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New Life in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for Public Life

There are lessons in the monastery for those called to serve outside its walls; there are streams in the desert for those called to the city.

Once upon a time, there was once a boy who grew up in a household of faith. As a young man, he was quickly singled out as a top student, gifted with penetrating insight. He was also marked by political leaders as a promising apprentice. In his teens and early twenties, he moved to the big city, where the intellectual ruling elite mentored him and brought him into their networks of influence. They trained him, gave him responsibility, and he proved himself worthy. He moved up in the ranks, had the ear of some of the most powerful voices of the day, and was marked by all as a rising star.

Then he fell passionately in love. The woman he fell in love with, however, was married . . . married, in fact, to another power player. The tension intensified to the point where the woman was desperate and the man was having nightmares about what would happen if their cover was blown. His career and credibility, reputation, and political alliances hung in the balance. One restless night he had a nightmare: he dreamed his secret love had been discovered. He pictured the horror of his betrayed and bewildered colleagues, the hysteria of the woman, the fury of her accusing husband, the political fallout. He woke up in a cold sweat. The next day, he fled town.

He travelled to a city far away to seek counsel with a couple renowned for their wisdom and discernment. He became physically sick there; his body broken down by stress and fear and grief and guilt. Those who tended him knew that his sickness was deeper than his physical symptoms. Something momentous was wrong. When they confronted him, it took all he had to finally say it out loud—to confess the whole mess. Their advice? It was time for a good, long spiritual retreat. And then, perhaps, for a new career. You can't lead anyone well unless your heart is right.

The man I based this story on is not a twenty-first century political leader in Washington, D.C. But he could be, couldn't he?

That was actually the story of Evagrius of Pontus, a church leader in the fourth century A.D. By age thirty-five, he was near the apex of success in the halls of power in the thriving city of Constantinople. But then temptation struck. When he headed south to Jerusalem, seeking the counsel of Melania and Rufus, they eventually packed him off to a monastic training centre in Egypt.

In the arid wilderness communities of Egypt, Evagrius was mentored and rigorously trained in the ascetic disciplines of the desert fathers. Ironically, Evagrius needed time away from his life in the halls of power to understand the real power of sin. But what he learned there about sin's disorder and destructive potential is hard-won wisdom for those of us still in public life today.

The more power we have, the easier it is to think we are in control and that we can handle things on our own. That is precisely what makes us, like Evagrius, susceptible to the dark power of our own disordered desires. What would it look like to take sin seriously, not just as transgression, but primarily as a self-destructive habit, something that can subtly swallow up our lives from the inside out? And what difference might that make for how we seek holiness in our public vocations?

The community of Christians living with Evagrius in the deserts of Egypt answered these questions with a diagnostic tool now known as the seven deadly sins. Notably, however, these desert fathers neither counted seven of them, nor called them deadly, nor thought of them as individual sins. Rather, they called the eight disordered habits of the heart vices that branched out and bore fruit, strangling the life out of us. The vocation to follow Christ, according to these early Christians, included both fighting against these powerful temptations and finding peace and freedom through a life of spiritual discipline and virtue.

When Evagrius went to the desert, he entered communities already deeply engaged in this intentional life. His disciple, John Cassian, likened the desert to a gladiatorial arena where one competed against the enemy in a life-or-death contest, which is just to say that the Christians there took their training very seriously.

Evagrius's work on the vices grew out of his experience as spiritual director for people from all walks of life, from the country to the city, from poverty to the halls of power. Imagine such a counselor listening to them all: idealistic rookies and seasoned cynics, those who feel like failures who can't keep up and those who feel like untouchable successes. In weekly appointments, his job was to discern their hearts and guide them with wise advice. His list of vices was meant to serve as a helpful rubric that pastorally sensitive spiritual directors could use to help real struggling individuals. It wasn't a catalog of the "deadliest" offenses against God or the worst criminal acts. Just the most familiar seductions and recurring temptations most everyone deals with sooner or later. It turns out that there's no place like the desert when it comes to facing demons, as Jesus own wilderness sojourn makes clear (Matthew 4, Luke 4). Our denials and self-deceptions die fast without the comfortable distractions and busyness of life.

While they give us a bracing sense of what we are really up against, the desert Christians also offer us wisdom about how to live well. The Christian tradition called it "soul care." Evagrius's writings articulated problems for those who knew vaguely that there was something wrong, but couldn't name it or pinpoint the source of their struggle.

So what are the vices that Evagrius observed? Gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, dejection or sloth, envy, vainglory, and pride (eight or nine, not seven!). In short, anything that systematically and persistently gets in the way of our whole-hearted love for God. Anything that is a close enough cousin to true human fulfillment to try to build our lives around. Anything that promises us a goodness we can find easily or engineer for ourselves. It should come as no surprise to anyone what sorts of things show up on that list—money, security, pleasure, power, status, social approval, the desire to be in control. These temptations are fundamental and perennial. When it comes to following Adam and Eve, we are a bit of a broken record. So it's not surprising then that desert practice and wisdom still translates well.

The seven deadly sins were originally known as capital vices. The word "capital" in the Latin means "head" or "principle." The eight vices were so-called because they were sources from which many other sins grew.

The picture of sin here is a tree—a tree with roots, trunk, branches, and fruits.

Pride is the root and trunk of the tree that nourishes and supports the other main branches. Each branch is a source of its own characteristic set of fruit. The warning in this picture is that sin won't just sit benignly at the root of your life, safely underground. Sin is organic—it grows, it branches out, it bears fruit. And you also can't just pick off a few fruit once and a while, or trim a few twigs off. A well-rooted and nourished tree will just grow more.

Gregory the Great (sixth century) named pride the root of the other seven capital vices. The prideful person claims that God is not his ultimate good, and that he does not need God to provide for him. Let's follow our prideful person for a moment. If he rejects God as his ultimate good, what should he choose instead? Well, what's left? Lots of created things. Pleasure, security, comfort, control, wealth, status, beauty, food, sex, approval, honour. They're good, too, aren't they? Yes, they are! So he takes a good thing—let's say wealth—and decides that it can make him happy. How does money work as a God-substitute? Pretty well, he thinks: if you have enough money you can provide whatever else you need for yourself. And money is something you seem to be able to get on your own, without needing God (just work hard, network well, and invest shrewdly). But the trouble with seeking happiness in making money is that the pursuit of this good becomes a pattern, a lifestyle. It's not an occasional, "once and a while" act of sin. It's a habit, something that shapes him—in the tradition's words, a vice. And our habits say a lot about who we are.

There's a problem with money, however. (The same problem with power or pleasure or any of the others, it turns out.) The more you have, the more you want. And more. And more. St. Augustine tells us that created things can't satisfy our longings for infinite, eternal good. But most of us insist on learning this the hard way. So the greedy person's desires escalate, and with them, his commitments and devotion to satisfy them. Little by little, and then a little more, he becomes wrapped up in his money love. He becomes more and more blind and callous to human need, more willing to compromise ethically to make sure he turns a profit, more discontented with what he already has, more willing to harm others to secure what he owns.

This person's greed is bearing fruit—just the fruits of character that Evagrius and the desert Christians predicted: fruit like hard-heartedness, deceit, and restlessness. The greedy person is not a person who sometimes overvalues money or keeps too much for himself, but a greedy person. His thoughts are coloured by the goal of acquisition and possession, his conversation revolves around his earnings and his concern for the next opportunity, his anxieties and appetites unfeelingly overlook the needs of others as long as his belongings are secure, and his commitments and priorities and time are shaped by what he wants most: more money. How much is enough? Just a little bit more. Part of the problem is that this attachment has become so much a part of who he is that he cannot even see it. Only the painful experience of having his desires thwarted or his hold on his possessions shaken might clue him in to just how deeply he has committed himself.

Now maybe greed wouldn't be your pick. Maybe the created good you would stake your claim on would be security or comfort, or the pleasures of eating or sexual fulfillment, or status, or getting recognition and approval from others. As Evagrius wisely notice, if you are looking for love in all the wrong places, there is always a sin-serving lifestyle specially designed for your particular weaknesses. But whatever your favorite vice, the trouble is the same. Habitual pursuit of any created thing in God's place will lead to unhappiness, self-destruction, and enslavement. What first feels fulfilling becomes empty. Sometimes we don't even realize what we're doing or where we've ended up until it feels like it's too late. Sometimes we're so caught up in it that we can't even see how far we've gone, how much we've changed.

Which is just to say that sin is a hard habit to break.

And if it were up to us, we'd all end up broken.

When we embark on a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ, these sinful habits are what we need to die to. We need to bring our broken selves to the foot of the cross in confession and repentance. We need to ask God to hack down the old tree, cut off the branches and throw them into the fire. This is why Evagrius uprooted his old life and started anew in the desert.

With Evagrius, we can claim Jesus's power not only for recognizing and repenting of our old bad habits and relinquishing our old broken selves. We also claim his power to be made new. There's a tree for virtue, too.

When we tap into a new root system we begin to grow into the character of Christ Jesus: "I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit" (John 15). The idea that our character is always growing also works in the other direction—new growth in godliness.

This is what practicing spiritual disciplines is all about. Dying and rising, repentance and regeneration. The disciplines are practices of resistance against the old habits that we repent of and they strategically cultivate new habits. They are the rhythms of everyday discipleship. The goal is not just to kill the weeds of vice but to cultivate a garden of Christ-like virtues. If you are rooted in Christ, you can expect to be changed. If you sink your roots deep into his love and power, you can expect to grow. If you give the Holy Spirit a loud, grateful "yes" in your life, you might find yourself bearing new fruit.

The only question now is how to translate the patterns and power of Evagrius's desert sojourn into our lives today.

Even if we don't undertake desert retreat, Sabbath-keeping may be a way of pushing back against or limiting our bad habits of being too confident in our own achievement or too controlled by our own work. At the same time, it may also give us the rest and refreshment we need to better do the work that God calls us to do, as well as providing a moment in which we actually hold still long enough to listen attentively to that call.

Even if we don't sit alone in a desert cell, practicing stillness may mean curbing the constant noisiness, music, and chatter that were convenient filler for the real emptiness at the centre of our lives; it may mean we have to face our loneliness or lack of meaning. At the same time, it may also be a chance to relearn how to breathe deeply and rediscover how full of God's presence and beauty that silence can be.

These practices were common to the desert Christians centuries ago and the Christian communities that followed them. Their example is one we can follow now, too—by reclaiming their practices of penitence and patterns of renewal.

You can inhabit this "desert" space even while pursuing your public calling in Washington or Ottawa, Toronto or New York. To do so, you will need to face the sorts of diagnostic questions that Evagrius's desert community posed: Where are you rooted? How are you growing? What part of your life are you willing to open to God? What practices will help you sink your roots deeply into God's love? Evagrius's capital vices show us the shadow side of human habits, when we centre our lives not on God but on so many sham substitutes. Only from the perspective of our disordered attachments do the spiritual disciplines and virtues of the desert look like an arid wasteland, devoid of new life. The desert Christians tell us to look again. If we claim the Spirit's power to cut off the roots of sin in our lives, we too will discover the freedom to grow and live abundantly. From the desert to the city, Christian disciples can still practice detachment from worldly forms of power in order to stake their lives the power of this promise, knowing that "to flee vice is the beginning of virtue." There are lessons in the monastery for those called to serve outside its walls; there are streams in the desert for those called to the city.

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Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung teaches philosophy at Calvin College, and is the author of Glittering Vices (Brazos, 2009). ... read more »

Posted in Discipline, Loves, Philosophy.

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