Category Archives: Desert Fathers

The Divine Window of Escape

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this; ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’

–Sayings of the desert

There is not one among us who does not long for the day when all of our trials and tribulations will be behind us. We spend great amounts of time and effort to build for ourselves perfect utopian lives and somehow we always fall short. The monk thought that if he could just overcome his passions, then life would be grand. Much to his, surprise his elder monk told him that his quest was not the ultimate goal of the Christian journey. Without temptation the soul makes no progress. Temptations are the building blocks of spiritual fortitude. They are the spiritual formation tools of God.

Paul tells us in his Corinthian letter: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” The assertion is that in the midst of our greatest trials we can rely upon God to strengthen us. If we take on this way of thinking, we need not fear being left to our own devices or becoming overconfident in our own victories. Our strength, our power, come from God who is always with us no matter what we face. The divine escape window is our greatest hope.

When the monk said that he was at peace without an enemy, he faced the danger of being presumptive upon God. With such a presumption we could perhaps begin to think that we have arrived. People who have arrived no longer need help on the journey. The Christian journey is one of learning, endurance, and always striving for new and better ways to follow God. Our passions, our trials, our setbacks, are all part of the glorification process. Learn to pray the prayer of escape rather than the prayer of perfection and you will draw closer to perfection each day.



Prayer

Lord it is very tempting to ask you to remove all obstacles from our lives and then fool ourselves to think that we are doing much for you. Remind us that in our endurance we learn who you are and what you do for us. Teach us today that trials are a normal part of the journey. They are special points that bring us closer to you. In our trails we learn what Jesus endured for us. Protect us this day and give us the window of escape.

Amen

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Refuge – Prayer and Contemplation

It was said of him (Abba John the Dwarf) that one day he was weaving rope for two baskets, but he made it into one without noticing, until it had reached the wall, because his spirit was occupied in contemplation.

Abba John said, ‘I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.’

—– Abba John the Dwarf

At various times people are in need of refuge from the troubles they face in life. The word refuge means: a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble. We all need refuge because danger lurks, and safety is a primary need of all. As followers of Christ, we need refuge from the problems of this world. Life is so trying and difficult that we just want to say that this “Christian thing” just isn’t working. Our culture does not readily respond to the idea of committing to a power greater than ourselves. Many times we feel that we are the first people to experience this. Not so, the men and women of the desert faced this long ago. These Monks were occupied in contemplation and took refuge in prayer. Maybe we can, too.

Jesus Open armsA few questions:

  • Who or what do you turn to when you feel tired or oppressed?
  • Is there any time in your schedule to just “get away” while you are in the middle of the crowd?
  • Does the concept of contemplation seem workable to you?
  • How and where do you pray?

First, it is essential to now that you have a refuge when you feel tired or oppressed. The psalmist said: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” In this lifting up our help comes. There are not enough self-help books and webinars to save us from those times of spiritual tiredness and oppression. These battles are not limited to our spirit because they effect everything. We have all experienced times when could not lift our eyes to God or anyone else. In those times we must turn to our inner selves. The spirit of God dwells in all of us and is readily available in our times of need. The best way to tap into our inner spirit is to be still and let the spirit touch us. Contemplation is a tool by which we hear the voice of the spirit. We are carried away to a place that is spirit chosen. When there, the world seems far away. This journey could be short or long, alone or in a crowd, in stillness or motion.

Second, we must learn to get way while we are still in the crowd. Very few people can escape to the literal desert to find God. We must find Him where we are. All of us have likes and dislikes, things that energize us and things that drain us. The key is allowing our times of energy to be times that we can be in touch with God. Find a place to get away. Maybe it is by taking a walk in a crowded park. My favorite place is a coffee shop. The roar of the grinder, the rumble of the conversations, and even the distinct voice that is coming from the table next to me are like the bells of the monastery calling me to prayer. My coffee shop time is my “get away” time. There is me, God and the 30 other people in the shop, but I have gotten away. Find your place in the middle of the crowd and just get away.

Please don’t take my ideas as being negative towards real silence and isolation. We are all better people for taking times of literal silence, but our challenge is to be a monk in the world.

