Thursday, February 16, 2012

How Far Does Sanctity Go?

Reading the Desert Fathers with my Patristics Class.

The Desert Fathers are most properly the sons of St. Antony of Egypt (c. 250-356). Monasticism grew up in Egypt and stretched out everywhere from their. The era of the Desert Fathers can be thought to have ended with the Muslinm conquests of the early 7th century. It was a movement that included directly and indirectly nearly every great saint of the Early Church. Directly, Macarius the Great, Pachomius (the first writer of a monastic rule), Evagrius Ponticus. Indirectly, Sts. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, etc.

The lives of these great men (and some women too), can be studied, first of all in the anonymous, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in the Lausiac History of Palladius, in various other ancient histories, like that of Socrates, in the letters of a great number of the Fathers of the Church, in some great biographies, most notably, that of St. Antony by St. Athanasius. I recommend the first and the last most of all.
St. Macarius the Great
I love them. They speak to me, despite the more than sixteen centuries that separate me from them. They are insightful, not about metaphysics, botany or anything like that, but about the soul. Their expertise was the soul. Sure they worked with crude, and often frankly downright false ideas about medical science, but they could read what truly mattered, that which lies in the deepest dwellings of the psyche. They are refreshingly approachable in this. One does not have to master a new language to find something of value, so long, that is, as one bears in mind that no one is God but God alone, and all human beings make mistakes.

They are refreshingly humane, compassionate. Love was their highest longing and for as much as they sought to withdraw from men, their love always radiated out. Are you looking for guidance, for some help in a tough spot in your spiritual journey? You will find in their wise sayings keen insights to enable you to circumvent the demons that hold you back. No prude can persist in the desert. They strove for that state of complete transparency, and that is astonishingly comforting. They tell us time and again that shame in the face of sin and difficulty is the thing that will most hold you back.

Some might consider their teachings extreme, and me imprudent for directing you to them. The first rule of asceticism must always be boldly stated: do what bring joy, refrain from that penance that depresses. You are only called to do what brings joy.

So, what of all that? Is it not unhealthy to fast, to refrain from all those creatures comforts that make us happy? Should we not only look back in horror upon such extemity? But if we think of that rule I have just stated, why would we abstain from that which brings increase of joy? The path of prayer and penance is one of faith. It is a dark road for which you have no earthly assurance it will work out.

Something to think about as we are soon to begin Lent.

The measure of the saints does not intimidate me anymore. I look upon their lives as one does who gazes upon something marvellously beyond him. Let me welcome the life of grace as God gives it. I love how their example betters me: I think about their priorities and my life begins to look like something I should take much less seriously.

Just as I finish this I see the good SOLIs have composed a very good account of the vow of poverty. Please find it here.

St. Pachomius, the founder of 'cenobitic' monasticism,
legendarily receiving his Rule from an angel.

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