One of the difficulties I constantly run across when I read the Holy Fathers of the Church is that I have no idea what they are talking about. There are at least two senses in which I don’t understand what they are talking about. In the first sense, it seems that I don’t understand because I lack the background or experience in the ideas or way of life that the Holy Father assumes the reader has. I have never lived in near abject poverty in a Middle Eastern desert, nor have I studied the Greek secular philosophers, neither have I been a slave (much less in the fifth century), nor do I know anything about the practice of the Byzantine royal court. Depending on the Father and depending on his intended audience, intimate knowledge of such things was assumed.
On a deeper level, however, I am often left wondering at what I read because it seems to me that the Holy Father is speaking of a spiritual condition or experience that I have not experienced–and often cannot even imagine experiencing. Most of the Holy Fathers of the Church were monastics–sometimes solitary, hermit monastics. And their writings that have survived to today have done so primarily because their writings have been found helpful in the spiritual life of other monastics–men and women who have renounced the cares of this world to devote themselves to prayer. And though as a busy (married) priest in a parish I do my best to take my personal spiritual life seriously, my devotion to God is expressed primarily in study and care for others, not in stillness, quietness and prayer–not at least as it is described by many of the Holy Fathers.
I think the same could be said for most people who read this blog. Whether priest or baker or Mom or teacher or police officer or accountant or farmer: we all have busy lives caring for those God has given us and just doing the business (and busyness) that is necessary to pay the bills and to love practically those in our care. And while none of us in the busy world can do what Abba Anthony the Great did–and what today a handful of holy men and women “in the deserts and on the mountains and in the caverns and pits of the earth” strive to do–yet we can all be like Abba Anthony. We can all be like the doctor in the city whom God reveals is like Abba Anthony.
This doctor in the city is like Abba Anthony not because he does what Abba Anthony does. Abba Anthony does what Abba Anthony does. Think about it. Abba Anthony does what Abba Anthony does; the doctor in the city does what the doctor in the city does. And yet the doctor in the city is like Abba Anthony. What makes this doctor in the city like Abba Anthony? We are told only two things about this doctor. First, we are told that he gives what he can spare to those in deed. Second, we are told that he sings all day long: Holy, Holy, Holy….
I’ve got a long way to go before I am someone who sees the needs of others and gives all I can spare, and truly a longer way to go before I have a continual song of praise and worship in my heart. Nevertheless, it is something I can imagine for myself. It is a possibility that I can conceive and work toward–even if I may spend my whole life just beginning.
May God help all of us in the world to see and care and give what we can spare. And may God help us to pray or sing always as we are about our various busynesses. And may this unnamed doctor in the city who was like Abba Anthony and all of the unnamed saints who struggled to be like Jesus where they were in the world, may all of these busy unnamed saints who are now at rest pray for us who are not yet. Amen.