Third, contemplation is a scary and elusive word. A fellow monk once said of the Thomas Merton, “Merton told us we weren’t contemplatives; we were just introverts!” You can imagine that did not go over too well with men who had lived in community for ten, twenty and even fifty years. What Merton was saying is that contemplation is not isolation but involvement with God and man. Through our times of contemplation and prayer we find energy to engage the world as radically different people. The concept of isolating ourselves in some type of cloister to find God is a type of contemplation that just will not work for the bulk of us. Unfortunately, that is the picture we see when we envision contemplation. If we take the time to rethink contemplation, I believe we can all be contemplatives and monks in the world. That leads us to the how and where?

Fourth, how and where do we engage to take our refuge. The “how” is that we clear our minds and begin to focus on God. Silence, walking, writing, reading, Lectio, are all excellent “hows.” Primarily, all of us need to have a desire to encounter God at all times. Not many people fail to encounter God if they engage in silent meditation and focus attention on our breathing and God’s role in giving us life. Sacred reading is a fine way of turning our attention to the one who is sacred. The very way we are given the words we write causes us to look to God who gives us that gift of language and expression. Sometimes taking a walk and seeing the majestic creation, not just in the big mountains and blue sky, but in the small flower that grows in the crack of the city sidewalk helps us realize that God created it all. Such a walk is not a walk with a destination but a journey to discover the divine. Now the where. Quite simply it is the places God has given you -your home, a church, a sidewalk, anywhere that is available. I waited a great portion of my life to find the monastery, only to find that it was everywhere. There are  cloistered monks who never find their monastery.

Find your refuge, its right in front of you.

Prayer

Lord help me to discover that special treasure that you have given me. May I experience the warmth of your spirit today and every day. Let me not spend so much time searching for the perfect place that I miss the refuge you have given me. Thanks for being there in all those unexpected places and remind me that I simply must still myself enough to see you.

Amen.

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Love of God

Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top.’ They said to him,’ What does this saying mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbor, whom we must trust, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.’

—-Abba John the Dwarf

This saying is based on the biblical record of a conversation that occurred between Jesus and a lawyer. He ask Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself..” The fascinating thing about the wisdom of the monk is that he tells us to begin with something we can see. As much as we would all desire, we can’t see God in the flesh. The key to experiencing God is understanding the depth of His love. God loves us at our worst and we are challenged to love our neighbors at their worst.Love of God KJV

All too often we go for what is easy, and the foundation of our spiritual house is sinking sand. The love of neighbor is the key to understanding of the nature of God. He is a loving and understanding creator, and not a cruel and harsh master. With a heart of compassion and mercy, He welcomes sinners into His kingdom. They don’t not get the “cheap seats,” but receive a regal welcome. The beginning of that journey is to see God in His creation. Trusting His creation is trusting Him.

Prayer

Lord help me to grasp this most difficult teaching of loving my neighbor. All too often our neighbors are those who hurt us the most. Allow your grace and my understanding of your love to rise to a level that allows this love to flow from me. In the act of such love we find an elusive peace that brings us closer to you.

Amen

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Seeing the Inside

One day when he was sitting in front of the church, the brethren were consulting him about their thoughts. One of the old men who saw it became a prey to jealousy and said to him, ‘John, your vessel is full of poison.’ Abba John said to him, ‘That is very true, Abba; and you have said that when you only see the outside, but if you were able to see the inside, too, what would you say then?’

—-Abba John the Dwarf

We only reveal to others what we want them to see. All of us have to deal with the jealousy of people who envy us for one reason or another. This saying deals with just such a situation. I cannot know what it was that motivated the brother to be jealous of John, but I do admire John’s answer. He is saying, “You ought to see how really bad I am on the inside.” We all have filters that limit what we let others see of our true selves. God sees all and offers grace to us.

The lesson is one of refraining from jealousy, envy and judgment, because we contemplation-acan never really know. Our worse bouts of jealously and envy come from only what we can see – the outside. God, on the other hand, sees the in and out of all of His creation. Even though He knows the worst of us, He gives us the best of Himself. That sort of servanthood is something that we are taught by the sacrifice that God made through Jesus. God knows us and loves us. God sees all and yet He finds the grace that allows forgiveness rather than the jealously that we harbor toward one another.

In Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” he finally acknowledges the worth of a servant by saying..

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,

By the livin’ God that made you,

You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

It takes an awful lot to acknowledge the true worth of an individual, but God does.

