I wrote earlier of my thanks for practical instruction on living the Christian life from a lecture I came across in the Liturgy of the Hours written by St. Augustine. I have always been enamored of “how-to” books that cut through the gloss and get straight to the point. For example, the theory on how internal combustion engines work is interesting, but the hands-on stuff you learn from actually tearing apart a motor (and putting it back together again) is invaluable. As I realized from my encounters with Blaise Pascal, and with Thomas à Kempis, and by reflecting on my own life as well, I needed help in this department. Especially regarding my prayer life.
So somewhere along my path to the Catholic Church, I discovered the Desert Fathers. I learned that about the time the Romans stopped killing Christians, some people up and sold all they had and headed for the desert in Upper Egypt to live as hermits for Christ. Some had fled persecution from the Romans too, but after Constantine the Great converted in 313 AD, persecution was no longer the reason to flee.
Leave the world they did. According to the Wikipedia citation, “These individuals believed that the desert life (modeled on the lifestyle of John the Baptist and Our Lord’s forty days in the desert) would teach them to eschew the things of this world and allow them to follow God’s call in a more deliberate and individual way.”
Pictured here is the cover of a delightful book of sayings from some of these hermits, translated and illustrated by by Yushi Nomura. At the time I found it in my local public library, I didn’t know Henri Nouwen from Adam, but he wrote a pretty good introduction explaining the history of this phenomenon and how the roots of Christian monasticism formed in the deserts of Egypt. Find it and enjoy it if you can. My daughter really loves reading it and looking at the illustrations.
Note: I keep writing Christian instead of Catholic because, by this time in my research, I understood that all Christians were Catholic until the Protestant Reformation. Christians who were not Catholic were heretics and, boy howdy, there is a rogues gallery of those! Heck, I’m still learning about them too: Arianism, Albegensianism, Docetism, Manichaeism, and more.
The sayings of the Desert Fathers are very practical and not heretical. And man, they can knock you right off your high horse in a way that makes you say “Thank you sir! May I have another?” Like this:
A monk once posed this question to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.
Did I mention they had a sense of humor? Like here:
In the desert of Skete, a brother went to see Abba Moses for a word. And the old man said, Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.
I’m not sure that is what the brother had in mind. Or this one:
If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and pull him back down to earth, because what he’s doing is no good for him.
Amen to that! Replace monk with relative, co-worker, friend, or that fellow in the mirror, and who hasn’t seen that person before?!
The Desert Fathers and Mothers include the following saints: St. Anthony the Great, St. Macarius the Great, St. Arsenius, St. Paul the Hermit, St. John the Dwarf, St. Mary of Egypt, and many others.
Ever been told that you are working too hard at being a good Catholic Christian? See these words and think again:
The reason why we don’t get anywhere is because we don’t know our limits and we’re not patient in carrying on the work we’ve begun. We want to arrive at virtue without any labor at all.
I’ll wrap this post up by letting St. Anthony the Great have the floor,
Once the famous St. Anthony was conversing with some brethren when a hunter who was after game in the wilderness happened by. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves and clucked his tongue in disapproval. Abbot Anthony told him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” He did so. “Now shoot another,” said the abbot. “And another . . . and another.” The hunter complained, “If I bend my bow all the time, it will break.” Abbot Anthony smiled gently as his point stuck home. “It’s that way, too, with the work of God. If we keep pushing ourselves too hard, the brothers will soon collapse.”
This is a marathon, people, not a sprint!