Archive for December, 2015


Posted in Uncategorized on December 30, 2015 by citydesert

“In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” Abba Anthony, 3rd century AD
Hermits, as all Christians, are called to live according to the Gospel with stability and endurance. But we live in a world in which stability is undervalued. The rates at which people now change jobs, even careers, let alone houses is extraordinary. Interests are taken up with enthusiasm, and abandoned without much thought. Perhaps, noting the contemporary statistics for divorce and other forms of relationship breakdown, even more extraordinary is the rate at which people change relationships. Stability is, it seems, equated with stagnation, boredom, being in “a rut”, being “stale”, and a lack of excitement in life.

Stability must be established, and it must be maintained.

However desirable stability may be, no-one can rationally commit to stability in a particular way of life without planning, testing, reflection and self-questioning. This will be assisted by the development of a Rule of Life. Without a strong foundation to establish stability, there is little, if any, possibility of it being continued.

Traditionally, monastic communities have set out a process of testing a vocation before anything like long-term let alone life-time, commitment is made to the Rule of Life on which the community is based. While it would be foolish to decide after, say, a month or a few months, that a pattern of stability could not be maintained, it is entirely appropriate that a choice made at one time might require revision or even radical change. To use the traditional monastic model, a period as a “postulant” should be undertaken during which the individual maintains stability of the religious life form a period of (usually) less than one year, followed by a period of stability as a novice (Slavonic: послушник, poslushnik, lit. “one under obedience”) for a period from one to three years. This equates to the image of the tree: it has been planted, but has it taken root, and is it growing in a healthy condition? It is far better that the postulant or the novice (and his or her superiors) recognize that this is not the right “life of stability” for the individual, which he or she is then free to depart, than that it continues.

Any long term, let alone lifetime, commitment to a particular life of stability can only, realistically and honestly, be made after a suitable period of trial and testing. Sadly, a decision not to pursue the path initially chosen is all too often seen as a “failure” or an abandonment of the spiritual life. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. Far better that a man or a woman realizes that his or her vocation is, for example, to marriage and family, than that he or she persists in the wrong vocation as a monk or nun.

But the key principle here is surely this: there must be a reasonable and appropriate time of testing during which there is a firm commitment to stability. A pupil who, after two lessons and a week of practicing scales, decides that he or she has no gift for the piano is less likely to be making an informed decision about musical competence than demonstrating a lack of capacity to endure. An athlete who decides after a week of training that it is all too much effort is less likely to be making an informed decision about physical skill than demonstrating a lack of capacity to endure.
And it is far better that, even when an apparently decisive choice has been made, that an individual is capable of and free to make a change, even after many years, than that he or she feels compelled to endure the appearance of stability.

A choice to accept a life of stability – whether in the traditional vows of the monastic life or according to a personal rule of life – must be free and informed, made with awareness of the costs and the obligations. The choice can only be made after testing and trial. It can only be made with the qualification that an alternative choice, however unforeseeable or improbable it may appear at the time, might be made in the future.

The possibility of stability requires the building of a sound foundation upon which it can be based.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell– and great was its fall.” [Matthew 7:24-27]

Occasional prayer, periodic adherence to spiritual disciplines like fasting, reading the Scriptures when the time is convenient…..this “sand” rather than “rock”. In this regard, a properly developed Rule of Life will be of positive benefit.

I enjoy watching television documentaries about individuals who labour to build their own, personalised dream homes – programs like “Grand Designs”. While the end of each episode in which the finished, often spectacular, building is revealed may be viewed by many as the most important part, I find the beginning stages more enlightening. The challenges, often almost overwhelming, of laying the foundations and ensuring that any pre-existing structures in an old building do not fall down, are the essential prelude to all that follows. Tedious labour, day after day, a week after week, and, often, month after month produces no impressive results – perhaps just a dull grey concrete foundation. But without that, the final magnificent work of architectural triumph cannot be created.
But most of us want the final achievement now, or, at the latest, tomorrow. Many people will pray or meditate, perhaps using a particular method, and very quickly move on to another approach, or give up altogether. The commitment to reading Scripture every day is abandoned when it proves to be unexciting or to produce no “effects”. There is no consistency of applied effort continued even when it is a burden, or boring, or there are more interesting things to do.