Prayer

Dear Lord help me to stop looking at the exterior of persons around me and using that criteria to deem myself as more worthy. Release me from the bondage to jealously and envy and set me free to soar with you. Help me to see in others what you see in me. Give me the humility necessary to be a servant and the confidence to carry out the task.

Amen

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Heavenly Bliss

 It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am John, your brother.’ But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying. ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him, saying, ‘Forgive me.’

——Abba John the Dwarf


If you think that you can never be totally angelic while you are still living and breathing, you are undoubtedly right. Living as one who is free from the cares of the world does not mean neglecting the duties of this life. John got the crazy idea that he could live as an angel and informed his brother and went off to follow that path. The idea failed! He returned and wanted back in immediately. The brother was not so anxious to receive him, because he knew the concept of being angelic came from his own ego and not from God.

We should be ever aware that we all have feet of clay who are put on this earth as stewards of God’s gifts, and we should never take it upon ourselves to be more that God has created us to be. Work, our work, God’s work is our responsibility. Not one among us can say that we have never dreamed ourselves out of the toil of human existence but we are awakened soon to the world in which we live. We, like John, need to experience, that awakening and ask for forgiveness when we come to such a crossroad of life.

Heavenly bliss is saved for heaven.

Prayer

Lord help me to keep my focus on you while I toil though the tasks of this life. Keep me free from the temptation of the evil that leads to rejection of your plan for me. Cover my sins with your grace and fill my heart with the joy that comes from knowing you.

Amen

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The Fruit of Obedience

It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His Abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.’ Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’

—-Sayings of the Desert

On face value this saying seems a little farfetched. Most of us who live in the 21st century want things to be logical and reasonable. The very idea of watering a dead stick daily for three years and having to travel a huge distance every day to get the water is beyond belief. Here’s the point, -if the story is a fable, itst-john-the-dwarf points us to a miracle wrought by obedience. If it’s true it still reveals a miracle that is wrought by obedience. John’s mentor calls it the “fruit of obedience.”

We are all called to obedience to the tasks that we are given. Most of us fight the very idea of being obedient to anything. After all, we live in a very freedom loving world and none of us wants to give up any of that freedom -not even for God. We give up our freedom for the gift of marriage and other relationships in our lives, so why not make one of those relationships with God and His church. Just as Abba John found the great blessing that awaited at the end of his road of obedience, we will find our reward only if we are set to the task.

In what way is God calling YOU today?

Prayer

Lord give me the insight to recognize the things that I am called to do. Lord give me the humility to put self aside to perform tasks that sometimes seem unimportant to me. In doing so you help me to find the greater blessing that comes in the form of the fruit of obedience. Amen

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The Silent Focus

Abba John the Dwarf was very fervent. Now someone who came to see him praised his work, and he remained silent, for he was weaving a rope. One again the visitor began to speak and once again he kept silence. The third time he said to the visitor, ‘Since you came here, you have driven away God from me.’

—Abba John the Dwarf

Prayer and closeness to God is important to all believers. We have been taught for centuries that silence is a very good avenue to a close relationship to our creator. Today we exist in a world of clutter, noise and interruptions. The mendesert-monk-in-prayer_thumb and women who went to the desert felt very much the same . Their journey was to escape those things to have a deeper and closer relationship with God. People who don’t observe silence have a difficult time understanding and respecting those who do. This saying deals with that issue.

Abba John the Dwarf was focused in his work and prayer. Work and prayer are the heart of the monk’s calling. The well-meaning visitor simply wanted to engage the monk through his compliment. He  had no sense of the way of truly engaging the Abba was to join in his work and silence. In that apparent void was the presence of God. The continual “noise” drove God away. Through our conversation, our constant chatter, we crowd out the presence of God. Our challenge is simple, give God space in our lives. Don’t insist that God comes on your terms but rather take time to be silent enough for Him to sit beside you.

Prayer

Lord help me earn this lesson from the desert. Silence my lips and let me feel your presence. In my silence you fill the void instead of me filling my life so full that is crowds you out. Amen

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Restrianing Controversy

A Brother said to Abba Mateos, ‘Give me a word.’ He said to him, ‘ restrain the spirit of controversy in yourself, in everything, and weep, have compunction, for the time is drawing near.’

