This reflection is part of a series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastics of the early church. In the second and third centuries these individuals left society to pursue lives of prayer and holiness in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Seeking inner transformation through the concrete practice of their faith in love and service to the neighbour, their wisdom was recorded in collections of their sayings and stories about them. This literature comes down to us as a precious guide to the spiritual life, showing us in rich, practical detail what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself.”
Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.
John the Dwarf said: “You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.” They said, “What does that mean?” He said, “The foundation is our neighbour whom we must win. The neighbour is where we start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this.”
Abba Agatho said, “I tried never to go to sleep while I kept a grievance against anyone. Nor did I let anyone go to sleep while he had a grievance against me.”
Abba Hyperichius said, “He who teaches others by his life and not his speech is truly wise.”
When Isaac of the Thebaid visited a community, he saw that one of the brothers was sinful, and passed sentence on him. But when he was returning to his cell in the desert, the angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell and said, “I will not let you go in.” He asked, “Why not?” The angel of the Lord replied, “God sent me to ask you, ‘Where are you wanting me to throw that sinful brother whom you sentenced?’” At once Isaac repented, saying, “I have sinned, forgive me.” The angel said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. In future take care to judge no man before God has judged him.”
Until now, many of the virtues of the spiritual life as practiced by the Desert Elders have made it seem like a very individual pursuit. Indeed, their life as solitaries appears to reinforce the idea of spiritual progress as something to be gained in isolation from others. Staying put. Being quiet. Minding your own business. Not judging. These all seem like things for a single person to do alone.
And yet dig a little deeper and one comes to realize that everything is about loving your neighbour. Coming to love God—and be loved by God—through relationship with the neighbour in community.
Rowan Williams, whose description of desert spirituality I have drawn on extensively for these reflections, says at the outset of his work,
One thing that comes out very clearly from any reading of the great desert monastic writers of the fourth and fifth centuries is the impossibility of thinking about contemplation or meditation or “spiritual life” in abstraction from the actual business of living in the body of Christ, living in concrete community.
The Desert Elders thought that their own salvation was intimately bound up with the salvation of the people around them. The whole reason for coming to terms with their own demons was to help others in their own struggles. “Everything begins with this vision and hope: to put the neighbour in touch with God in Christ. On this the rest of our Christian life depends.”
So, “staying put” is about learning to be content with our own selves so that we can become nonanxious, non-needy helpers to others. You can only throw a life line to someone else when you yourself are anchored. “Being quiet” is about opening up a space of attentiveness so that we can be truly present to others. When we “mind our own business” we are learning to be careful about our own projections that hurt or tear down other people. And opening up a space of hospitality is about freeing others to be who God created them to be. Everything turns out to be about loving God by loving the neighbour.
Elders like Anthony and John speak about “winning” the neighbour, but this is not some kind of soul-counting “evangelistic” activity of manipulating people into converting or starting a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Instead it is about loving and honouring the neighbour in his or her unique, God-given individuality. Williams says,
The desert monastics are keenly interested in diagnosing what sort of things get in the way and block someone else’s relation with Christ. They seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is the urge to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than others; we find it comfortable and comforting to try to control the access of others to God.
The great project of the spiritual life is learning to love the neighbour, not manipulate or control. That project starts with great attention to one’s own heart and spiritual state, but it can never end there. We only experience the fullness of life with God in relationship with others.