Lent under the Desert Fathers’ influence

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Since He gave me the courage and wisdom to say YES to his calling the Lord has been so faithful in my life. One way of seeing His faithfulness at work is, precisely, by making me meet with very resourceful people. I case in point is some Coptic Christians who I recently came across.

In the spirituality of the Coptic Church there is the golden partimony of the Desert Fathers. According to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert website, the Desert Fathers are those who did “everything in search of knowing Jesus Christ by making the Gospels absolutely integral to their daily lives. They wanted to commit themselves totally (body, soul, mind, and will) to being a disciple of the Lord Jesus with a profound holy zeal moving them to become ever more like Christ. These monks practiced integrity of character with an unrelenting courage that required their whole being to remain in the state of constant humility that comes from knowing that they were loved by God. Paradoxically, their extraordinarily harsh penances often resulted in gentleness and patience towards others, especially other monks but also visitors who came seeking an understanding of the essence of spiritual life. These monks sought most of all to experience union with God in the quiet of the desert and in the silence of their hearts.”

Put simply, these monks were ready to pay the price of their very lives in order to lead a life of authentic discipleship and be obedient, even in the minutest of ways, to the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). By fully conforming themselves to it they could let Christ be in all that they were and did. Yes, indeed! Because they put on Christ (Gal 3:27) these Desert Fathers could live genuinely as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other (Col 3:12-13). This they did because, each and everyone of them, took seriously Jesus’ binding word: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt 6:14-15). To this end, they kept crystal clear before their spiritual eyes the Apostle’s exhortation: As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Col 3:12-13).

In his address to priests, religious and seminarians at Saint Leo the Great Patriachal Seminary, Maadi, in Egypt, on Saturday 29 April 2017, Pope Francis, while describing “the holy Desert Fathers” as those “who by their lives and example opened the gates of heaven to so many of our brothers and sisters,” enlisted seven temptations that can hamper our Lenten journey of conversion and renewal. These temptations were aptly described, said the Pope, by “the earliest monks of Egypt.”

The first temptation: to let ourselves be led rather than to lead. In simple words, this kind of temptation occurs in our lives when we let the evil one dragg us down by all sorts of “disappointment and pessimism.” If we are sincere enough we can easily see that when we depend too much on human gratitude and never get it, it is so easy to let the frustration of the enemy destroy us! Thus, to counter this temptation, we are to care for each other even when those around us are utterly ungrateful to us (see Lk 15:11-32) fully knowing that “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:4, 6, 18).

The second temptation: always complaining. How easy it is to complain about others! However, if we let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit we can rest assured that, by His grace, we can turn every difficulty into opportunity for growth for us as well as for those with whom we live and work! Those who consantly complain are those who do not want to help. Hence, to you and me the Lord says: Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees (Heb 12:12; cf. Is 35:3).

The third temptation: to gossip and envy: How disastrous this is! Instead of supporting each other and genuinely rejoicing at the other’s progress we indulge ourselves to be completely ruled by the tyranny of envy and seriously wound one another’s reputation through the venom of gossip. How terrible it is “when, instead of striving to grow, [we] start … destroy[ing] those who are growing; instead of following their good example, [we] judge them and belittle their value.” In order to combat the cancerous evil of envy let us avoid it by remembering two biblical quotes: If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand (Mark 3:24-25). Through the devil’s envy death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Regarding the therapeutic way of talking about others the Letter to the Ephesians is so clear when it says: Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29).

The fourth temptation: comparing ourselves to others. The moment we start comparing ourselves with those whom we deem better than us immediately our inner grudges begin to grow inside us against them. On the other hand, comparing ourselves with those who are worse than us that would be the time when pride and laziness initiate to dominate us. The medicine against such a paralysis is found in the Letter to the Galatians when St Paul encourages us with these words: But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbour (Gal 6:4). In other words, do your bit and do it well!

The fifth temptation: becoming like the Pharaoh. When we harden our hearts and expel from our lives both the Lord and our brothers and sisters we end up in the precipice of pride. Are we really better than others? Were we created and saved to be served rather than to serve? Jesus gives us His life-giving healing when He advises us: If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).

The sixth temptation: individualism. Those whose eyes are totally blinded because of their selfishness, think only of themselves and justify their destructive egoism. In so doing they lose their sight and life goals. When one becomes a slave of individualism s/he becomes the devil’s agent of scandal and conflict. Wherever s/he goes that person certainly creates tension, division and sows the seeds of hatred and destruction.

The seventh temptation: Keep journeying without direction or destination. When we are indulged into an existential compromise between God and the world, this is a grave symptom of that tragic forgetfulness of that first love (see Rev 2:4). Without any clear and strong identity, we start living aimlessly. Instead of helping others to God we confuse them. Let us never forget that we are “like a tree that, the more deeply rooted it is in the earth, the higher it reaches to the heavens!”

As Abba Arsenius said: “If we seek God, he will show himself to us; and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.” Let us then take seriously prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to grow in Christ Jesus, whose resurrection we shall joyfully celebrate on Easter Sunday of April 12!

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

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