The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter VIII:
On the Necessity for Striving

NO prize worth the having can be obtained without effort. The worthier the prize, the greater and more continuous must be the effort. The noblest of all prizes which a man can seek is that to whose attainment the hermits dedicated their lives, the perfection which is in Christ Jesus. We are therefore in no way surprised when we find that they were forever bracing themselves for strenuous effort. Their experience in this respect is common to all Christians, for everyone who hungers and thirsts after righteousness must so brace himself. No one who is in any real sense a follower of Jesus Christ can fail to be aware that the world is always luring him from the narrow way, and that there is something within him which responds eagerly to the enticements spread beside his path. Hence comes the necessity for watchfulness and effort. But the Christian is not only like a traveller who goes along a toilsome road beset with inducements to leave it; he is like a soldier on the march through an enemy's country; he is surrounded by beings hostile to his progress; his journey involves not only effort, but strife, and that against powers, personal, crafty, and desperately malevolent.

The intensity of the hermits' realization of this strife is one of the most striking features of their conception of the religious life. Perhaps no one since the days of the apostles ever realized as the hermits did the meaning of the Lord's saying about "the strong man armed who keepeth his house." The neophyte entered upon his ascetic life with the full consciousness that he would be assailed in every way which diabolic ingenuity could devise. I have not translated any of the stories which tell of the devil's attempts to terrify the hermits with frightful sounds, or of the physical violence which he did to them. Such things lie too far from the experiences which seem possible to us to be of much profit. We must however remember that the hermits expected and endured such assaults if we are to appreciate their conception of the Christian strife. Other stories like those which tell of the suggestion of evil thoughts and the making of opportunities for strife among the brethren we can very easily understand. When we do so, when we appreciate the ceaselessness of the strife and the weariness involved in it, we shall be in a position to admire the enthusiasm which recognised the value of the struggle. For the hermits regarded the strife itself as an indispensable discipline apart altogether from the value of the particular virtue they fought for. It is inspiring to think of the man who desired that evil thoughts should continue to assault him, rather than that he should be freed from them, because he felt that the constant strife was better for his soul than quietness. In the same spirit is conceived the exhortation of the elder to John the Short. It was no doubt something to enjoy the peace which followed his escape from envy and evil thoughts. Yet the advance of the soul towards God was felt to have stopped when the strife ceased. The thought of the hermits in the matter is perhaps best expressed in Pastor's strange interpretation of the Lord's words, "He who hath no sword let him sell his garment and buy one."

This great conception of the value of strife and struggle in the formation of the perfect man serves to explain much that is otherwise puzzling and perhaps distasteful to us in the asceticism of the hermits. The monk who moved his cell yet further from the well out of which he fetched his water will not seem to be a fool when we understand that the satisfaction of his bodily thirst was a small matter compared to the opportunity of self-conquest which his journeys through the heat afforded him. The angel who counted his footsteps was in reality reckoning up the progress of his soul towards perfection, and not merely the miles his body travelled. From another point of view, we are able to at least sympathise with extremes of ascetic practice when we read the Abbot Achilles' parable about the trees and the axe. The complete conquest of the body seemed to the hermits a primary necessity in living the religious life, because the body furnished the weapons which the devil used with most fatal effect.

From these two convictions of the value of strife in itself, and of the constant readiness of the adversary to seize on any weak point in the soul, there naturally came the stern doctrine that peace on this side of the grave is only to be found by the utterly apostate. In perfection, indeed, there is perfect peace; but perfection, as the hermits knew well, is not attainable on earth. In complete abandonment of the soul to evil there is also peace. Between these two, that is, throughout the whole region of Christian life, there can be nothing but strife, and strife which grows harder and not milder as every successive victory is won.


How the abbot John learnt the lesson that inward strife is better than inward peace.

The abbot Pastor relates of John the Short that he once prayed, asking God to take away from him all passion. God granted his prayer; and he, being free from envy, anger, and all evil thoughts, was at peace. In his great gladness he went to a certain elder, and said to him, ,Behold in me a man who has no strife nor contests. I am altogether at peace." But the old man, being grieved for John's sake, replied to him, "My son, go, ask the Lord to grant you occasion for strife. There is no way in which the soul advances towards God but by striving." Then John, knowing in himself that this was true, did as the old man bade him. Afterwards, when the necessity for constant strife came back upon him, he never again prayed that it should be taken away from him. Always be made this petition "Lord, give me grace to conquer in the strife."


A story setting forth how toil in itself is for the soul of him who desires to enjoy the kingdom of God.

There was a certain old man dwelling in the desert whose cell was above two miles distant from any water. Often when he went to draw water, and the sun shone hot on him, he grew weary. Once, as he went, he said to himself, "There is no need for me to endure all this labour. I shall go and dwell nearer to the water." As he so spake he turned and saw one following him who seemed to mark his footsteps. The old man asked him, "Who are you?" The stranger answered, "I am an angel, and the Lord sent me to count your footsteps and give you your reward." When the old man heard this he remembered that he had not come out into the desert for the sake of ease, but to travel on the narrow way that leadeth unto life. Then he became yet bolder in heart and more violent, and set his cell even further from the water.


The abbot Pastor's strange interpretation of a saying of the Lord.

The abbot Pastor said, "It is written in the gospel, He who has a coat, let him sell it and buy a sword. This word is to be understood by us in this manner: He who has peace let him cast it away, and in its place take unto himself strife. Now our strife is against the devil."


A saying of the abbot Serenus showing that the strife is severest for those who are furthest advanced towards the kingdom of heaven.

We know well by our own experience and the testimony of the Fathers that devils have not the same power against us which they had formerly in the days of the first anchorites, when there were only a few monks living in the desert. This is because of our carelessness which makes them relax somewhat of the violence of their first onslaught. They scorn to attack us with the same energy with which they formerly raged against those most admirable servants of Christ.


