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Thinking Out Loud

Zen Masters of the Ancient Church

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Zen Masters of the Ancient Church

They fled civilization, they said, like sailors abandoning a sinking ship. At first they fled social disdain and sporadic persecution - regarded as early Christians were as atheists by the denizens of the Roman world whose taste for gods was omnivorous and insatiable.

By the mid-fourth century, however, they were fleeing a nominally Christian empire in which their church had won the status of legal recognition, but had lost something far more precious. If anything, the church's newly sanctioned status only provided new impetus to these men and women who had come to believe that their hope lay far beyond the horizons of history, even though history appeared to be running in favor of the officially sanctioned Church at that moment.

While many Christians made peace with the world, the men and women who left behind the great cities of the ancient world to live as hermits in the deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt believed that only by separating themselves from society could they follow Jesus.*

Sister Benedicta Ward writes in the introduction of her superb edition of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003):

"Detachment from selfish concerns was always of the essence for Christianity. The invitation of Jesus to the young ruler, 'Go, sell all you have ... and come and follow me' (Luke 18:22) provided a central theme for Christians in the first three centuries; it was seen as the most direct way of discipleship, the surest way to learn what it meant to be with Jesus before the face of the Father. ... [T]he phrase 'Maranatha, even so come, Lord Jesus' (Rev. 22:20) was not a vague hope but an immediate and joyful expression; 'Let grace come and this world pass away,' Christians said in their corporate prayer at the Eucharist." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. viii)

Dr. Ward goes on to quote a visitor to Egypt who, in the fourth century, observed that hardly a village or town could be found that was not ringed by hermitages where these early ascetics waited in the desert for Jesus to return, like loyal children waiting for their parents to come home from the fields.

Their names resound through the spiritual traditions of the Eastern church: Macarius the Egyptian and Amoun of Nitria, Arsenius of Rome and Agathon; the beloved Moses of Ethiopia, who was one of the most revered of all the hermits; Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute in Alexandria who fled to the deserts of Palestine; Poemen, renowned for his gentleness and grace; and, of course, Antony the Great, the best known of all the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) because he was the subject of the first Christian biography (by St. Athanasius of Alexandria).

They were virtually all laypersons, these hermits and monks. Most were uneducated, with very few notable exceptions (such as Arsenius, a highly educated Roman of senatorial rank). Though they were hermits, they did favor one another's company upon occasion, for instance, when seeking advice or table fellowship. Their cryptic acts and sayings resemble more closely those of the ancient Zen masters than they do the doings and writings of medieval Christian mystics. Some could be coarse and abrupt in their social engagements, even toward other monks; others were startlingly gentle, as when Poemen responds to the question, "What do you do when a brother monk falls asleep during public prayer?" he says, "I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. xvi)

The Desert Fathers (and Mothers) did not invent monasticism itself. Solitude, silence, celibacy, prayer, poverty and contemplation were firmly established religious practices before the Christian faith came along, and there were already people living lives devoted to these disciplines. But the Desert Fathers did baptize these practices, and they demonstrated how they could serve the way of Jesus. They also inspired their own theologians, Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian, thinkers of the highest rank who provided guidance useful to the practice of the faith in their time, and who laid the groundwork for virtually every religious order that the Church would know from the followers of Benedict of Nursia to the contemplative monastics of Christianity today.

The Desert Fathers excelled at what I call "wisdom spirituality." They sought in solitude and through conversation with one another how to live as God would have them live. Their teachings often possess a proverbial and pragmatic feel, as we see in a conversation between Pambo and Antony the Great: Pambo asked Antony how he should live his life, to which Antony replied, "Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. 3)

Their teachings often could be characterized as advice. But, if so, it was advice of a peculiar kind, advice intended to school a person in the way of Jesus, advice meant to form and nurture particular qualities of life in the Christian, advice intended to increase the follower's dis-ease with this world while it sought to heal the follower's spiritual disease. The qualities the Desert Fathers sought to nurture in themselves and among one another ran against the currents of the third and fourth centuries as surely as they run counter to those of contemporary society. They did not seek to provide comfort, but discomfort, for the sake of nurturing the gospel.

