Lenten Wisdom From the Desert - First Meditation
I am going to do something a little bit different during these weekly services through Lent.
I thought about people who I have encountered in my own spiritual life who embody that stillness, prayerfulness, and wisdom that so many of us seek but struggle to find, and thought that perhaps I could share some of their wisdom with us at these services.
The very first people that came to mind were some that you may know a lot or a little about: the Desert Mothers and Fathers.
To understand where my meditations are coming from we need to spend a little bit more time than normal going back into history.
About 200 years after Christ died the Christian faith had begun to spread and grow throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean. At that point the practicing of Christianity was not entirely legal and Christians were still, from time to time, brutally persecuted.
A man named Anthony was one of the first to seek refuge from both the noise and the busyness of the world by living the life of a hermit in the desert. Legend tells us that Anthony heard a sermon in the year 270 that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one’s possessions, giving all money to the poor, and following Christ completely. It so moved Anthony that he immediately did this, and retreated into the solitude and silence of the desert to live a life of prayer.
Many others followed Anthony into the desert, some living alone in complete isolation in caves or abandoned forts, eating only what friends threw over the wall, while others began to group together and form communities so that they could support one another in their prayer and worship—the beginning of what we now call monasteries.
By the time Anthony died in 356AD one writer said that there were so many monks and nuns living in the desert, seeking isolation, that they were more like cities than deserts.
These people, strange though it sounds, went into the desert to seek stillness (hesychasm), something they described as living in a state of interior silence and continual prayer.
Throughout this time some writers such as John Moschos went around the deserts of the middle east collecting stories and sayings of these monks so that they could be a help to others – kind of like a 3rd century Helen Creighton.
We have many of those sayings with us today, now called Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The stories and sayings collected in these works are sometimes long, sometimes short, are usually very simple and convey to us a piece of holy wisdom for how we can live our lives in greater faithfulness to Christ.
I wish to share with you, each day we gather, some of their wisdom.
To hear it, to sit with it in silence for a moment, and to offer a brief reflection on it that we can carry with us into our daily lives.
This is today's saying:
There were three friends who each had a reputation for hard work: Each of the three had staked out for himself a way of life he believed faithful. The first one took to heart Jesus’ beatitude ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and chose to spend his life reconciling those who fought one another. The second adopted as his life’s work the care of the sick. The third went out to the desert to live a life of prayer and stillness.
The first, for all his efforts, found himself unable to make peace in a world bent on hatred and vengeance and war. Disheartened, he sought out his friend the healer, to see if he had fared any better. But the second was equally dispirited.
So the two went to the third. They told him of their own lives, how they had pursued the noble ventures of peacemaking and healing but had somehow, along the way, lost heart. They begged him to guide them, to tell them somewhere to go, something to do.
The three sat in silence a while. Then the third, the desert dweller, poured water into a bowl and told them to look at the water. It lapped up against the sides, agitated, swirling and bobbing up and down. They sat a while. Then he said to them, ‘Look how still the water is now.’ When they looked down again, they saw their own faces. The water had become a mirror.
And so the desert dweller said to his friends: ‘It’s that way for someone who lives among human beings. The agitations, the shake-ups, block one from seeing one’s faults; but once one becomes quiet, still, especially in the desert, then one sees one’s failings.’
The desert dwelling friend in our story today is teaching his friends, and teaching us, what it means to live with humility.
To know our failings in the way he is talking about is not to beat ourselves up over them, but to know that we will, from time to time, fail ourselves and our loved ones.
We will, as the BCP says, do the things we ought not to do, and leave undone the things we ought to do. This is not something unique to the friends in the story, or to you, or to me: this happens to all.
What the monk is trying to show is that if we want to work on the ways that we let ourselves or others down, we need to be able to first see the ways we let others down. We can’t improve what we don’t know.
Knowing our faults, he’s saying, requires that we seek to have a stillness within us, like the water bowl. That through the stillness, through the prayer that flows from that, through our own reflecting on the way we treat others, we can seek to overcome those failings and love with a more Jesus-like love.
For the monk, finding that stillness meant going into the actual desert.
For us, perhaps this week, we can think about what it means to be in a season of the church year sometimes compared to a desert.
Think about how you can use this time of Lent to find the kind of stillness we hear about in the story. Perhaps at the end of each day you can reflect on all your encounters that day and ask “did I treat all the way Jesus would treat them?” “Whom did I fail?” “Do I need to apologize to anyone?”
Asking questions like these is the work of repentance.