A parable of the abbot Achilles, showing how our strife is not only against the powers of evil which are without, but also, even chiefly, against the evil that is within.

A certain brother said to the abbot Achilles, "How is it that the demons have power against us?" The old man answered him thus: "The trees of Lebanon said, 'How great we are and high! Yet we are cut down with a very small axe. Yes, and of the axe which cuts us down the greater part is wood, and comes from us. Let us therefore give no part of ourselves, and the axe will have no power against us.' Soon there came some men seeking timber, and they made a handle for their axe out of these very trees in spite of their boasting. So the trees were cut down. Now the trees are the souls of men. The handle of the axe is man's evil will. So we are cut down by means of the evil that is within us."


Of one who, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, did not shrink from the conflict.

The disciple of a certain holy old man was once attacked by a spirit which tempted him. By the grace of God he fought valiantly against the vile and impure thoughts of his heart. He used the discipline of fasting. He prayed often. He worked diligently and vehemently with his hands. The holy old man beholding his labour and strife, said to him, "If you wish it, my son, I will pray to the Lord and ask Him to remove this adversary away from you." The disciple, however, replied to him, saying, "I perceive, my father, that although I am enduring what is hard, yet good fruit is being perfected in me. By reason of the temptation which besets me I fast more than if I were at peace. I am more steadfast in waiting. I am, as I think, more earnest in prayer. I beseech you, nevertheless, that you pray for me and seek the mercy of God for me. Ask that I may be given valour to endure and to fight according to God's will." Then the old man was filled with joy, and said, "Lo! now I know, my son that you understand this spiritual conflict, how it works in you for the perfecting of your eternal salvation."


Why no man may dare to think within himself 'I have conquered, and need strive no more.'

A certain old man came to another and said, "I, indeed, am already dead unto the world." But the other, seeing the danger in which he was, thus warned him, "Be not ever sure of yourself while you remain in the body. Although perhaps you may say, 'I am dead unto the world,' yet there is one who is by no means dead to you even your adversary the devil. Surely innumerable are his evil ways, and immeasurable is his craftiness."


Of toil and peace.

Isidore, a priest in Scete, said once to the brethren who were gathered round him, "Brethren, was it not in search of toil and hardship that we came hither? Behold, I find here no sufficient toil. I shall therefore gird myself, and go elsewhere and find toil. Then I shall also find peace."


How toil and patience are the means of spiritual gain.

A certain elder said, "We often fail to advance because we know not the conditions of our strife, nor have we patience to complete the work we have begun. No virtue can be attained without toil."


How no man must cease from striving until he has attained perfection or ceased to wish for it.

A certain brother used often to go to the abbot Sisois and ask advice from him, saying, "My father, what shall I do, for I have fallen into sin?" Sisois replied, "Rise out of your sin." Again the brother came with his confession, saying, "I have fallen into sin again." The old man said to him, "Then again you must rise from your sin." Very often the brother came to him, saying, "I rose again, indeed, but again and again I have fallen." Still Sisois gave him the same advice, "You must not cease to rise from your sin again and again." At last the brother said to him, "My father, how long shall I go on rising again from my sin? Tell me this." The old man said to him, "Until you are at rest in the perfect performance of what is good, or have found quietness in complete bondage of evil."


We must not think that even repeated victory over any fault frees us from the necessity for strife against it.

There was a certain old man who dwelt for fifty years in the desert. He neither tasted bread. nor even drank enough water to satisfy his thirst. At last he said, "I think I have conquered utterly -- yea, slain -- the sins of avarice and vainglory." When the abbot Abraham heard that he had spoken these words, he came to him and asked if it was true that he had so spoken. He confessed that it was true. Then Abraham said to him, "Suppose, now, that you were walking along the road and you saw a pile of stones and broken bricks, and suppose that you saw in the midst of them a lump of gold, are you able to look upon it just as you look upon the stones and bricks?" The old hermit answered, "No. I should feel that it was precious, but I should fight against the thought." Then said the abbot Abraham, "See, therefore. Avarice still lives in you, but you have fettered it." Again the abbot Abraham spoke to him, "Here is a man who loves you well and praises you. Here is another who hates you, and is for ever slandering you. If both of them come to you, can you look upon both of them with the same affection?" The old hermit answered him, "No. I cannot do this at once, but I should struggle with myself until I felt that I loved him whom at first I did not love." Then Abraham said, "See, now; your passions are yet alive in you, but they are bound with holy bands."


How we must ever be ready to do violence to ourselves.

A certain elder was once asked, "What is the meaning of this which is written: 'Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life'?" He answered, "The strait and narrow way is this: that a man do violence to his thoughts and destroy his own will for God's sake. This is what we are told the apostles of whom it is written: 'Lo, we have left all and followed Thee.'"


How in this life it is only possible to escape from strife by yielding entirely to all temptation.

A certain brother said to one of the elders, "In my life there is no strife. My soul is at peace." The elder said to him, "If that be so, you are like a wide-opened door. Whatever likes can enter into you, whatever likes can go out. You know not what is happening in your heart. For if you hold your heart's door fast, and keep it shut so that on refuse entrance to all evil thoughts, then you will see them standing without and feel that they are fighting against you.


How the life of a monk is a life of ceaseless strife.

The abbot Macarius once said to the abbot Zacharias, "Teach me wherein a monk's life consists." Zacharias replied, "Do you, my father, ask this question of me?" "I am fully determined to ask you," said Macarius, "for there is One who is spurring me on to do so." Then Zacharias said to him, "In my opinion, my father, he is truly a monk who in all things does violence to himself."

<< Chapter 7 ----- Chapter 9 >>