Amma Syncletica said, "In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (and it is said: "Our God is a consuming fire" Heb. 12.24): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work." (Syncletica 1) ~ excerpted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translation by Benedicta Ward
Often we set out on the contemplative path with great hopes for inner peace. But we soon discover that quieting ourselves down to really listen to the voices within can be overwhelming or unnerving. We may begin to think that we are better off humming along life's surface, or that we have "monkey-mind" and sitting in silence just seems to make things worse. We feel frustrated, dismayed perhaps. We start to lose focus in our practice.
Certainly those who practice contemplative ways of living over time experience a greater sense of equanimity. However, the pathway to the heart of deep peace is through challenging terrain—our own inner worlds. In the silence we are invited to become intimate with all of our shortcomings, all of our judgments about self and others, all of the desires we have for things or comforts that seem to lead away from God.
Amma Syncletica counsels courage and hard work in this "battle." I have trouble with the metaphor of "battle" for the spiritual life that the desert elders often use. I resist that kind of violent imagery. And yet, in Benedictine scholar and monk Michael Casey's book on humility, he writes that "a much more creative way of dealing with difficult texts is to take our negative reaction as an indication that there may be an issue beneath the surface with which we must deal." When I experience resistance to what I am reading, I need to pay attention to what is being stirred within me.
As I breathe deeply and connect with myself I become present to this call to do "battle" with all that keeps me from God. I am reminded that the warrior is an ancient archetype, an energy we all carry within us to varying degrees and calls us to be fierce protectors of our boundaries. The warrior in each of us is able to say yes and no very clearly. The desert elders lived in a fierce landscape that reminded them again and again to strip away the inessentials. This is always a painful process and hard work.
Amma Theodora said, "Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter's storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven." (Theodora 2) ~ excerpted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The concept of the monastic cell is of central importance to the desert elders. It is a literal reality, a place where the monks retreated to experience a deep stillness. It is also the symbolic place within us where we welcome in the fullness of our experience. Much of the desert journey is about becoming fully present to our emotional life and the feelings and voices with which we do battle.
I have been contemplating this inner cell a great deal in the wake of the terrible and fearful events we hear each day on the news. It can be so overwhelming to listen to this steady stream and feel my smallness in the face of things. And yet, the call is to stand "before the winter's storms." Standing and staying present to my own experience, making space to feel this grief, welcoming in my feelings of helplessness, raging at injustice, I let it all in. Only by becoming fully present to my own suffering can I respond with full compassion to the suffering of others.
The gate is narrow because there are few who are brave enough to enter this inner cell and stay present to the storms. When we face this magnitude of suffering we are moved to the question of "why?" We may want to try and make sense of it all to obtain a feeling of control, yet that is another way we run away from the fierceness of the storm.
Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved. ~ St. Seraphim of Sarov