(1) Work and Pray
Our Lord was a busy, busy man. The Gospels are full of divine and decisive action. But so often we hear in Scripture that Christ withdraws to a quiet place, by himself, to pray. Jesus sought rest each day. He prayed. No doubt he meditated on Torah. No doubt he simply listened for the “still small voice” of his Father (1 Kings 19:12). The angel who is sent to Abba Anthony reminds Anthony, very simply, to be like Christ. Anthony is reminded to let work and prayer be folded into a seamless and continuous offering, in love, to the Father.
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once remarked that he is so busy, he cannot possibly get everything done unless he starts the day with three hours of prayer! Luther was known for his hyperbole, but his point is spot-on. Unless we set aside time for what is most important — prayer, time with our Lord — then we become guilty of worshiping the unholy trinity of Me, Myself, and I. We declare that we do not need God. That we have all the answers, and can solve all the problems.
(2) Here and Now
A college chaplain once remarked in a sermon that “Christianity is simple, but it ain’t easy.” (He was from Alabama … ) These words have stuck with me ever since. Jesus did not come to give us a bundle of teachings or a complicated moral code. He came to be with us. He came to share his life with us, because he loves us. If you want to use the language of giving and receiving: he came to give us the gift of relationship — he asks us to receive a relationship with God, no less.
Christianity is simple in the sense that I am called in this moment to receive the gift that Christ longs to share. I am invited to breathe the air of the Kingdom, wherever I may be, and to be captured by the joy that marks the presence of that Kingdom. But I cannot do this if my mind refuses to live in the present moment.
And this is the sense in which, though simple, the call of Christianity “ain’t easy”: my mind is constantly under pressure to live, not in the present, but always either in the past or in the future. Archimandrite Meletios Webber remarks that if the mind had a motto it would be “Any place but here, and any time but now” (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil). And the problem is that God doesn’t live in the past or in the future. I can only encounter Christ in the present.
The voice which speaks to Abba Anthony, in the first place, calls Anthony to return to himself. His questions may very well be important, but God senses that these issues were little more than counterproductive distractions dressed up as profound reflection. “Keep your attention on yourself,” Anthony is told. Not because Anthony has no business asking the questions, but because he has no business neglecting the here and now of his relationship with Christ.
Jesus says the same, we know. Folks love to quote the “lilies of the field” passage in at the end of Matthew 6 when Christ says “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink” and that “your heavenly Father knows that you need these things.” But rarely do they read the whole passage. Jesus is not here saying “Don’t worry, it will all work out.” Jesus concludes by saying, quite seriously, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
Like Anthony, I am called this day to return to myself. Today, all by itself, has enough trouble of its own. But so often I am too easily distracted by all the other days in eternity — by all the days long gone, and those yet to come. It’s so simple, but so easy to forget: Christ is waiting to receive me here and now. And if I listen to his voice above all others, then I have a sure guide, one that will lead me back into the here and now of the Kingdom.
(3) Eat My Dust
This word from Abba Anthony reminds me of the old children’s song from Sesame Street… One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.
Remembrance of God and faithfulness to Scripture are, for certain, marks of the good disciple. But to these two virtues, Anthony adds a third. It is the virtue of stability, of never easily leaving the place where one lives (bodily, but also spiritually).
Interestingly, of the three precepts, this last one is perhaps the most challenging. It’s not that the other ones are easy. To be sure, it takes a lifetime of hard work to cultivate continuous prayer and awareness of God. And harder still is the vision of complete personal harmony with Holy Scripture. But for the typical human being, stability is about as easy as walking on water.
In the 17th century, the French Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly, in a room, alone.” In other words, spiritually speaking, each of us is a three year-old on a sugar high … staying in one place is not something we are able to do. Our minds and hearts are constantly looking for the next distraction. Whatever is new and novel… we want that. Halloween is over… time for Christmas! I just bought the new iPhone 29… and pre-ordered the 30!
This distractibility is bad. It drives us away from God and, so, toward spiritual sickness and death.
And we resist rootedness in more damaging ways as well. How often are we haunted by the following thoughts:
Maybe I missed my true calling in life.
I should be doing more to make a difference in the world.
Life will be better when I get that promotion / get married / lose some weight …
But Anthony blows all this out of the water. Anthony reminds his hearer that the Kingdom is not “out there” somewhere. Rather, Anthony redirects our gaze, just as Christ does, and reminds us that “the Kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). Jesus is chasing us, and if we let him catch up— if we allow him to enter into “whatever place you live” — then we will hear the Savior speak the sweet words “Behold I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5, but see also Isaiah 43:18-19, and Isaiah 65:17).
Today I will not easily leave the place where I “live.” God desires to open the Kingdom to me. But if I am moving target — always giving in to distraction and denial — then I am telling God to eat my dust. Instead, I will work hard to be still. I will work hard to acknowledge and honor the truth about myself, as uncomfortable as that may be, trusting Christ when he says “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
(4) The Beautiful Tension
Expect temptation to my last breath?! Are you kidding me??
