The Inventive Language of the Early Fathers of Monasticism

1. The Ship of Life

The apophthegm, in general, refers to oracular, prophetic or philosophical revelations. The Bible contains apophthegmatic books, such as the Book of Proverbs. Also, just as well known are, the Apophthegmata Patrum—Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which are collected in two large volumes, an alphabetical one and a systematic one. They are a precious source for the historicity of spirituality and of the origins of Christian monasticism, rich in witticisms, picturesque annotations, details of life in the Egyptian desert of the IV century.

“Through the tumultuous waves of temptations we need to use, under the breath of the Spirit of the Lord, discernment as a rudder to follow the route of virtue with great precaution: in fact we know that we will crash against the rocks if we deviate even slightly to the right or left from the route.”

So writes John Cassian in his De institutis caenobiorum, founder in the fifth century of the abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille. And in fact, why not consider one’s life as a boat to be taken to a safe harbour. with the breath of the Spirit at the stern, with discernment as a bar to dodge the dangers of the rocks on the water? A language that is particularly “evocative for his contemporaries in Marseilles, as well as for the monks of Lérins to whom he addresses” —thus the French theologian Marie-Anne Vannier, authority on the Fathers of the Church, in the work Prier 15 jours avec les Pères du désert.

A metaphor that basically fits well both to the monks of the V century and to the men and women of the XXI, and which invites you to hold the helm of your life firmly. It is somehow an invitation to freedom.

Freedom has all its place —emphasises Marie-Anne Vannier—, but not in an anarchic or autarchic way, but on the contrary in connection both with self-control and with an ever-renewed attention to the role of the Holy Spirit.

Keeping the tiller of one’s boat steady would then be the promise of a virtuous life as well as the route to the Kingdom of God.

2. The Custody of the Heart.

Thoughts are not inherently bad, but some become bad if they tend to obsession or passion. How to check them? Here is a technique developed by the Fathers of the desert: the custody of the heart, which in some respects comes close to meditation (so in vogue today)

The Desert Fathers, Christian refugees in the deserts of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria and Palestine between the third and seventh centuries, lived as hermits in huts, caves, on columns or trees. They sought a life of solitude, manual work, contemplation and silence, with the aim of growing spiritually. Convinced of the intimate union between body, soul and spirit, the Desert Fathers, who we could define as “the first psychotherapists”, have developed recommendations to treat “diseases of”. Among these recommendations, the control of thoughts stands out, and this thanks to a method: guarding the heart. Jean-Guilhem Xerri, a psychoanalyst and medical biologist, develops this practice in his own Prenez soin de votre âme: petit traité d’écologie intérieure [Small treatise on inner ecology: Take care of your soul] (Le Cerf).

Why should we control our thoughts?

According to the Desert Fathers, uncontrolled thoughts are at the origin of some diseases of the soul. They identified eight Noopsychic dysfunctions, of spiritual origin, classified by Evagrius Ponticus († AD 399):greed of all kinds, the pathological relationship with sex, the pathological relationship with money, sadness, aggression, sloth (evil of the soul that is expressed in boredom, laziness), vanity and pride. These eight generic diseases have a root pathology: narcissism, which the Fathers call “ϕιλαυτίαPhilautia”, excessive self-love; self-conceit; undue regard for oneself or one’s own interests..

St. John of Damascus

One of the causes of thoughts considered perturbing: the imagination. Uncontrolled imagination gives rise to visions that sometimes occupy our spirits to the point of invading us. Thus, catastrophic scenarios arise, pornographic images, undeserved honours … “The imagination leads to inner films that are not always just or pacifying,” sums up Jean-Guilhem Xerri. Now, it’s up to us to control them:

Whether or not thoughts disturb us is part of the things that are not up to us. But whether they remain within us or not, whether they arouse passions or not, this instead is within our power and this, does depend on us.

So wrote one of the Fathers —St. John of Damascus († 749)— in his Discourse useful to the soul. We will always be the theatre of feelings and thoughts: the question is “what do I do with it?” “Faced with a thought —recalls Jean-Guilhem Xerri— man has several options: either to consent to it or not to, to nourish it or to resist it”.

3. The Gold Merchants

For the ancients, the goal of controlling thoughts was to reach the ἡσυχία—hesychia—meaning “stillness, rest, quiet, silence”, in other words a state characterised by peace, calm, rest, silence and a profound inner solitude, all necessary for the spiritual contemplation of beings and things appertaining to the knowledge of God. The Desert Fathers prescribe several ways to get there: guarding the heart, sobriety, hospitality, and meditative practices.

