Engage The Spirit

Engage The Spirit October 13, 2021

John Frederick Lewis Collection of European Manuscripts: O Antiphon with Saint Antony and St Paul the Hermit / Openn Library

The Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of the most inspirational figures of the monastic tradition, knew that they had to do more than study the faith and speak about it to others; they knew that had to put it into practice. They understood the way words could get in the way of such practice. They knew we could get caught up in the letter and not the spirit of the Christian faith. They wanted to receive, and many of them did receive, the Spirit, and those who did lived their lives in accordance to the way the Spirit directed them for their own particular situation. They experienced the way words could drown out the direction of the Spirit in their lives. This is why they often sought quietude, hoping that they could find a way to silence all things which got in the way of their awareness of the Spirit. They wanted to be ready to follow the promptings of the Spirit when it came to them. They could and would engage the Spirit because they knew the Spirit wanted to be engaged. And such engagement, as Abba James, indicated, is done through action, not mere words:

He [Abba James] also said, ‘We do not need words only, for, at the present time, there are many words among men, but we need works, for this is what is required, not words which do not bear fruit.’[1]

Our works, of course, must be works established in love. Works which embrace the promptings of the Spirit will be done with a tender heart. They will not be done for the sake of vainglory. We must remember, no matter what good we do, we often have failed to do what is right; we have sinned, and so, no matter how far we get away from such sin, we must remember we would not have attained where we are today without mercy and grace. If we keep this in mind, it should help preserve in us the spirit of humility which we need. For what we have achieved is the result of grace. We could not have done it all by ourselves. Thus,  Abba James is said to have warned us not to let any vain praise get the best of us: “He warned anyone who receives praise to think of his sins and realize that he does not deserve what has been said of him.” [2] And so, though we should always embrace action more than  words, we must remember to do so with the desire of having the Spirit direct us. It is the Spirit who brings to us grace, and so it is the Spirit who should be praised. If we work for the sake of praise, if we seek glory in the world, we will depart from the path of the Spirit; then, it is likely not only will we do  less good than we should, what good we do will become distorted and contaminated by sin.

Thus, the problem we must avoid is not only words, but also, works done with and through the wrong spirit. We should not speak for the sake of glory; too many speak in such a manner and receive the praise which they seek. They have obvious rhetorical gifts which attracts listeners. The splendor of their words will mask the rot within. When anyone is critical of them, their followers will speak up in their defense, adding more words to the cacophony found in the world because neither they nor their followers will know how to engage the Spirit.

Most of us, of course, find ourselves tempted with vainglory. We must make sure when we speak or act, we do so out of a love for the good and truth and not for the sake of fame and glory. We must act with and through the Spirit,  not half-heartedly, divided between our own selves and the pursuit of glory which the self suggests, and the Spirit. We cannot serve two masters. We either serve the self or the Spirit, and if we do not serve the Spirit with humility and love, we will find our works, however good they seem, will be as rotten to the core. This is something which Abba Ammonas, one of disciples of St. Antony the Great, warned about:

You see, then, how God is angry at the works of these men, and gives them none of the requests that they ask of Him, but rather resists them. For they do not their works in faith, but superficially. Therefore the divine power does not dwell in them, but they are diseased in all their works, in whatever they set their hands to. For this reason they have not known the power of grace, nor its freedom from care, nor its joy, but their soul is weighed down with a load in all their works. [3]

Silencing our words and doing good works, therefore, is not good enough. We must silence more than our words. Learning to engage silence, to work without words, is important. It is the first step. But for it to be effective, we must take such silence all the way to its proper conclusion as we silence the self and all it would do to get in the way of our engagement with the Spirit. Much good will come of this, as we will not allow our very self to get in the way of grace and its spread across the world. On the other hand, whenever we prop ourselves up, whenever we forget the humility which must be and is embraced when we practice silence properly, our loud self becomes, as it were, the rotten core found in the midst of otherwise potentially good works. Not only will it do us much harm, it might infect others with that same selfishness, that same drive for glory, so that, in the end, all those pursuing their own self-made glory end up fighting each other for remnants of glory instead of allowing the Spirit to come to them and bring to them true glory.

The practice of silence is about more than silencing words. It is about silencing all the babble which can get in the way of our engagement with the Spirit. That babble certainly is found in words, but even without words, that babble can be found in those who work for the sake of their own glory. Their actions speak just as much, if not more, than their words, drowning out the Spirit from their lives. This is why humility is important. This is why we should always remember what we are like, the  kinds of mistakes we have made and will continue to make when we try to do all things in and through ourselves. So long as we prop up the self, the only thing which will be silenced is the Spirit, for it will not force itself upon us. It will come, and comes, as a still quiet voice; only if we engage silence can we hear it and fully engage the Spirit in our lives.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 104 [Saying of Abba James 4]

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 104 [Saying of Abba James 2]

[3] Ammonas, The Letters of Ammonas. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1995), 4 [Letter III].



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