Do Not Become Like A Fish Out Of Water

Do Not Become Like A Fish Out Of Water June 16, 2017

Fish out of water by Friend Milton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fish out of water by Friend Milton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He also said, “Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lost our interior watchfulness.”[1]

While this saying of Anthony was clearly stated for the sake of monks, showing Anthony’s service as a spiritual father, abba, for those who followed him into the desert, nonetheless there is found in it a kernel of wisdom which is applicable to all.  Everyone has their place in the world, where they are able to develop themselves to be the best they can be. Sometimes, this place is temporary, before they are called to move on, but often, they find their vocation, and should seek to develop it with freedom and creativity, without distractions that would prevent them from becoming the best they can be.

But the reality of life is that we are easily distracted. Even when we are doing what we like to do, even when we see how it helps us and makes us happy, we end up thinking of what could be, what we might be missing out, because of what we have done and continue to do, following our proper course in life. As the saying goes, it is easy to believe “the grass is greener on the other side,” that is, that other ways of life are better than ours, and so we start desiring those other ways of life, and end up losing our sense of purpose and inner peace.

If we try to do something which, however good it is, is not within our potential, not within our skillset, we will become like fish out of water, and so we will end up suffering as a result. We will not be able to develop ourselves to be the best we can be. Just as athletes before a major competition often distance themselves from everything and everyone that would hinder their preparation for that competition so that they can reach their peak ability before the event, so we, once we understand what we can and should be doing, should strive to follow through and engage whatever will truly help us achieve our perfection and avoid those things which would will hinder our potential.

While most of us are not monks, and so will be called to go out in the world, to interact with people on a daily basis, the warning Anthony gives to monks still applies to us.  We must keep vigilant.  We must discern what is best for us to do, and not be unduly distracted. Certainly, things can come up in life which we must deal with that are outside our control; we must live and act with others, and that gives us responsibilities which monks normally do not possess, but we must not, on the other hand, become busybodies, interfering in the freedom of others for the sake of personal glory. When we find our path in life dull, when we become listless, we suffer from the same acedia that monks face, with some of the same temptations (transformed, to be sure, into worldly forms of those temptations), and we must, as with monks, avoid letting such acedia get the best of us and motivate us to engage in actions to distract us from our personal calling in the world. We will stumble and fall down when we let acedia get the best of us, just as monks will find going out of their cell for distraction, will hinder their prayer life and cause them to fail in their vocation. “If the spirit of acedia comes over you,” Evagrius suggested, “do not leave your dwelling (cf. Eccles. 10:4) or avoid a worthwhile contest at an opportune moment, for in the same way that one might polish silver, so will your heart be made to shine.”[2] We slowly perfect ourselves and shine with glory when we follow through with our proper mode of life, engaging it, allowing it to reveal who and what we are underneath the mask of self.

Certainly Anthony, in his talks with monks, knew their needs differed from those of us not called to monastic life. Monasticism is meant to encourage monks to asceticism, to filter out all improper attachments to the world so that they can fully develop themselves body and soul. They are called to a life of prayer and contemplation, and through it, their own perfection will spread grace to others as their perfection in love means they will want to share the fruit of their virtue with others. “The monastic profession is a lofty and fruitful tree whose root is detachment from all corporeal things, whose branches are freedom from passionate craving and total alienation from what you have renounced, and whose fruit is the acquisition of virtue, a deifying love, and the uninterrupted joy that results from these two things; for, as St Paul says, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace and the other things he mentions (cf. Gal. 5: 22).”[3]

For monks, the ascetic pursuit, the search for spiritual peace through simple living, is easily hindered by distractions from the world. Monks, staying alone in their cell, can easily find all kinds of excuses, all kinds of provocation, to go out of their cell, so that instead of doing what they are called to do, they find themselves entertained by anything and everything but their spiritual pursuit. This makes it difficult for them to sit down, silence themselves, and find peace while in their cell. They are constantly agitating themselves, like throwing rocks on water, making waves which prevent them from finding the inner calm which gives them entry into communion with God. The more they go out, the more they find  themselves attached to the world outside their cell, and the more their minds will wander with recollection of such things while in the cell, not allowing them to purify themselves and attain the serene simplicity which their detachment from the world is meant to bring. Thus, when such monks are called to leave their cells for good and just reasons, they are not to be slack in returning to their cell once they have done what they have set out to do – lest temptation will distract them and cause their mind to go astray.

For those of us who are not called to the extreme asceticism of a monastic vocation, we still need to follow through with the prudence being offered here:  when we find ourselves having to go to places which we know will give us some sort of temptation, we should not stay longer than necessary, lest we let the temptation grow and divert us from our own good end. We should discern what will help us accomplish our personal tasks properly, what will divert ourselves from them, and so find a way to keep true to our personal calling. the key is not to dally too long with distractions; the more we allow them in to our lives, the more they hinder our lives, and we find ourselves becoming attuned to them more than what we are called to do, and so find ourselves facing the ramifications of sloth.  This is not to say that we should deny ourselves times of leisure, times of rest, but only insofar as we use it to balance our lives and regain our proper strength for our calling in the world. The Sabbath was made for us, but we must not assume and treat every day as if it were the Sabbath. So, even if we are not called to the extremes of monastic asceticism, we still need to balance our lives out, pursuing the calling God has given us with proper rest to make sure we do not burn ourselves out with exhaustion. Just as most of us are not called to be monks, and should not be judged in accordance to the obligations and needs of monks, so most people will not have the same calling as we do, meaning, we should not judge them in what they do and how they do it in relation to our calling. We can remind them to continue to pursue their own personal needs, truly get to know themselves and to act in accordingly, but such exhortation is normally as far as we can go. Our focus should be ourselves. We must find our own personal regime, what will perfect us, and then when we do, we can find our peace with God. But if we do not, if we avoid it, then we shall be like a fish out of water, and we will struggle and suffer until we either perish or return to the water of our vocation.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 3.

[2] Evagrius, “To Monks in Monasteries and Communities,” in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 123.

[3] Theoliptos. “On The Inner Work in Christ and the Monastic Profession” in The Philokalia. The Complete Text. Volume IV. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al (London: Faber and Faber, 1995),177.


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