Lessons on spirituality from the desert saints
More from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. Today, from his chapter three which focuses on the saints who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries and lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.
Struggle is the key word that identifies these desert saints according to Sittser. A key Pauline passage on struggle is found in 1 Corinthians
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27 ESV)
Now from Sittser
They believed that struggle is normal, necessary and even healthy in the spiritual life. The fallenness of the world imposes it (e.g., physical sickness, mental anguish, death of a loved one), discipleship requires it (e.g., self-sacrifice) and believers must choose to face it. We therefore cannot escape struggle, nor should we try. Rather, we should embrace it as one aspect of our calling to discipleship, for the goal of life in this world is not ease, prosperity and success but intimacy with God, maturity of character, and influence in the world. Struggle proves that we are taking the Christian faith seriously. 74
Regarding the desert saints,
“However crazy, they deserve our admiration, for they dared to take a stand against the compromised Christianity of their day.” 79
They deeply respected the example of Jesus.
“‘The incarnation, in their minds was not intended to spare them from suffering but to inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive. “The more profound our personal misery,” John Chryssavgis writes, “the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human corruption, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion. The more involved our exposure to the way of the cross, the more intense our experience of the light of the resurrection.”’ 79
Why the desert?
The desert saints believed that the desert itself is a fitting place to engage in this struggle, for it forces us to face our weaknesses squarely, strips away illusion and pretension, and enables us to recognize our absolute need for God. 81
The desert is barren, stark and lonely, thus symbolizing a life that is stripped of distractions, possessions and pleasures. It is a place of extremes—frigid cold at night, unbearable heat during the day, endless sand and rock, dangerous animals, utter emptiness. There are no provisions to meet physical needs, no conveniences to make life run more smoothly, no friendships to dull the edge of loneliness, no settlements to welcome hungry, thirsty travelers. 82
The desert saints chose to live in the desert to reclaim a faith that had become too easy and convenient. 82
Part two tomorrow