Yesterday, I wrote about the desert fathers and mothers. One of the most prominent of them all was Antony of the desert. After reading Jesus’ words to the rich younger ruler Antony, sensing the spiritual deadness of his own soul and of the church of his time, retreated to the desert to seek God with his whole body and soul. For the next twenty years he wrestled with (in his own words) demons and the constant rigors of ascetic practice. His sole desire was to draw nearer to God. (He was not undertaking a “self-help protect” so that he might be saved by his good works!)
When Antony’s friends begged him to leave, and then dragged him, away from the desert twenty years later, his health was superb and the power of his ministry was unmistakable. Antony shows me what new life really costs–everything! He also scares me to death and he makes me tremble before the deep spiritual reality that he knew during and after the desert. But he also gives me hope. I’ve was in a kind of desert, from around 1999- to March of 2012. Antony reminds me, from his cave in the desert, that meaningful life is both powerful and truly possible. It is said that when word was spread regarding Antony “the desert became a city.” Antony became a role-model in a dark time. Hundreds of men and women fled to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, Syria and Turkey, to become wise and mature mothers and fathers of the faith. In a time of complete breakdown in the visible church these faithful ones, who gathered into communities of love and discipline, listened for God in prayer and spoke infrequently. There words “were few” but their power was immense. How opposite of our time.
The result of this period in church history can now be read in the “sayings” of these mothers and fathers. Their sayings are not universally useful, by any stretch in my view, but among them are some of the most powerful encouragements to faith, hope and love that I have ever read. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has said, “The heart of desert wisdom, just like the heart of Jesus’ gospel, is in the memorable images and words of instruction as Peter, Paul, and John wrote reflections to helps us make sense of the sayings of Jesus, more systematic thinkers came along to make sense of the desert wisdom also” In the foreword to Desert Fathers and Mothers, Paraclete Press, 2011).
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove adds, “Without the radical commitment and total abandonment of someone like Antony, their work would have never been possible. And yet, without their careful thought, we may well misunderstand the gift of the mothers and fathers. Part of the wisdom of the tradition, I suppose, is that we need experience and reflection, theology and practice.” A whole-hearted amen to that conclusion. We need experience and reflection, theology and practice. If I have learned anything deeply over the last thirteen months working on a book about love this is it. We must have both. We are extremists and it is killing us!
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an author and pastor in North Carolina, lives his own life in a community that embraces what is being called the “new monasticism.” I read and follow this movement with profound interest. I am not called to live in this way personally but I believe those who are so called provide the rest of us a witness that we desperately need in our day. Just as the church needed the desert fathers and mothers in another century we new the “new monasticism” to shake us free of our illusions about life and happiness. This movement helps keep hope alive in me. We really can live in community, we really can love one another. This is not simply a “wish dream” as Bonhoeffer called it. It can be real and I crave it for good reason. I drink coffee and share food with friends, old and new, almost every day. I do this to seek for love, friendship and community. I know of no other way to pursue true ecumenism than in friendship and community. I know of no other way to pursue true holiness that is embodied and rich. This is why my friends are more important to me than my branding, my books or my public speaking. I cannot thrive in my love for God without my friends. You know who you are. I thank God for all of you, whether we are in contact often or less often. You show me what community looks like in the flesh and thus you show me how to live in Christ’s true love.