One hermit is said to have taught that we should pray for God to give us "inner grief of heart" and "humility." He assumed that gaining the virtue of humility will be painful. Indeed, humility, which is essential to being a follower of Jesus can only really be nurtured by the loss of a false image of ourselves. Losing one's good reputation can be, according to the Desert Fathers, a good thing. To be unjustly shamed was seen as a gateway to authentic humility, provided one does not attempt to recover the good opinion of others. This same hermit also discouraged his listeners from entering into argument with others on controversial issues. The drive to win arguments with others, which can trump mercy toward others, must be driven from our hearts if we are to follow Jesus. It is simply too easy to stake out a position which we will defend "come what may," a position that requires us to nail our ensign to the mast and to keep our guns blazing until the antagonist is crushed into submission. If someone tries to tempt us into arguing, the hermit teaches, we must just listen. If the person says something edifying, say, "Yes." If he "speaks ill," don't fight back. Just say, "I don't know anything about that." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. 7)

The wisdom of the Desert Fathers invites us to sanity. That is why it seems so strange. And it does this so that our lives might be prepared to respond more readily to the movement of the Spirit among us. The Desert Fathers encourage us to seek solitude and silence so that we will not allow ourselves to be distracted from our own spiritual quandary. Only in solitude and silence is there room to see ourselves for who we are and to open ourselves to the grace of God. Crowds, noise, and busy-ness ensure that we will be distracted from our spiritual tasks. In contrast, the Desert Fathers encourage us to slow down, not just to "smell the roses" but to discern the presence of God among us, in one another, in creation, and in ourselves.

Their teachings challenged conventional logic as much as conventional notions of respectable living. They were deliberately bewildering, at times maddeningly paradoxical in their statements. They assumed that there are no straight lines when it comes to divine wisdom; God's genius for living bends with the weight of the gravity of God's grace, its fractal borders are shockingly uneven. At times the Desert Fathers appear quite insane, but this is because they are possessed by the supra-rational madness of God.

One hermit affirms the biblical teaching that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), but goes on to notice how often the wood God tries to burn is wet through-and-through, and try as we might to get the fire going, all we get is smoke in our eyes.

Another hermit, named Sylvanus, describes a vision he has had. It terrified him. In his vision he was transported to the judgment seat of God where he saw many worldly sinners being accepted into heaven while many holy hermits took the down elevator. Utterly confused and disheartened, it is said that Sylvanus retired to his dwelling and only rarely emerged ever after.**

And to a group of hermits who came to Macarius the Great seeking wisdom, he told them simply to "Flee." But when they said they had already fled to the desert from the world, he placed his finger upon his lips and said, "Flee this."

Such teachings awaken in the listener the awareness that wisdom is something one must seek, and seek, and seek, again and again. Wisdom requires dying daily, living in conscious awareness of our brokenness and mortality, yet soaked in grace. Wisdom requires risk. It demands sacrifice. You have to search for it with your whole life. Salvation is a gift, but wisdom requires sweat. And sweat these hermits did.

In ancient traditions, as Bernard McGinn writes, the desert ordinarily was thought of as the place of demons, not of humans. And certainly the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness prefigures this tradition [McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991) p. 136]. But, through their lives and their participation in Christ's own wilderness experience, the early hermits helped sanctify the desert. They helped to make of it the place where godly humanity is born and nurtured.

The Desert Fathers were indeed tempted in the wilderness. Antony, the Father of the Desert Fathers, was tempted beyond human limits, some say driven to madness.*** However perverse, however grotesque the temptations, the Desert Fathers knew that the desert must test them, because it is a refiners fire, a place where holiness is forged from molten lives by the shuddering force of the hammer blows of God, through simplicity of life, prayer and contemplation, solitude and silence, remembrance of Christ's words, imitation of Christ's way, having entrusted one's precarious and short life to God.

Later monasticism, however strict the orders became, would be tame in comparison to the Desert Fathers. They never did fit neatly into any approved ecclesiastical mold. They were not - to use the term from the 1950s - "company men." But that was their great and enduring gift to the church and to the world. By their very existence, they called into question the direction the church was taking by fleeing the society in which the church had made its comfortable home.

Like Zen Masters at the edge of the village, the Desert Fathers remind us what it looks like to be human and to be free. Their lives challenge us to find and forge the wisdom of the wilderness where we live, even if it is at the heart of village.

*The theological intuition of the Desert Fathers periodically has re-emerged in intellectual history. Franz Overbeck, the distinguished Church historian and one-time colleague of Karl Barth, thought that Christianity as a movement reflective of its founder had more or less ended by the time Constantine granted the church official imperial status in the fourth century. Overbeck himself was an agnostic, and, perhaps for that very reason, was less sentimental than many other historians of the church. He perceived that the vitality and authenticity of the strongly eschatological faith held by Jesus' earliest followers had been replaced by something else, something perhaps socially necessary and institutionally more viable, but something different nonetheless. Barth saw at least a theological connection between Overbeck's strident view of church history and Søren Kierkegaard's critique of "Christendom." The theological connection between Kierkegaard and William Stringfellow has often been noted.

** We would wait centuries for Flannery O'Connor to give legs to this vision in her disturbing and hilarious short story, Revelation.

*** Salvador Dali's "Temptation of St. Antony" expresses his holy struggles, as does Gustav Flaubert's wonderful novella, in its own way.

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