escapism [when so confronted] is an acceptance of God Himself, of His will, and it is also a triumph of having found the correct relationship to the Cross.
    Of course, this kind of dedicated denial of self ends up being the trampling of [corruptive] death by [life-giving] death, of [corrosive] suffering by [God-trusting] suffering, of [rebellious and restless] ‘staying in place’ by [the “accepting” stability of] ‘staying in place’.
    These often seem to be the scariest and highest attainments of holiness, but we can surely take away some smaller and more manageable versions, each in their own context.

  11. On a simpler note, I recall a Saint who tired of the endless distractions of life in the city. Dealing with people, housing, endless annoyances, etc., he decided he would go to the desert where he could be alone in his prayers, without distraction. But when he went into the desert, he found that his prayers were still disturbed–wind blowing through tall grass, heat and weather issues, etc. continued to be a distraction to him. This was how he realized the problems he encountered were not due to the numerous distractions found in the world but rather were an issue in his own heart.

    I’m also reminded of the time Father Bloom was confronted by a group of adults from his parish. They wanted him to “do something about the children as they distract them from their prayers during Liturgy”. Father’s reply was that “when you begin to actually pray, they will not distract you.”

  12. Good evening, Father
    Please tell me about the picture you used for this post. Where is this? What is the name?
    Thank you.
    Kathy

  13. Yes it interesting…for me ..it’s a picture with a much to see and a lot to learn from. I like the caves.

  14. I read the Life of St Antony of the Desert . I think St Athanasius says that Antony left the village and the surrounding areas to get away from the pagan culture . Even the schools were based on learning the literature of the Hellenistic period and teaching the subjects which allowed a boy to make a mark in Civic and professional life. Subjects like rhetoric for instance where literary references were common .
    St Antony we are told preferred to commit to heart the reading from the Scriptures and contemplate these.
    He had no wish for a Civic career. So he went far away and lived in the basement of a deserted fort where there was water , perhaps a well. He found people came to him ,though and retreated to a mountain where he could keep away from controversy and people trying to convert him to their own views. He found that God is there when all distraction is eliminated. I think he later was able to tell of his discoveries when he went to Alexandria hoping to help those being persecuted for their faith.

  15. Kathryn and David,
    I believe Father Stephen speaks about his visit to Mar Saba in his book, “Everywhere Present, Christianity in a One Storey Universe”. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it.

  16. Dee

    Elder Grigorios, was the Abbott of the Holy Monastery of Docheiariou in Mount Athos. He is an important elder of recent times, spiritual child of St Amfilochios Makris of Patmos ( https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/04/elder-amphilochios-makris-of-patmos.html). By the mercy of the Mother of God the Gorgoypikoos (quick to hear), whose icon is at the monastery, I was given this most precious present in my life, to have Fr Grigorios as my first spiritual father.

    A film has come out about him and the monastery, by director Aleksandr Zaporoshchenko, filmed at Docheiariou, titled “where are you Adam ?” ( https://www.cinema.in.ua/en/film-where-are-you-adam/).

  17. The key point regarding the pursuit of solitude (which we see in St Anthony) , as pursuit of God, is the elimination of the occasions to sin and to be distracted. Isaac the Syrian is sublime on this.
    The more advanced point is being alone with God alone – different to being with Him as well as many other things.
    Some start from repentance that cannot tolerate previous surroundings, others from eros that cannot do the same.
    They all discover that the divine consolations can only be as direct as the desert affords in the absence of the possibility for indirect consolations that the world affords.

  18. Hi Fr. Stephen,

    I appreciate your reflection in the original post and in the comments, especially this one: “Wisdom comes, I think, far more from staying put, from sticking it out, from dealing with the “shame” of the place in which we find ourselves.”

    That line speaks to me. I am a traditionalist minister in a mainline denomination, and I have been struggling with a lot of the issues it seems you struggled with as an Episcopal priest. I’ve been reading much of your blog, and some of the posts, like “Living in Difficult Times,” could be verbatim descriptions of my experience. Being a traditionally-minded Christian in a denomination (and a parish) that has embraced the worst of secular modernity is indeed producing in me a “double soul.” There are times when I contemplate how long I will be able to “stay put” and “stick it out” as leader of my parish…

    My question is, what would your counsel be for someone who is concerned with the long-term effects of being “double-souled”, but who also recognizes that stability is a virtue? How would you reconcile those two insights? I hope that makes sense…

    Thank you. Hope you have a blessed preparation for Holy Week!

  19. Lawrence,
    There are times when staying put loses its virtue and becomes corrosive. For example, I think that, had I “stayed put” in the Episcopal Church, the damage to myself and others would have been very serious indeed. If you will, leaving for Orthodoxy was abandoning the “Church of what’s happening now” for the Church that is stability itself. I changed, after a fashion, in order to “stay put.” I changed by leaving so that I could stay put in the truth. In hindsight, it was a correct decision, regardless of the cost (including had I needed to give up ordained ministry altogether). I think that, from the outside, I did not realize how utterly “thin” my traditional faith was as an Episcopalian. The fullness of the Tradition was ever so much greater than I had ever imagined. It allowed me, for one, to no longer need think of myself in opposition (as a “conservative” or a “traditionalist”). I was just Orthodox, allowed to hold the “sweet spot” of being in the middle of all things.

    May God give you grace in your struggles and preserve your soul. He alone is Lord!

  20. “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.”
    Yes, there’s a tug of war in my own heart to soften my stiffness, to tame my own rightness, and to remember my own sin every day. At times sadness and exhaustion encompass me in this fight, but the very sadness and exhaustion become by the grace of God very liberating.