—-Abba Mateos of the Desert

The wise Abba tells us to refrain from controversy. Our world is wrought with controversy, because it appears as though we thrive on our divisions. Governments, families, and churches all seem to have a great need to live in a state of conflict. Many people think that this postmodern world is the cause of this state of affairs, but here we see this man of the desert approaching this subject fourteen hundred years ago. He describes controversy as a “spirit,” which says to me that it is a real driving force that wraps itself around us and produces negative results.

Abba Mateos’ advice to his fellow monks, and to us, is for us to have compunction. Which means we have a guilty conscience.We must allow our Humble manwith wordsmoral compasses to guide us in the situations that are given to us. Ultimately, it is our choice how we react to any event, statement or accusation. The challenge is to act as though the time to face our God was near. Mateos calls us to be in peace with those that disagree and hold to other beliefs. The compunction, moral code, of the Christian is to have a spirit of harmony. Just as Christ reconciled the world by suffering the cross we, as His followers, are called to stay away from controversy and to embrace His love. Let us strive to develop a spirit of compunction instead of a spirit of controversy.

Prayer

Lord help me this day, and all the days that you give me, to be a person of peace. Let the Spirit that dwells in me guide my action to be  your actions. Block out the temptations that lead me to become arrogant and mean, and to assume that my way is better than your way. I commit myself to live as though you were watching my every move.

Amen

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Finding Your Way

Amma Ammonas was going to pay a visit, to Abba Anthony, one day, and he lost his way. So sitting down, he fell asleep for a little while. Upon waking, he prayed thus to God,’ I beseech you, Lord my God, do not let your creature perish.’ Then there appear to him as it were a man’s hand in the heavens, we showed him the way, till he reached about Anthony’s cave.

—Amma Ammonas

In the days of the built in phone GPS, Google maps, and a host of other apps and programs, we can find our way to just about anywhere. That is good, but it can Lost 1leave a very deep hole in our souls. We feel as though nothing is impossible and God gets thrown out like those maps you use to have in your car. The Abba had to find his path to his friend by sight and memory, and he lost his way. There is not one among that has not lost our spiritual way. We lose or way when we run out of options. No new self-help books or apps to guide us along. Running out of such options can take a while in 2015. When that process is exhausted, we may turn to God.

The wise man of the desert gives us a different scenario. As soon as he woke up from his rest, he asked God for help. There is nothing written about him retracing his steps or anything else. In this very mundane of needs, he simply asked God. How hard is it for you to go to God first? First, before you have done all you can do out of shear pride. First, when full credit for the solution would have to be given to God. I am reminded of a prayer from an old movie that encapsulates the attitude of many.

“Lord, we cleared this land, We plowed it, sowed it and harvested it. We cooked the harvest, it wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t Be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”                Shenandoah (1965)

That little prayer may be shocking to you but is your attitude truly that different? If we are honest with ourselves, we are reminded of two things on a Finding Your Waydaily basis. The first is that we cannot find all knowledge on our own. Secondly, we really can’t do it all. . Lingering in our shadowy places are points at which we lose our way. And we, like the monk, must turn to God and allow His hand to lead us.

Lord allow me to put aside the many things that cause me to put You on the back burner. Relieve me of the curse of self-reliance .May I be enlighten by your Spirit this day and look to the place from which my help comes. Lord, guide me in my lostness. Amen

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Where God lives

Abba Sisoes says: Seek God, not where God lives.

It is one thing to make a pilgrimage to the desert to find God. It is entirely another to be open to finding God where we are.
Then we become what the challenge of the moment summons us to be. Then Abba Sisoes’ word of spiritual advice—to seek God and not simply the trappings of the spiritual life—becomes real, becomes true.
Life is not an exercise in spiritual gymnastics. It is one long, unending attempt to put on the mind of God wherever we are, whatever happens to us on the way. We are not here to pray our way out of life’s challenges. We are here to grow through every one of them into spiritual adulthood.
The shrines and special prayers and holy pilgrimages along the way are spiritual oases meant to build our strength for the rest of the way. They are not God; they are simply signs that the God who made us is with us. It is that relationship that counts far beyond any particular devotion.
Abba Sisoes held the secret of the really spiritual life. However faithfully we have cultivated a favorite devotion, he warns us, we are not to allow ourselves to be beguiled by any of them. Each and all of them have only one purpose. They are meant simply to point in the direction of the consciousness of God at all times and in all places.

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