I hear smart, holy people talking about the desert fathers and mothers. They were some of the original Christ-following contemplatives. And our situation today is a strange echo of the reality they lived.
My understanding is that when Christianity became the religion of the empire, some people didn’t like what they saw happening to it. They left the empire, and continued to live out their faith.
I suspect that this isn’t too different than the state we find ourselves in now. Christianity has become the faith of our American empire. And so we have watered things down and shifted the focus.
I believe that following Jesus is as an act that is subversive. It comes up from powerlessness and erupts suddenly. I don’t actually know what it would look like, for an authentic Christianity to be enmeshed with the majority, with the powerful.
But I digress. The desert fathers:
Despite the fact that I hear all this stuff about them, I don’t have much experience with them directly. There is a work called ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.’ It is a collection of brief anecdotes about these folks. It is sometimes like reading the bible itself; equal parts strange and familiar, surprising and expected. There are parts that make me want to cheer, and parts that make me want to weep. I suspect that some of the spiritual work in reading and applying this stuff is balancing being discerning with not just skimming for the things I want it to say.
And so, I proceed with a little bit of caution. But I am going to proceed. I am going to share the sayings that strike me as relevant, and ponder a bit about the meaning of all this.
Here is the saying I am thinking about today:
“It was also said of him (Abba Arsenius) that on Saturday evenings, preparing
for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his
hands in prayer towards the heavens, till once again the sun shone on his
face. Then he would sit down.”
There is, of course, a literal meaning to that little paragraph. But I was struck by a symbolic one.
It is easy to want to bask in the sunlight. People have actually worshipped the sun for as long as they have worshipped anything. The idea that you might turn your back on the sun seems like rejecting the easy and false sources of happiness we can find in life. Stretching out the hands to heavens, instead, is I think, an act of faith and courage. It is a recognition that the home of God is not in this earthly place, it is far away from us.
If he kept going until the sun shone on his face, he literally prayed through the night. I love the idea of symbolically praying through the night… Doing it with out stopping, doing it with out reassurances.
That’s my prayer for us today: May we all pray through the darknesses that face us, and may we sit, with satisfaction, when the sun rises on a glorious Sunday.