    I feel very blessed to read your blog, Fr. Stephen! Thank you!

  21. “He pressed him for more and was told by the cobbler that he prays that everyone goes to Paradise and he goes to Hell. Such was his contempt for himself and his love for others.”

    I’m not sure, how is that supposed to promote anything but total insincerity (do you actually want to be stuck in a fire for all eternity? I doubt you’ll voluntarily stick your hand in one for five minutes) or an insane and irrational self-loathing? What exactly is supposed to be so very contemptible about you, me, or the average human being? And if there was something, whose fault would it be – the product’s, or the maker’s?

  22. Bill Atkin,
    The key point of this ‘ascetic humility/self-loathing technique’ is based on the experiential awareness of how inconceivably formidable, [more than any other in fact] is the enemy of hidden pride plaguing every person: this can reach the lows of the common, Pharisaic default-conviction that, ‘I am not like the others’ [Luke 18:11] (which essentially includes even God in its unconscious superiority).
    Of course, this self-loathing ‘technique’ can be abused and misunderstood, if done like that it is clearly wrong. However, there are healthy, internally balanced ascetics, straightforward hearts that discover that, above all, it is humility that keeps you fastened to God unshakeably, and they can deploy this ‘technique’ without the dangers and endless analytical objections modern minds discern in it.
    It is also absolutely crucial to remember that it is a self-loathing that is not desperate. Rather it is a joining of ‘despairing of self’ while firstly utterly hoping in God’s love, goodness, power.
    It is also worth noting that it is a very advanced technique.
    One of the greatest recent examples of perfecting this ‘technique’ was St Silouan.

  23. It was given him (Silouan) by Christ Himself when Silouan was at a loss as to how on earth can someone at the very highest summit of spirituality overcome the super refined pride/despair war of the Devil that is often encountered at such summits.

  24. Bill,
    “To become a Christian, one must first become a poet…” a modern saint has said. The literalism of your question is part of the problem. The point of the story isn’t about hell – but about his extremely humility. I’ve seen a translation of this saying in which (no mention of hell), it simply said, “And I consider all men better than myself.” That works just as well as to the point of the story. I’ve never seen the original language version, so I’m not sure if that’s just a translator’s license. But the point remains – it’s not a treatment of the notion of hell.

  25. Dino,
    You’ve accurately described the “self-loathing technique.” I generally do not write about it or describe it in those terms – simply because in our culture it is way too easily misunderstood and abused. It has to be softened, with lots of milk and sugar added in order to swallow. We are a world awash in toxic shame.

  26. Dino,
    thank you for your clarification, it has cleared a considerable amount of fog.

  27. Father,
    perhaps it is ‘safer’ (and some philosophers would iterate) to simply point out that it is closer to the truth to say that “I am nothing”, than to not say it.
    Not that the realisation of the depths of such a saying, is not still in danger of modernist misunderstandings.

  28. Despite those dangers though, that realisation is the beautiful thing that saves and sanctifies.

  29. Thank you for responding, Father. That is a helpful way of looking at it. It is for me to discern when staying put would lose its virtue and become corrosive. Part of the difficulty is that there is a rhetoric among my clerical colleagues (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken), that those who have left our denomination– we’ve had a number of “defections” to Rome– have done so due to a failure in charity. They’ve “abandoned their people”, rather than doing the more loving thing and staying put and loving them.

    So my struggles have taken place in that context. If I leave and join the Orthodox Church (for example), am I abandoning my people? There’s a lot of shame and guilt in play there. But I think that you’re right– if staying put becomes harmful to them and me, it would be more loving to leave than to stay… Lord have mercy on us all!

  30. Lawrence,
    It’s something of a “red herring” (not “abandoning my people”). I understand the thought (and certainly entertained it at a certain point). But, in truth, they were not “my people.” They belonged to my bishop (and were Anglicans of their own free choice). But, they were mine to care for, but only as given to me by the bishop. I think I began to realize that, in point of fact, I lacked the authority to teach them. Once, in a Bible study, I was challenged by someone saying, “Why should we listen to you rather than to XX (a famously heretical bishop)?” Truth be told, I wasn’t listening to me. Instead, I was allowing myself to be drawn into a position in which I had relativized anything I said to nothing more than “my opinion.”

  31. Lawrence, just a thought (and, perhaps, not a helpful one). Teach them the truth and judge whether you should stay by the backlash against or acceptance of it. Then again, that will put you square in the cross-hairs and it may not be the best place for you to be.

  32. “I think I began to realize that, in point of fact, I lacked the authority to teach them… I was allowing myself to be drawn into a position in which I had relativized anything I said to nothing more than “my opinion.”

    Oh, for sure. I have felt that acutely. Everything– from the divinity of Christ, to marriage, to the sanctity of unborn life– is up for debate. I can have my “opinions”, but I can’t really claim that anything is the truth, or tell my parishioners that what I’m teaching is the truth. The problem is, the teaching that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman, for example, is not an opinion… or even my “conviction.” It’s the truth. But I’m in an environment where what I know is the truth is treated as an opinion, and not a very respected one at that. That’s what’s intolerable.

    I should make clear, that I do love my people and really almost all of them genuinely love me too. The issue isn’t whether I can love or even get along with my parishioners. The issue is, “What is the truth?”

    I’ll leave it at that. For us Western Christians, today is Good Friday. I should be thinking about more glorious things. Just wanted to leave that final thought in the downtime in-between services.

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