African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.

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