When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by 'accidie' - lethargy - , and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, 'Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?' A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, "Do this and you will be saved." At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, "Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?" He heard a voice answering him, "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'
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."
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – We have here some basic spiritual principles laid down by Abba Anthony, who was one of the first and the greatest of the fathers, one of the few of them who is a canonized saint on the universal calendar of the Roman church.
These three stories taken together clear up an awful lot about the spiritual life, it seems to me. They are like a kind of ‘spiritual life for dummies’, and aren’t we all a little dumb when it comes to these things?
‘Accidie’, usually rendered in English as acedia, is that horrible drag that comes upon all of us when spiritual life and spiritual effort just don’t seem worth bothering about, when it all just seems kind of pointless and useless. There are no lives entirely free of acedia; the greatest of saints battle with it, the worst of sinners are wholly lost in it, but everyone has it. And so the first lesson of these stories is the fundamental way of the Christian in the world, the monk in his cell, everyone.
Ora et labora—pray and work, work and pray. Attend to the tasks and duties of your state of life, and then say some prayers, and then work some more, and then say some more prayers. The monastic schedule, which of course is very rigorous in its long offices and not suitable in its details for lay life, is nonetheless a sort of pattern for all Christian spiritual life. We have to alternate prayer and work, work and prayer, and this is the way to live simply and humbly in the presence of God. It has been thus from the beginning, and has not changed in our times. We tend, we moderns, to be so sure that everything is different now and that these old stories don’t apply to us. They do, they always will.
And this prayer and work is what is meant by ‘keeping one’s attention on oneself’, the attitude recommended. It is not self-centeredness that is being recommended here, but basically minding one’s own spiritual business. This is a good bit of advice for us in the social media age, when it seems to be the norm to pry one’s nose into the details of everyone else’s spiritual and moral life without much regard at all for the privacy of conscience and the simple fact that we know very little indeed about the lives of other people, and particularly their innermost life with God.
I do an awful lot of spiritual direction, you know (it’s more or less my principal work in MH), and even when a person has spent hours and hours pouring out to me the most intimate details of their lives and hearts, I am verrrrrry slow to give counsel, to say that such and such a choice was wrong or that they should definitely go this way or that way or not. So I’m always a bit bemused when I see people on a Facebook thread or combox issuing rather sweeping statements about total strangers, based on next to nothing.
No, keep your mind on yourself and your own journey to God and be very slow to get involved in the spiritual affairs of another, and if they happen to invite you into their affairs, go in on your knees and with fear and trembling.
And the final story is such a good summary of spiritual wisdom—keep God before your eyes, take the Scriptures as a guide in all things, and be very slow to leave a place you are in. This latter may strike us as odd and ‘one of these things is not like the other’-ish. But the desert fathers knew very well the phenomenon of itchy feet and restlessness, and that human beings can easily think that if they just change things around, move here, move there, leave their spouse, leave their community, change their job… it will all be better.
It is a terrible spiritual trap, one that many are in these days, which causes us to waste years and even decades of life trying to make all the externals of our life just so, when what needs to happen is interior purification and transformation. Commitment to a vocation, to a marriage, a community, a way of life, stability in a single place and occupation is vital so that the real work of life, the growth into freedom and joy, can happen without distractions.
And that’s quite enough for one day—but you can see how these wild monks from the deserts of the Middle East have laid down the path of holiness for all Christians, and how the study of these men and women is vital for our own walking of that path in confidence and security.