I spent a delightful evening last weekend with a new friend. We found we had many things in common, but huge among them was a particular vocational path. Both of us had started adulthood driven and quite successful. And all these years later our lives were much simpler, and not particularly impressive by cultural standards.
We talked about the mystery of a life of faith, where we can look back at very difficult times, and be glad for the person we have become and continue to become out of those places. The details of our journeys have been very different. But in the fruit of them, we recognized each other.
We carried between us an awareness of the simple dependency on God that comes from pulling against the tempting cultural undertow of vocational upward mobility.
In a similar way, the abbas and ammas have become familiar spiritual companions. They fled to the desert to free themselves from the ugly fruit of culturally conforming Christianity. Such conformity was spiritually enfeebling, so, with the words of Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount echoing in their hearts, they fled for their lives.
The desert was a place where temptations were to be faced. A collective wisdom developed over the generations of desert dwellers. Evagrius, who lived in the second half of the fourth century, catalogued the eight major temptations encountered by these monks:
Exterior temptations of the body
Temptations of possessiveness
Particular temptation of a monk
Temptations of being
This list later morphed in the west into the seven deadly sins, a vocabulary and conceptual map I have found very helpful in my own life and in teaching over the years. In contrast to the “deadlies,” the desert emphasis was on temptation. Temptations were to be fought, as the gospels recorded the showdown between Jesus and Satan. The nature of this fight employed a particular battle strategy.
When one is in the desert, the battle cannot be about things—varieties of food, opulent surroundings or maneuvered conversations. No, the battle is in one’s thoughts. Evagrius writes, “At t he time of temptation we should not abandon our cell, whatever pretext we may invent; we should stay in it and persevere and valiantly tackle all comers, particularly the demon of listlessness, which is the most oppressive of them all, and so particularly brings out the quality of the soul. Running away from such conflicts and trying to evade this teaches the mind to be helpless, cowardly and fugitive.” (Evagrius Essentials)
Part of the joy of conversation I had last weekend was restfully sitting with another person who had resisted the temptation to hold on to positions or power when it was time to let go. I sat with a kindred spirit who knew what it was to be freed from the need to know what was next; to be freed from the need to justify one’s life to others, to be freed to be present in the moment.
I was not surprised when we both started singing the same verse of the Northumbria Community’s evening prayer:
Lord, you have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden
today I believe.