Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Go to your cell..." Part 2

The desert saints used to say, "Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything you need to know." The idea was that the temptations a monk faced within his cell--laziness, lust, greed--and the pains that could be found therein--hunger, thirst, loneliness--would teach him to rely fully on God for his sustenance and salvation. Isolation served, for the Abbas and Ammas of the desert, and for their faithful followers, as a teaching tool that helped them to truly prize communion with Christ above all other things. In later monastic movements, this led to the notion, popular among some, that the monastic (and especially the cloistered) life was preferable to the every day life of the laity. This idea is actually contrary to what the desert monks would have said. While they would probably recommend the monastic life for all, they also would recognize that the life the monks of the desert led was essential for the lives lived by the laity, and vice versa. If all were monks who prayed in their cells all day, how would any have food to eat? If everyone worked in the fields without regard to prayer, how would we have the deep teachings of those who had spent much time with God?

The first real lesson of the early Abbas and Ammas is that it takes both work and prayer to make life work. For we who live in the 21st century, it is essential that we see this as a call for each of us to be engaged in both of these activities--recognizing that there will still be people who will do only one or the other, or who will major in either work or prayer while devoting a small portion of time to the other activity. For you and me, though, it's a call to "pray without ceasing," in the sense that we should bathe ourselves in prayer each day so that everything we ultimately do is a part of our prayer life. This pattern reminds me of the Iona community of Scotland, who begin their day with prayer, but do not end the prayer service with a benediction. Instead, the service ends at the point where you might expect the sermon, followed by the offering. At the end of the day, the service picks up essentially where it left off, and ends with the benediction. In this way, the day of work becomes worship...our daily activities become our daily bread, dedicated to God, and consecrated for the use of others for edification and witness.

The second lesson I think we need to learn from the desert saints is that we all need a cell. Notice that I didn't say we all need something to isolate us from others. We already do this in many ways in our modern Western culture. What we all need is a cell-- a place where we can go, even if it is for a few moments, to connect with our Source of life and faith. Maybe what we really need is to be able to carry our "cells" around with us--in our hearts and minds--so that wherever we are, we can create space for silence, meditation and reflection. If I could come up with a phrase to encapsulate what I mean, I think I would call it, "The Monkhood of All Believers." Each of us is called, in our own ways, to retreat to our "cells" in order to learn there the lessons that God has to teach us. And because we live in a world where violence, greed, envy and a whole host of other sins abounds, we are standing in the tradition of the desert Abbas and Ammas, St. Cuthbert and so many others, by going to the hardest places on earth and building there sanctuaries dedicated to a life with God.

Tune in again, I think there's probably more to be said about this.



Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Go to your cell..." Wisdom from the Desert Abbas and Ammas, Part 1

Last month, at the East Ohio Annual Conference session at Lakeside, Ohio, the Keynote speaker for the "Day Apart" on health and healing made mention of the desert fathers, or Abbas, of the early Church. What he said was essentially this (and I am paraphrasing here): "What the desert monks did failed, because people need to be in community to be healthy." Or something like that. And I would agree with him, if I didn't know anything about the Desert Fathers, if I thought that they actually did live in total isolation from others, and if I believed that success and health were defined completely by numbers and institutions built (which I don't).

Let me address these one by one:

1. The Desert Fathers: The Abbas of the desert were not "running away" from the world, as their detractors often state (wrongly). In fact, a good argument could be made that the Abbas, and those who stand in their tradition, were "running to" the very place where they are needed the most. For the early Christians, the desert represented a place of temptation, a place where one would have to confront his/her worst nightmares, and the best daydreams the human mind can conjure up. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in England, and you encounter St. Cuthbert, who went with his monks Lindisfarne and the other Farne islands, not to get away from the world, but to battle the greatest forces of evil in their times. The Farne islands were reputed places of Druidic worship, and human sacrifice to the gods. Thus, Cuthbert and his monks were moving in ot the neighborhood where people didn't value the lives of their fellow human beings, and slaughter was happening to innocent people. Its 21st century equivalent would be moving into the inner-city, right into the neighborhood where the most drive-bys and drug deals were going down. The Abbas (and Ammas, or Desert Mothers), confronted evil and oppression with the most powerful force they could muster--their daily prayers and sacrifices. They are examples of non-violent resistance and unconditional love without peer in our history.

2. The Desert Saints Lived in Total Isolation: Not. In fact, though the Abbas and Ammas lived individually in their rooms or "cells," they did not live completely away from community. There is evidence that these saints did prize the severity of their living conditions, and the "aloneness" of their accommodations, they were never so far away from one another that they didn't have any contact with one another, or with the outside world. There are countless stories in the "Sayings of the Fathers" about the monks spending time together in prayer, worship, teaching and study. My impression of them is that they lived in a community of caring and concern, and welcomed visitors who were truly interested in their way of life. They provided food for one another, counseled each other, and prayed for the needs of the entire community.

3. The definitions of "failure" and "success": If, by "failure," you mean that the Desert Fathers and Mothers are no longer a viable Christian movement, then yes, they failed miserably. I don't know of anyone today who chooses to move to the desert in order to grow in their spiritual faith (though I am willing to admit that there might be some who do). If, on the other hand, you look at the long-term impact of the teaching and example of the Abbas and Ammas, you will see that their experiment in solitary-yet-communal living was a raging success. They inspired later generations, like Benedict and Francis, to create the monastic orders that still exist today, which have grown and influenced the Church and the world. And, I would submit, they provide an example for us about how to live faithful Christian lives in the 21st century.

But that will have to wait for another post.

Desertedly Yours,


Long Time, No Post...

It's been several months since I've posted here, but it's not because I haven't thought of it! I've thought of several things that I wanted to post here on the blog, but they've all been put on little slips of paper and tucked away somewhere. That means that when I do get around to posting, I'll have lots of stuff!

I've been like this in the past with journals and other types of regular writing--sometimes, I just need to take a break!

So, I'm back...and this spot will be for my own personal thoughts, while the church blog, which can be found at, will be for sermon thoughts and church business stuff.