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)
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?
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
Although I cannot fully appreciate all that they are talking about in the following video, how beautiful the creation of God–what order, compatibility, what complexity! Originally found the video here
May each of us learn to be present in the moment and embrace the wonder and mystery which surrounds us daily!
A couple of quotes from David Benner’s Soulful Spirituality
- “Reason and wonder are not mutually exclusive—just distinct. In fact, we can quite easily use both faculties to encounter the world and, by so doing, know it in ways that neither alone makes possible. Whatever we approach on the basis of reason we attempt to tame and exploit, making it conform to our concepts and control.”
- “If we retain this radical capacity for amazement, we may be able to sidestep the impulse to control what we encounter and instead submit to the truly amazing and adjust our concepts to it.”
- “Wonder will only emerge in the presence of reverence. If nothing is sacred, nothing worthy of reverence, then nothing will evoke wonder. This is the plight of the cynic. Cynicism is the way we try to minimize the loss of wonder and idealism. It is the mask we hide behind when we choose to despise the simple and wondrous. Wonder may yet exist, but cynics will usually feel too vulnerable to dare to embrace it. Wonder demands openness, and that openness is simply too threatening for those who are cynical.”
- “The great mysteries of life—love, suffering, evil, death, beauty—do not need to be figured out in order to be engaged. But they must be befriended if the encounter is to be nurturing to spirit and soul. Any other attitude lacks the hospitality that transforms mystery from being the enemy to being a welcome companion on our human journey.”
- “The gift of wonder begins with the awakening of awareness. Our part is then simply being open to seeing the ordinary in a new light—through childlike eyes of wonder.”
- “Wonder is more a matter of heart-pondering than mind-thinking. It is rumination that leaves space for mystery, confusion, fear, uncertainty, awe, paradox, and questions.”
Check out this time lapse video to be even more awed by the wonder of creation
Reflecting on 2 Samuel 7:18-29 this morning. I was captured by the focus on God–David is saying it is all about God–your people, your name, your greatness, your blessing. But, in the middle of the passage, I found myself zooming in on a comment David makes in verse 20. “And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord GOD! Because of your promise and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness to make your servant know it.”
Anyway, these words came to me this morning–grounded in this passage and likely influenced by my re-reading of Eldrige’s book, Waking the Dead.
You know me (2 Sam 7:20; Psalm 139)
You do not reject me
You do not shame me
- I am not abandoned
- Nor left alone
You do not weigh me down with guilt
- I am guilty
- I have broken your law
- I have violated your covenant
- I have wandered
- I have crossed the line
- I have stretched the truth
- I have been dishonest
- I have hidden in fear
- I have been angry and held hatred in my heart
You know my heart
According to your heart, You have made me great (2 Sam 7:21)
You have awakened me
- And I see
- And I long for you
- You satisfy me like no other
- I am content when I am with you
- I can rest in peace
- And be quiet
- And stop struggling
Thank you Lord
Grace is one of the things we should pray for, says Yancey in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference. Enjoy these words from page 280.
Grace descends as the gentle rain from heaven. It does not divide, does not rank. It floats like a cloud high in the sky, and the thirsty pray for it as desert nomads pray for rain.
Prayer for grace offers the chance for a deep healing, or at least a way to cope with what cannot be fixed.
NOTE: This is an updated post from a couple of years ago.
To be left alone or to be in community?
Hmmm, if I am honest, I too often prefer to be alone than in community. What does that say about my view of spirituality and of the character of God?
Here are some thoughts coming out of Psalm 133 in which the Psalmist clearly says that it is good and pleasant to be in community, to dwell together in unity! Jesus had a few things about this in John 13 and 17!
The kind of community described in Psalm 133 is something attractive, something that most of us (including myself) long for.
First of all, it is GOOD (tov). Think God said something about it not being good to be alone from the beginning! So, it should not surprsise me to think that he thinks it is good to be together.
But community/unity is also delightful or it is pleasant. A quick search on na’im which is the Hebrew word, gives the picture that the delight of community should be similar to the joy we have in our relationship with God when we praise Him, the delight that comes with compliments, the pleasure that wisdom and knowledge brings to our heart.
Two images–like oil and like the dew. Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction suggests that the oil communicates a “sense of warm priestly relationship. “
With this imagery, we see God’s anointing of one another–we recognize that God is (equally) at work in my brother or sister’s life. I recognize and value what God is doing in my brother and understand that this may mean speaking the truth in love to one another.
What extravagance to see oil flowing down—community as rich, sweet and fragrant. It is natural that we honor our brother/sister and rejoice when they rejoice!
Peterson suggests that dew brings an imagery of a “sense of freshness and expectant newness.” Should community not bring a thirst quenching for the soul? It is like water on hot day or rain after a drought or the hot season. This image of community provides the promise of better things to come, of blessings!
What creates community? Colossians seems to bring unity and community together well in Col 3:14 “love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Yep, back to love and 1 Cor 13!
What prevents community from forming?
- Seeing others as competitors
- Seeing others as problems to fix
- Using others as a means to make me or the organization successful
What to do?
- Stop labeling others
- Stop presuming to know why people do what they do
- Take each person seriously
- Learn to trust one another other
- Depend on one other
- Be compassionate with and towards others
- Rejoice with others.
Peterson quotes Bonhoeffer,
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother . . . as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word . . . Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Cost of Discipleship
So, if I choose solitude over community, can I understand myself? how growth occurs? what is really important to God? learn how deceived I am about my own spirituality.
What can we do to build into community around us today?