Feast of the Ascension
THERE WAS a time in my life when I did not think favorably of the desert fathers. They seemed to do little more than promote a “way out” of the world, fleeing the controversial new establishment of Constantine’s Christendom. Such a response could only have come from pride or fear, neither of which were anything like Christ. Did they forget how and when God chose to come into the world, as a fragile baby in a time of genocide?
Reading the desert fathers, however, showed me just how wrong I was. In the classic alphabetical collection translated by Benedicta Ward [The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975)], the book begins with the sayings of St. Anthony the Great, known today as the father of desert spirituality. Here was a man who, as an eighteen-year-old boy, after simply listening to the Gospel reading, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and come…”, devoted himself entirely to the ascetic life. He grew under the guidance of a nearby recluse for sixteen years before leaving everything and following Christ into the desert. As his reputation grew, other ascetics followed him and settled nearby. Eventually, he came out of his cell to act as their spiritual father for five years before returning to his hermitage and living out the remainder of his 105 years in solitude and prayer.
Though his sayings only take up the first eight pages of the book, it must have taken me weeks to read them. They were so potent I could only read them one at a time and it would take me days before I could read another. I had to recover. His words cut straight to the heart of the eternal questions: what it means to be human, what it means to love God.
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Today, with the flood of headlines boasting riots, scandals, and fears about the future, I find myself again returning to Abba Anthony. The United States is suffering from a great political divide. It goes without saying; it has become cliché to say so. Countless aspects of our lives here in the U.S. are affected by who chose whom at the ballot boxes. We dance around our decisions when the topic comes up in conversation. We are afraid to upset not only strangers but also people we know, even those we know intimately. At worst, if we find ourselves on opposite sides, we may wonder how much we knew about a person to begin with.
“Give us a word,” I find myself asking alongside Abba Anthony’s disciples, “how are we to be saved?”
“You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how…The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’”
They said, “We cannot do that.”
The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.”
“We cannot do that either,” they said.
So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil.”
And they said, “We cannot do that either.”
Then the old man said to his disciple, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayer.” ~Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 5 (Saying #19)
St. Anthony reminds us of the simplicity of the Gospel. Christ is the eternal mystery, constantly confounding our questions with answers that seem to come out of nowhere. He is always surprising us, tossing tables, writing in the sand, smearing mud on the eyes of the blind. But His ethic is always the same: love your neighbor. We are the ones who try to complicate Him; we are the ones who ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
In this time of political and social upheaval, may we follow Christ alongside St. Anthony, as he did in his own time of unrest. May we suffer with the suffering, no matter their views. May we not return evil for evil. May we love our neighbor. If we cannot get ourselves to do that, maybe it’s time we brew a little corn.
Luke Taylor Gilstrap is based out of Wichita, KS. He graduated with a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Friends University and is currently an MFA candidate through Seattle Pacific University. He is also a book peddler at Eighth Day Books. When not writing, he enjoys playing jazz saxophone, running with his dog, Mozart, and adoring his beautiful wife, Megan.