Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
GREAT LENT: The Eleventh Day
Someone said to the blessed Arsenius: "How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?" Abba Arsenius replied: "We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work." (Arsenius 5)
This anecdote comes from the desert spirituality of the earliest centuries of the monastic movement that actually developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, beginning in the late 3rd c. For my "lenten reading." I have chosen a marvelous book by Fr. Deacon John Chryssavgis (he spoke in our church last Lent if you recall), entitled In the Heart of the Desert - The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Fr. John's book is an in-depth analysis of how to understand these great ascetics as voices that speak to us from centuries past with a timeless and universal wisdom that is as meaningful today as then. The book is arranged topically, in which the various chapters explore a key desert theme such as the "treasure of the heart," "the struggle against demons," "silence and tear," etc. The anecdote above is taken from a chapter entitled, "Education and Formation." Fr. John begins by reminding us that the Desert Fathers and Mothers are not sources of "factual information," but rather of "spiritual formation." And there is a world of difference between the two! I believe that we need to take note, because in "the age of the computer," today's consumers and internet surfers are obsessively concerned with "factual information," but blindly indifferent to "spiritual formation." If we are not careful, we can "know everything" but "understand nothing," as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say. It must be different for Christians who are intent upon (con)forming themselves to the image of Christ.
Fr. John makes the essential point, that "in general, the desert produced healers, not thinkers. It cultivated the heart, not letters. It sought to quench a thirst of the soul, and not merely a curiosity of the mind. The desert was a place of inner work and of personal experience." (p. 76) Placing "information" before "formation' is a trap/temptation brought out by the following story:
A brother came to Abba Theodore and began to converse with him about things he had never yet put into practice. So the old man said to him" "You have not yet found a ship nor put your cargo aboard it; yet before you have sailed, you have already arrived at the city! Do the work first; and then you will have the speed you are making now." (Theodore of Pherme 9, on p. 76)
A certain intellectual and experiential dichotomy that we have been making for centuries since the emergence of modernism, as exemplified by a Cartesian way of looking at the world, is that between the "mind" and the "heart." Although clearly distinct, when pressed too far we have the just-mentioned dichotomy that can lead to a certain "spiritual schizophrenia" undermining our very relationship with God. Fr. John has two wonderful paragraphs at the end of the chapter on "Education and Formation" that reveals the artificiality of that dichotomy and what it may cost us in terms of spiritual formation:
The Coptic monks of the desert knew only a single word and single struggle for designating both the mind and the heart. We tend to separate the mind from the heart. We like to fill the mind; yet forget the heart. Or else, we fill the heart with information that should fill the mind. Nevertheless, the two work differently: the mind learns; the heart knows. The mind is educated; the heart believes. The mind is intellectual, speculative; it reads and speaks. The heart is intuitive, mystical; it grows in silence. The two should be held together; and they should be brought together in the presence of God.
It is not that secular education was unacceptable to the desert elders. Indeed, many of them were lettered: Arsenius, Basil, Evagrius, and Cassian. It is simply that secular education always remains insufficient without an ascetic depth; it is unfulfilled without the spiritual content. The only degree that counted in the desert was the degree to which one was humbled, even effaced, in order to reveal the presence and grace of God. (p. 76-77)
We may be geographically remote from any desert environment; but what of the "desert" of our modern popular culture? In the "oasis' of the Church our thirst can indeed be quenched by the Fathers and Mothers of the desert who sought Christ before all else, and whose wisdom reveals the good fruit of that search.