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Lessons on spirituality from the desert saints (part two)

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Drawn from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well.  Part one is here.

Sittser uses STRUGGLE as the key word to describe the spirituality of the desert saints but it was a struggle related to the battle between flesh and spirit.  Paul had something to say about this in Galatians:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16–17 ESV)

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Following are reflections by Sittser on the desert saints with regards to their struggle against the temptations of the flesh:

It was the battle for the soul that mattered most to them.  The desert saints believed that the Christian life requires struggle against the darkness that resides in the heart, epitomized by the egoism that runs in every human being.  Only by facing that darkness will we find true life and freedom. 83

Evagrius describing the problem of egoism, “It is not in our power,” he wrote, “to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” 84

According to Evagrius, gluttony consists of obsession with food, whether or not we actually eat too much of it. Vainglory tempts us to angle for attention and honor, regardless of how it can be attained. Pride causes us to claim credit for our virtues and successes rather than acknowledge our indebtedness to others and to God. 84

With regard to temptations, Evagrius said that thoughts toward sin cannot be overcome by simply resisting them.  They must be replaced by positive virtues—gratitude instead of gluttony, humility in the place of pride and especially love. 85

One monk even carried a stone in his mouth for three years to overcome the temptation of gossip and frivolous talk. 86

For Abba Abbas, spiritual leaders were not to impose their own will on disciples, as if they were the superior; instead they were to offer suggestions, provide encouragement, impart the wisdom of the desert and, above all, set an example. 87

Sittser concludes his chapter on the value of the desert experience for us today:

The desert will also enable us to see how unfriendly modern culture is to the spiritual life.  It seduces us into being too busy, too ambitious and too self-indulgent. We never seem to be satisfied; we always want more. 94

Abba Antony once said, “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles—those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight—the battle of the heart.” 94

The desert will force us to hold our appetites in check, to resist the temptations of the devil and to seek the face of God. 94

Sittser suggests the following exercise. After reading Luke 4:1-13, identify an appetite that seems to be dominating your life.  Commit yourself to fasting from the appetite you have identified, for a period of time and in place of the appetite, memorize an appropriate passage and pray for areas of the world that lack what you so desperately crave. 95

This chapter stirs up all kinds of questions for me.  But on the topic of the desert:

What (if anything) can replace the desert experience for us today?  Beyond going to a literal desert (which I personally find attractive), what alternatives exist for us today? What has worked for you?

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