Lenten Lessons: Wisdom from the Desert

My favorite story from the tradition here comes from Abba Antony, who told another that temptation was a necessary element of our spiritual journey. "Without temptation," he said (meaning, of course, without our learning a healthy response to temptation!), "no one can be saved." So it is that we find mothers and fathers talking with their desert colleagues, and asking for prayers not to be delivered from temptation, but to have the strength to faithfully bear it.

What is the point of all this self-examination, this self-denial, this honesty about one's faults and sins? It was about the purification of oneself, certainly, and about being able to live an authentic and holy life.

But it isn't simply about individual spirituality. The Desert tradition tells us that one must be ruthlessly honest about one's own failures, but that the end result of that self-awareness is compassion toward and forgiveness of the failings of those around us.

Even though the Fathers and Mothers often lived alone, they gathered for prayer, worship, and community matters, and, as a result, the literature is full of stories of forgiveness. It's the most important lesson of a spiritual life lived in community: How can we forgive those who offend us, particularly the people who are a part of our daily lives or even our faith communities?

So I'm especially drawn to Desert stories of forgiveness or "non-judgment." In one, Isaac of Thebes was visiting a community, saw a brother sin, and condemned him in his heart. Upon his return to his cell for the night, Isaac found an angel barring his entry.

"God has sent me to ask where he is to put the fallen brother whom you have condemned," the angel said.

Isaac was immediately filled with remorse: If God did not judge this brother, then by what right did he?

In another story, Abba Bessarion was in a community meeting where another brother was condemned of sinning and turned out of their community. Bessarion got up and followed him out.

"Abba," his friends and disciples asked, "where are you going?"

His response was simple and to the point. "I too am a sinner," he said.

And a third: Moses of Scetis, my favorite of the Abbas, was summoned to a meeting to sit in judgment on a sinful brother. At first he refused to go, but at last he was prevailed upon. So he got up and walked to the meeting carrying a leaking jug full of water.

The other monks came out to meet him, and naturally they looked at him and asked, "Father, what on earth are you doing?"

"My sins gush out for all to see," Abba Moses answered, "and yet I come to judge another."

When they heard this, they were contrite, and forgave the brother.

Forgiveness is essential if we are going to live in community, whether that community is workplace, family, faith community, or nation. We are going to offend each other, just like those in the desert hurt, embarrassed, and offended each other. (I like to imagine the Fathers and Mothers smelled bad, looked funky, and were just a few steps short of sociopathic in their level of communal function.) And the only way we can function is by forgiveness.

So, strangely, the hermits and madmen (and women) of the desert tradition offer practical wisdom on how we might live together: Turn away from distraction, seek silence, assess our own flaws so that we can become compassionate toward those of others, forgive each other again and again and again, and recognize that as solitary or individualistic as we might be by nature, we still need each other.

Next week, we'll examine Lenten lessons from the Benedictine tradition. In the meantime, I offer a desert prayer:

May the God of the Desert make our desert places bloom and our wildernesses bear fruit so that we may live faithfully and love extravagantly.

3/24/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.