I'm back from vacation and starting to settle into preparations for the coming school year, so I thought I'd get back to writing again. That isn't necessarily easy because I've really been feeling like I don't have much to say these days, despite the rather frantic pace of my reading. I'm doing my usual summer bonanza of reading, so I'm currently reading five books, plus trying to read some Greek New Testament and working through my patristics reader. That is, in the spaces between taking care of my son and, well, sleeping. I sometimes suspect that reading is an escape from praying for me, so I'm really trying to cut it back. Not with much success, of course.
I think what is most on my mind, however, is what I've been learning over the last year or so about the Desert Fathers- the ascetics active in Egypt especially, but also Syria and Palestine. A combination of books have commended them: Rowan William's Where God Happens (which I read in a book study at church a couple of years ago), Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Christopher Hall's long-awaiting Worshipping with the Church Fathers. On the face of it, these men and women seem far removed from the life of anyone in the modern urban world which I inhabit. After all, did they not flee their own cities? How are they relevant in the here and now?
Good questions, but I admit that, reading them, I wonder sometimes about us. There have been times over the last few months when I've been walking in the very upscale stretch of Bloor Street (Toronto) or in Yorkdale Mall, when I've wonder what it is that we're doing to ourselves and each other. The site of so much abundance and, paradoxically, so much poverty perplexes me sometimes. The abundance is, of course, easy to see in both the stores, the shoppers and the advertising, ever eager to spur us on to more consumption. The poverty is more subtle, but, nonetheless, real. The very fact that advertising works suggests that poverty because, as one of the author's I've read in the last few months has noted, advertising isn't really about getting things, but desiring things. Incessant and unfulfilled desire seems an excellent description of poverty to me; at least, poverty of the spiritual variety. Our malls and shopping areas are, really, temples to consumption as well as our equivalents to marketplaces. While I have no problem with marketplaces (they are enormously practical things to have in a city), I do have a problem with temples to consumption for the obvious reasons.
I also wonder about me. That is, one of the things that I've really taken to heart is a desert story in which an elder shows up at a meeting of monks who were deliberating the punishment of a wayward brother. The elder puts on a backpack of sand on his back and holds out a basket with a little sand in it in front of him. When asked what this was all about, the elder said that he is chasing his brother's sins, while his sins (in the backpack) are chasing him. The monks take the elders point, break up the meeting and don't judge the wayward brother.
That image keeps coming into my mind because it is an excellent reminder about our self-righteousness. It is easier to see the sins of others and not our own sins. It is easier to judge someone else, than to look to themselves for their own shortcomings. This is what G.K. Chesterton meant, I think, when he answered a invitation to write an essay on what was wrong with the world with a terse and eloquent "I am". And, so am I.
Of course, the Christian life doesn't just stop there. What the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were good at was striping away one's own self-delusions which prevent us from seeing God. This made them subtle psychologists (explaining their popularity in our psychologized and individualistic society), but, also, admirable spiritual guides, even in their imperfections. They saw human failings not as something to justify flagellation, self-inflicted or otherwise, but as something to be expected and, more importantly, to be overcome with God's help. While some desert monks performed strange and, occasionally, repellent ascetic practices, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers was firmly against these demonstrations partly because they were a demonstration of pride and competition in some, partly because they weakened the body and soul of many. There was enough challenge to fast, to pray, to work and to live in solitude day in and day out.
Now, I don't perform these ascetic practices in my life because my life isn't built that way. I am a husband and a father, a teacher and a churchman, so there are a lot of busyness that I'm involved in which makes the desert life impossible. Yet, I had a reminder today about the similarities in the vowed life of a monk and my own vowed life as a husband and father. A colleague of mine had asked for a French translation for 'mid-life crisis' and she, eventually, came up with demon apres midi- the noon-day demon. I laughed, of course, not only because my colleague is hardly fond of religion, but, also, because of the aptness of the phrase. The noon-day demon was used among the desert monastics as a description of acedia- that restless funk that one gets into when one is engaged in routine things and the day begins to stretch on for an eternity. So much of our modern mythology around the 'mid-life' crisis resembles the noon-day demon run amok that it is entirely appropriate that the French use this synonym to acedia to describe it. How many times have we heard someone justify some rash move (an affair, a new sports car, taking up a dangerous sport) as being a way to feel alive again? Acedia, right?
That leads me back to my opening comments, wondering if my reading frenzy is really about avoiding the prayer and the monotony of the occasional glimpses of solitude that I get from day to day. It is difficult to know how far this is my passion for learning or my tendency to want to keep busy and in control. The Desert Fathers are teaching me to suspect what I'm doing and stop worrying about what others are up to. That is a hard enough lesson for me right now.