Although withdrawn from the world, the progenitors of Christian monastic life transmitted their teachings through numerous disciples who went to visit them: the results were timeless and unforgettable collections of anecdotes and apoftegma. Their communication strategy? Using a language that is highly evocative on the level of the imagination: which makes their message accessible and still very current.

We need to become skilled money changers, spiritual money changers, evangelical money changers!

So writes St. John Cassian in his first Conference, founder in the V century abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille. What was his purpose for writing this? To be enable people to discern between good and evil, to discern the thoughts that come from God from those that would risk alienating us. And he therefore compares discernment to something most people today can relate to “commercial transactions”!

At the time of Cassian, gold merchants and money changers made it possible to access the currency of the various regions or provinces, they were cautious with regard to the coins they received and had to ascertain if they were good and reliable, or forged — “shorn”—, or of a manufactured metal.

In short, they had to make an effort in their judgement to enable them to recognise the real and true gold coin from those that were counterfeit:

The expertise and discipline of the money changers —Cassian specified— have their strength in distinguishing pure gold from that which has not undergone the trials of the crucible to the same degree.

Placing your thoughts on the scales of the heart

Is it real gold? Does the coin have an image and is it that of the true King or of a usurper? Is the weight correct? These are all questions that can also be applied on a spiritual level: are the actions, the thought’s pure? Are they from God? Would it not have lost its true value due to the “corrosive effects of vanity?” An exercise that invites you to place your thoughts on the scales of the heart to discern those who come from God and letting all others fall to the verge.

4. The Grinder of Grains

What are our first thoughts in the morning? Are they on the proactive side, there are, without doubt several chores one needs to attend to; appointments that one cannot absent themselves from; and objectives that need to be achieved. An appointment to put in the diary, tidying the house, a gym bag not to be left behind, snacks and meals to prepare. The email’s that need to be replied and sent, profile’s to be updated on facebook, and events to be created (when one is hyperconnected—habitual use of devices connected to the internet). So when you are a hyperconnected mum or dad who works, you risk burning yourself out even before placing your feet on the rug. Unless … you are a person on whom the spirituality of the Desert Fathers has influenced you to put God first. Our first thought, in the morning, must always be for Him who created us.

Your mouth pays homage to God upon your waking moment, offering him praise or psalms, so that your very first activity —be it good or bad— to which the spirit binds itself in the morning will be ground into the course of your day. You will be the first to sow good wheat every day, before the enemy invades you with tares (an injurious weed resembling wheat when young see: Matthew 13:24–30).

5. The Prayer of the Heart

Bishop Epiphanius of Cyprus, of holy memory, was told this by the abbot of his monastery in Palestine. “By your prayers we have kept our rule; we carefully observe the offices of terce, sext, none and vespers.’ But Epiphanius rebuked him and said, ‘Then you are failing to pray at other times. The true monk ought to pray without ceasing (1 Thessolonians 5:17). He should always be singing psalms in his heart.” Bisogna che il vero monaco abbia incessantemente la preghiera e la salmodia nel cuore.

So we read in the Apophthegmata. For the Desert Fathers, the heart has a primordial place. It is the counter of our being, the place where God visits us, where Christ lives.

Asked by Christ’s exhortation to “pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1), taken up by Saint Paul who invites us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), the Fathers of the desert introduced the theme and then the technique of “Prayer of the heart”. It is a prayer recited to the rhythm of one’s breathing. On the contrary, Gregory of Nazianzus said that “It is more important that we should rememberGodthan that we should breathe: indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides.”

What to say? John Cassian prefers this responsorial ejaculation: “O God, come and save me/Lord, come quickly to my aid” —soon entered into the Liturgy of the Hours—, as it “expresses all of the sentiments”, “adapting [it] to all states, and agreeing to all sorts of temptations”. He continues:

There is an appeal to God against all dangers, a humble and pious confession, the vigilance of a soul always awake and penetrated by constant fear, the consideration of our frailty; it also says the confidence to be heard and the assurance of help always and everywhere present.

Prayer and action

Is it necessary to pray incessantly, to the detriment of all activity? Origen, even before the Desert Fathers, had given an element of response. In his treatise On prayer he explained that he who prays incessantly who binds prayer to action and action to prayer: it is the only way to pray incessantly; which leads us to consider the saint’s entire life as a long and uninterrupted prayer.

Marie-Anne Vannier, in Prier 15 jours avec les Pères du désert (Nouvelle Cité), observes with regard to the latter that “it is their whole life that is prayer, wherever they are and whatever they do”.

Through continuous prayer they showed to what extent it is an attitude, a gift and an existential choice, being constantly in the presence of God, letting oneself be inhabited by him.

In this way we come to be able to say, with Saint Paul: “… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

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