Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus "If a monk is a fighter, can he begin again every day?" The old man said "If a monk is a true fighter, he can begin again every moment."
Abba Anthony said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, 'What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, "Humility.'"
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – These are two of my all-time favorite desert father stories, genuine touchstones in my own personal spiritual life and in the spiritual direction I give others.
They are also related at a deep level. The word ‘fighter’ is, of course, in Greek ascetic, and this is the great monastic ideal, to have enrolled oneself in the great combat, the great struggle for liberty of mind and heart in the communion of Christ, to achieve a state of constant prayer and perfect charity and inner peace.
In this ascesis, this battle, two things are needed, shown in these two short sayings. First, the willingness to start again each day, or even each moment if you are really good at this stuff. In other words, the poison that kills our spiritual life is not, principally, sins of the flesh or the passions, sins of selfishness and thoughts of fear or greed or vanity. Those are all harmful and damaging and if left unchecked will indeed kill us.
But the sin that deals a death-blow, almost instantaneously, to our spiritual life is the sin of complacency, of smugness, of an assurance that ‘we’ve got this now, thanks Jesus, and we’ll just keep on fine from here on. We’ll ask for help if we need it, but we’re good to go!’
Spiritual death, right there. This is simply not our true position in this life or in the next. And we are all susceptible to this kind of calamitous spiritual mistake. It is so easy to think that spiritual progress means going from a place of weakness to strength, of dependence to independence, that we should grow in virtue and psychological integration so that we can attain the happy state of being where we no longer need God, or at least don’t need Him… well, quite so much.
Every moment, on the contrary, we are to begin again as if we are the rawest of sinners just come from the brothel or the crack house, down on our knees begging God’s mercy and imploring His help as if we are drowning men and women, calling on the food and drink of His grace as if we are starving men and women, begging the light of his guidance and truth as if we are deeply and utterly lost men and women.
To live like this at every moment, to keep ourselves so deeply and truly humble, deeply and truly in the truth that this is, in fact, our current situation here on earth—we are those drowning, starving, lost people—and even in heaven where we will be none of those things it will only be because there we will be all receptivity, all open and perfectly turned to the being of God who pours His being upon our non-being for eternity.
So this being a true fighter and beginning again each moment is, in fact, the humility that is the only path through all the snares and pitfalls and real spiritual dangers of this world. It is so important to know about these spiritual dangers. It is when we drop our guard, relax our vigilance, get stupid and careless, that we fall right into them. This guarded vigilance, this profound care for our own soul, what the fathers call nepsis, is not a state of anxiety or fearfulness, a low-level spiritual panic attack and pervasive gloom at all times. That would be a silly and unsustainable way to live. We are called to live in a spirit of joy and peace, trust and childlike confidence in our Savior and King.
So no, nepsis is really is the attitude of mind and heart captured by, lived out in, the constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the ‘beginning again’ each moment, and the deep and radical humility that perpetually lifts us out of the pits and snares of the world.
It’s really not complicated (thank God!) but it does take a fighting spirit, a steely determination and a radical choice for Christ to live that way. It ain’t easy, in other words. But it’s more than worth it, and in fact is the true and only path to joy and beauty and wonder and awe and gratitude and deep abiding happiness in this world and in the world to come.