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WORLDVIEW: To the desert

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/83/8379/8379-46163.mp3 .

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The story is told of a third-century Christian monk, Abba Agathon, who lived alone in the Egyptian desert:

One day Agathon was going to town. On the roadside, he met a man with paralyzed legs who asked him where he was going.

“To town, to sell some things,” Agathon answered.

The crippled man replied, “Do me the favor of carrying me there.”

So Agathon carried him to town. When they arrived, the man said, “Put me down where you sell your wares.” After Agathon sold something, the man asked, “For how much did you sell it?” Agathon told him. The man said, “Buy me some food.” Agathon did.

When Agathon had sold all his wares and was preparing to leave, the man asked, “Will you do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me?” Agathon picked him up and carried him back to that place.

As the monk prepared to leave him, the man said, “Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.”

Raising his eyes, Agathon saw not a crippled man, but an angel of the Lord.

Tall tale? Perhaps. The story comes from “Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” a compilation of maxims and legends attributed to some of the earliest Christian hermits and mystics. They went to the deserts of Sinai, Palestine and other places in the Holy Land, partly to escape the corruption of the cities — but mostly to seek God and do battle with the temptation in their own hearts.

Some of them became unhinged after years alone in the desert. Some were fools. But they were holy fools. Another story about Agathon:

Several monks came to find him in his solitary cell, having heard of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper, they asked, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is said to be a sinner and a proud man?”

“Yes, it is very true,” he answered.

“Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?” they asked.

“I am.”

Again they said, “Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?”

“I am not a heretic,” he instantly shot back.

“Tell us why you accepted everything we cast at you, but repudiated this last insult,” they asked.

He replied, “The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. I have no wish to be separated from God.” They were astonished at his discernment and returned home, edified.

That’s about as complicated as the theology of the early desert monks gets. They didn’t talk much.

“A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts or how that one lives,” advises another saying. “Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter. There is nothing better than to keep silent.”

Here is a complete sermon from Abba Paul (died around A.D. 415): “Keep close to Jesus.”

What significance do the voices of a few ancient hermits have for our frenetic lives? The answer to that question may lie in another question: If they felt compelled to seek holiness in the wilderness, long ages before the countless distractions of modern life, what about us? We, too, need to seek God in the desert — the desert within our hearts. That’s where most spiritual battles are fought.

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) has “nothing external about it at all,” writes Andree Seu. “You will never see someone ‘fight the good fight of the faith.’ It all happened when you weren’t there, alone on a long country walk, just between him and the Lord. That’s where the blood and sweat and dying occurred. By the time you spotted the fellow out in public — in the visible battlefield … pushing away some lucrative job offer or not leaving his wife — the heavy lifting was already done.”

The same applies to the battles that decide whether whole nations and peoples will hear the Gospel. The big, history-changing spiritual struggles begin in prayer. The strongholds of darkness are defeated by people on their knees. Will a gifted young person pursue a prestigious career or serve in a place most folks have never heard of? Will a potentially great church commit itself to reaching the lost or continue playing it safe?

And always, silent skirmishes rage within each soul. Will you serve Christ today, or will you serve your own desires? “If there is no constant battle, there is probably no authentic life,” Seu contends. “The battle can be joyful, but it is a battle.”

The desert monks understood that.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges