Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tried by fever, taught by cold

From Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk:
Are monks wasting their time in seeking to convert themselves, and the world, from evil? Many have said so. For myself, I appreciate their realism about human beings confronted by evil, and the good sense that does not allow them to be easily fooled when evil attempts to disguise itself by adopting innocuous dress. Both the monks of the ancient tradition and contemporary monastics, it seems to me, have a refreshing sense of what really matters in human behavior. They know that the roots of sin are not to be found in the acts of gambling, drinking, dancing, smoking, playing dominos (an activity that got my grandfather Norris fired by a Methodist church in 1919), or even in adultery or fornication. Looking deeper, they recognize, as one monk said to me, a man who’d sown plenty of wild oats before entering a monastery, that “even though I gave up fornicating years ago, pride and anger are still with me.” Pride and anger were recognized by the desert monks as the most dangerous of their bad thoughts, and the most difficult to overcome. Abba Ammonas said, “I have spent fourteen years [in the desert] asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” In the words of Benedicta Ward, “For all sins, there is forgiveness. What really lies outside the ascetic life is despair, the proud attitude which denies the possibility of forgiveness.” All committed life is ascetic, in some sense; the word originally meant an exercise, practice, or training adopted for a certain way of life. Athletes, monks, artists, musicians, married people, and celibates all learn to recognize the practices that will hinder or foster the growth of their commitment.

As for designating despair as an aspect of the sin, or “bad thought,” of pride, I find it enormously helpful. Among other things, it defeats my perfectionism, my tendency to give up when I can’t do things “just right.” But if I accept the burden of my despair, in the monastic sense, then I also receive the tools to defeat it. I have a hope that no modern therapeutic approach can give me. “The desert fathers were convinced that the words of scripture possessed the power to deliver them from evil,” writes Douglas Burton-Christie, another scholar of the early monks. “They believed that the Word of God has the power to effect what it says.” Or, as Amma Syncletica wrote early in the fifth century, in a catalogue of Bible quotations to be used in times of temptation, “Are you being tried by fever? Are you being taught by cold? Indeed, scripture says, ‘We went through fire and water, yet you have brought us forth to a spacious place.’” (Ps. 66:12). She adds, “For he said, ‘The Lord hears me when I call’ (Ps. 4:3). It is with these exercises that we train the soul.”

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