I know, I know – I said I would write more often. I really am going to but this post took more prayer and thought than I anticipated.
According to the desert fathers and mothers – Us Catholics like to ramble off smart sounding statements like this, and half the time we don’t know what we’re talking about. Do you know who the desert fathers and mothers were? Don’t be afraid to answer in the negative, because I honestly only have a vague idea of what I’m talking about. So, before we get into what wisdom they have to share with us, let’s find out who they are.
Busted Halo has a great answer to this question:
The desert fathers (and mothers!) were the pioneers of monastic life in the Church. Beginning in the third century, some Christians began to flee the comforts and conflicts of pagan cities to seek a life of asceticism in the desert. They sought a simpler life, in imitation of Christ during his forty days in the wilderness, and dedicated themselves to solitude, labor, poverty, fasting, charity and prayer. Some of them lived in isolation; others developed rules for communal life that evolved into large monastic communities. Over time their reputation for holiness grew, and Christians from the surrounding areas sought them out for advice and spiritual direction.
Some of them became great spiritual giants and teachers in the history of the Church: they include St. Anthony the Great, St. Pachomius and St. Athanasius (in Egypt) and St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina (in Asia Minor.) Their influence in the Church has been deeply felt though the centuries, particularly as monasticism and religious life developed; ancient collections of their sayings have carried their wisdom down through the centuries. One popular collection today is The Wisdom of the Desert, compiled by Thomas Merton.
These early desert dwellers had an incredible understanding of human psychology, temptation, and sin. Especially during lent, we can learn a lot about avoiding sin and resisting temptations through their wisdom. During lent, we follow Jesus into the desert for forty days – the Abbas and Ammas made those forty days their entire lives.
Rather than focusing on the act of sin, the desert fathers outlined “eight bad thoughts” – the temptations which precede the act of sinning. Over time, these became the seven deadly sins, which may have harmed our attitude towards sin. One thought was lost in translation: Acedia. Acedia is hard to describe and has fallen out of use over the centuries, but the desert fathers thought it presented the most danger in the spiritual life. It is apathy, or spiritual depression, which tempts us into not caring about God or our spiritual practices. It is deeper than sloth and is so dangerous because it can destroy our trust in God. This blog post includes extensive passages from Kathleen Norris‘ Acedia & Me. I learned about the reality and seriousness of Acedia through this book and would highly recommend it.
An excellent explanation of Acedia can be found here.
“Acedia’s genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us.” – Kathleen Norris