Anthony the Great is among the holiest human beings in the history of creation. He lived to be 105 years old, and by all accounts, his life — spent almost entirely in prayer, in the desert for goodness sake — was a century-long experiment in cultivating humility, gentleness, and sanctity. Anthony was saturated with the Holy Spirit. He communed continuously with Christ. His love and his monastic rigor were peerless.
And yet Anthony still faced temptation??
And if so, then what hope do I have? If Anthony was never free from temptation, even “to his last breath,” then we are doomed! Doomed!
[End of rant.]
Abba Anthony forces us to adjust our thinking about holiness and sanctity. He dynamites the standard portrait of a saint.
According to the picture we normally carry in our head, the saint is someone you would hate to meet at a party. (Let’s be honest.) Saints are nice. They are quiet. Saints never draw attention to themselves. They would never tell a good joke or sing the blues. In a word, well, … the saint is a little on the boring side. Nothing gets to him anymore. She is at peace with everything. Saints are unbotherable, to make up a word.
If this is our image of holiness, then apparently we are wrong. Abba Anthony confesses that the battle never ends. He warns that the threat to one’s peace and joy is constant. The desire to choose love-of-me over love-of-you is always there, provoking us to turn to Christ, even after a century of prayer in the desert, and say “You know what Jesus? Thanks, but no thanks.”
This may surprise us. But really, it shouldn’t.
God’s love is a funny thing. His love is like a lighthouse on a stormy sea as we sail a broken ship. As we move into the light, our vision sharpens. As the light brightens, the problems on board become easier to see. A broken mast here. A torn sail there. Missing nails and small holes through which water still seeps. The light gradually reveals more damage than we suspected, but the brightness allows for repair and a return to seaworthiness.
In the same way, there is a beautiful tension at the heart of holiness: as we move more deeply into God’s love, we realize that we need that love more and more.
This is the correction we receive from Abba Anthony. He reminds us that the journey into holiness never ends. The closer we move to Christ, the more we realize our need to continue moving in his direction. And the movement is ongoing, until we can finally say along with the Apostle Paul “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Made bold by God’s love, this day I will give up the vain attempt to become holy and I will simply walk toward the Lord who calls me. And as we do this together, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In a sense, holiness just happens. So long as we keep walking according to the twin law of love for God, and for the neighbor.
(5) How to Pray
Thanksgiving Day is almost here. In this season we are mindful of the many good things we enjoy. The list of blessings for many includes family, security, health, safety, and freedom. And we are careful to remember that not everyone enjoys all or even some of these same blessings. If Thanksgiving Day is celebrated well, we emerge on the other side, not just content from all the food and fun, but also at least a little bit more determined to be a blessing to others who are less fortunate.
And no doubt many prayers will be offered on Thanksgiving Day. As we proclaim at the end of Liturgy, “every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), and so giving thanks to God for the blessings he has bestowed is a natural and appropriate part of Thanksgiving Day. Indeed, giving thanks to God for our blessings is something we should do every day. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Don’t get me wrong. We should work hard to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. And we should give thanks each day, in prayer, for what we have received. But if all we ever do is give thanks for the blessings we appreciate, then this is not true prayer.
Think about it. If I only say “thank you” to God for my blessings, then my prayer really just amounts to telling God “Hey, you’re doing a good job. Keep it up.” But prayer is more than just an exercise in agreeing with God, as if he needed our approval. Prayer is more than just telling God what we like and don’t like.
In prayer, we acknowledge the sovereign power of God, and we place our faith and hope in his tender and providential care for us, even when we have our doubts. In other words, when we pray, we acknowledge that God is God, and that we most certainly are not.
This means that we must give thanks, not only for our blessings, but also for our crosses. We should give thanks, not only for the parts of life we like, but we must also give thanks for affliction and difficulty. God is not the source of evil and trauma in the world, but in times of personal and interpersonal struggle, God helps us to see our brokenness and weakness with clearer eyes. And either we can respond with denial, or we can fall down and surrender our weakness to God, seeking his guidance and mercy so that we do not lose our souls as we endure the many dark days that often plague us.
If we did not have our crosses to bear, we would never see our need for God’s love. This is what Abba Anthony means when he speaks of temptations as the gatekeepers of the Kingdom. Without temptations, he says, no one can be saved. Without crosses, we would never know that indeed we need a Savior.
None of this means that God allows bad things to happen to us so that some greater good might be achieved. God does not work that way. The Father never wants to see his children suffer. This is the whole reason for the Incarnation! This is what we celebrate on Christmas. We celebrate the gospel that God has become a human being so that he might be with us. Why? So that he might heal and save us. How? By sharing his life with us.
But bad things happen nevertheless. And the temptation we face is to insist that I am in control, that I have all the answers, and that I know what is best. We are tempted to grab desperately (and often tragically) at any shred of control that comes our way. But if we are able in humility to give thanks for our crosses, then these crosses become pointers to the Kingdom.
Jesus does not “save” me this day in some general and abstract way. He saves me from my anger. He saves me from my pride. He saves me from my despair and lust of power. He saves me from harming my neighbor to benefit myself. And if I did not have these (and so many more) temptations, then I would be lost — I would not know how to walk in the direction of the Kingdom.