Category Archives: Desert Fathers

Three Precepts

Someone asked Abba Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” The old man replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”

—–Antony of Egypt


  • ALWAYS HAVE GOD BEFORE YOUR EYES

This statement begs the question, how do we always have God before our eyes? God is before our eyes when we worship and pray. The monk is telling us that our lives should be bathed in worship and prayer. In these practices we can find the face and heart of God.

  • WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT ACCORDING TO THE TESTIMONY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES

The Psalmist writes, children sing -“the Bible is a lamp unto my and a light unto my path.” The monk advises that this simple instruction is one of the keys to pleasing God. Today’s world seems to have neither light nor path. Antony steers us to the lighted path of Holy Scripture.

  • WHATEVER PLACE YOU LIVE DO NOT EASILY LEAVE IT.

Monks call this one stability. Our transient, temporary society is floundering for lack of stability. Marriages crumble, jobs are abandoned, work goes unfinished, all because we are not willing to commit ourselves to being in for the long haul. Pleasing God requires that we develop stay power – the type that settles us in long enough to walk through the valley that precedes the mountain.

The words of this monk of old can take us a long way today.


God-Before-your-Eyes-Quote

Prayer

Lord help me to know how to live this day. May I have the unction to keep you before my eyes in the midst of the many distractions of this life. Help me to look to the scriptures when confusion and disarray come my way. Let your scriptural light- light my way. Allow me to find peace in the place that you have provided for me. In finding that peace, I then can become a blessing to others.

Amen

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The Garment of Humility

There are certain kinds of trees which never bear any fruit as long as their branches stay up straight, but if stones are hung on the branches to bend them down they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul. When it is humbled it begins to bear fruit, and the more fruit it bears the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints; the nearer they get to God, the more they see themselves as sinners.

—–Dorotheos of Gaza

Paul called himself the chief, or first, of sinners. Isaiah said, “We are all sheep that have rebelled, and gone our own way, and God has laid our sin upon the shoulders of the messiah.” (My paraphrase) When we can come to grips with these three factors: we are all primarily sinners, we will go our way and Jesus took ours sins upon himself, we will begin the process of becoming humble. Without the humbling of our souls, we will never do the true work of God. On our own we can become legally righteous and live a “punch list” sort of Christianity, but the spirit of the ONE who went to the cross for us will never be the pervasive force in our lives.

Humility-MertonA great deal of energy is expended to avoid pain and difficulty in our lives. We shield our children and consequently ourselves from the reality of the world that surrounds us. These activities in and of themselves are not harmful or sinful. They can, however,r lead to a false sense of accomplishment and safety that does not challenge us to meet the powers of this world and find the victory that comes when we do. We are given battles, our souls are weighed down, our branches are pruned, but all of these things make us stronger in our reliance in God. Most importantly, we are reminded that we are fatally flawed without our reliance on Him.

Coming nearer to God, as the monk says, is a matter of acknowledging our sins and living with them and not being controlled by them. We will never know the true power of God until we recognize our weaknesses. If we are to bear fruit in this life we must don the garment of humility that weighs down the arms of self-sufficiency that so naturally dominate us. Such an action will bring humility to our souls and spiritual productivity to our lives.

Humility-CS-Lewis1

Prayer

Lord, give me the wisdom to know the need and marshal the courage to accept the garment of humility that my sinful soul so badly needs. By accepting the garment, I am allowing you to lead me in the direction of spiritual humility which blesses me and those I encounter. Lord, this day I ask my arms to be drawn down by confession of my sins, so I might be lifted by your grace.

Amen

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The Dead End of Pride

There are two kinds of pride. The first kind of pride is when a man despises his brother, considers him worth little or nothing, while he puts much greater value on himself. Such a man, unless he speedily repents and takes great care, will come in a short time to that second kind of pride by which he lifts himself up against God , and ascribes what he does right not to God, but to himself.

-Dorotheos of Gaza

Dead-End-SignThere are many proud people who handle their pride in proper ways. We should be proud of our achievements, our children, our honesty, our morality, but all these things must be credited to God who has given us all that we have. Without a God based pride in ourselves we accomplish very little for ourselves, the world or God. We are His creation and He has created us for good. He wants us to accomplish and thrive for His glory. The scripture says, “…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.” He created us for His glory and we are all called by His name. As we do our very best for God, and take pride in doing so, we glorify Him.

I live on a dead end street. Simply expressed, that means if you get to the end of my street, you have to turn around or back up to get out. The two types of pride that Dorotheos refers to are dead ends. The first one, the devaluation of the brother is the beginning of the dead end. It has a way out, the second, the devaluation of God, requires that we turn around or back out before we are destroyed.

Dead-End-PrideAre you traveling down that dead end path of pride? Do you find yourself enjoying the company of yourself more than anyone else? Is it difficult for you to admit the possibility that you may be mistaken? Worse yet, are you forgetting that you are created for God’s glory, not your own? If you see these warning signs in your life, you are headed down a dead end road, but faint not, all things are possible through the God who gives us strength. Take a pause and call on Him. Dorotheos says to “speedily repent,” before it is too late.

Prayer

Lord I ask You to give me the wisdom to know the difference between the actions that give You glory and the ones that give me glory. I repent of the times that I have acted for my own glorification. I pray that you will forgive me for those times. Set me forth on a road, this day, that will lead to You and Your glory.

Amen

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Self – Justification/Humility

Abba John said, ‘We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.’

He also said, ‘Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.’

Abba John gave this advice, ‘Watching means to sit in the cell and be always mindful of God. This is what is meant by, “I was on the watch and God came to me.” (Matt. 25:36) One of the Fathers said of him, ‘Who is this John, who by his humility has all Scetis hanging from his little finger?’

—-ABBA JOHN THE DWARF


The two competing margins of any man are self-justification and humility. We all have a great drive to be the controllers of our own destiny. To achieve that destiny we must find ways to justify our actions. There are many people that are consumed with, meeting the right people, doing the right thing, being seen at the proper places and above all else being in control. As I see it, self-justification is just another way of being a controller.

The Monk said that self – justification was a heavy burden to bear. Not only was it heavy, but it is a burden that we choose to bear. Man has a tendency to load himself down with burdens that originate with our own ego. Our ego tells us that control is the primary objective of life.  Perhaps the greatest expression of control that is observed in our spiritual journey is the art of self – justification.

The Monk observes that humility and fear of God are the greatest virtues that anyone can possess. Those virtues, in conjunction with the ability to “sit” and wait on God will bring us to better place than we could have ever hoped for or imagined. The Monk desire that the community to be  “hanging from his little finger,” this came about as the natural result of living a life that seeks God above all else. The Benedictine rule instructs us how to greet our guests. “At the door of the monastery, place a sensible old man who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose age keeps him from roaming about. This porter will need a room near the entrance so that visitors will always find him there to answer them. As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, he replies, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please’.” Such humility can go a long way in reaching people with the good news of Christ. Self-justification takes us nowhere other than the path of control and evil self-righteousness. Perhaps that needy knock on the door is God calling us. Let us seek Him. May we choose our path.

 

  • What do you seek?
  • How do you seek it?
  • Why do you seek?

Prayer

Lord fill me with the humility that is necessary to seek Your face. Allow me to discover virtue in those You send my way. Give me the patience to wait on You in the place You have given me. For in humility, virtue and waiting You reveal your glory to me and make it possible for me to live in peace and harmony.

Amen

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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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