Stability presupposes consistent labour. Any athletics coach or music teacher will confirm that maintaining consistent effort over time is a challenge: rising every morning at 5.00 am to run, or spending an hour a day practicing scales tends to be tedious, stressful, laborious, even mind-numbingly boring. But it is essential to lay the foundation for future achievement. Unless the foundation of the spiritual life is carefully and laboriously laid, the “house” on which it is built will collapse or not arise at all. We may desire action, change, excitement, and variety. But until and unless the basic skills have been learned and developed through long and tedious effort, we will lack the resources necessary: running in the Olympics or playing complex piano music come, not on the first day or even the hundred and first day, only when the essential foundations have been laid.

It is worth noting the number of images from Greek athletics found in the Pauline epistles and the Epistle to the Hebrews: they all relate to the importance of self-discipline and training in preparation for, in this case not the Olympic Games, but the “race of life”.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” [1 Corinthians 9:24-26]
If stability must be established, so must it be maintained.

“Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”” [Luke 9:62]
plow new
The agricultural images used by the Lord in His teaching are almost certainly alien to those of us living in large, cosmopolitan, highly urbanized centres. Ploughs, insofar as we may know (essentially from television) what they are, are now forms of sophisticated agricultural machinery pulled by other forms of sophisticated agricultural machinery, increasingly automated and now sometimes even operating without direct human control and making use of GPS control systems.

At the time of the Lord’s teaching, the plough was a relatively primitive, unstable wooden implement, possibly with a small part in metal (the share or cutting blade), held by the farmer and pulled by an animal. To plough in straight lines (thereby maximizing the use of a field) required constant attention, manual dexterity, and concentrated effort. Being even slightly distracted, the farmer would find the plough being diverted and, once diverted, very difficult to get “back on track”.

Many things distract from an effort at stability. But, once again to use the examples of the pianist or the athlete, this is true not only of the spiritual life. There are, inevitably, sometimes more interesting and exciting and personally gratifying things to do. We are, to use the imagery of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, surrounded by demons seeking to distract us from the spiritual life. Sometime if will be helpful, even essential, to have the guidance and support of a spiritual counsellor to assist in when the distractions seem overwhelming.
Stability does not mean a lack of movement or growth. A tree may remain planted in the one place, but that very stability enables it to grow, to expand and to thrive. However, if it is frequently uprooted, moved and replanted, its capacity for growth, expansion and even life is diminished. The tree must be initially carefully and skilfully planted, nurtured, watered, given the correct fertilizer, and protected from wind damage by supporting stakes. Until and unless a well-established root system develops, there is no certainty that the tree with growth and thrive, and will not be damaged by wind and rain.

Stability becomes easier as it becomes a pattern of life. As the potential athlete or pianist builds practice into the normal routine of life and sees it as the basis for better performance to come, so “the roots of the tree” grow deeper and stronger, and the life of the branches and leaves become richer. Thus, we can pursue with spiritual life with endurance.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.…” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

For many Christians, there is no stability of Faith in practice except, perhaps regular (more or less) attendance at Church services. But a stable Orthodox Christian life, for the laity no less than the clergy or monastics, is an hour by hour, day by day, week or week, and year by year process. It requires more than anything self-discipline, commitment and personal effort.

“Deep down in our bones, we seem to know that rapid change and constant motion are hazards to our spiritual health. Humans long for the simplicity of a life that blossoms into its fullness by becoming rooted in a place.
For the Christian tradition, the heart’s true home is a life rooted in the love of God. True peace is possible when our spirits are stilled and our feet are planted—and when we get this stability of heart deep down inside of us, real growth begins to happen.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture” [Paraclete Press, 2010]

Early Irish Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on December 27, 2015 by citydesert

“We have records of numerous individual hermits from the time of St. Patrick down, retiring from the world to spend their days in prayer and meditation in lonely places remote from human society. But the desire for eremitical life became very general about the end of the sixth century. Then not only individuals, but whole communities of monks sought a solitary life. The leader of a colony of intended recluses went with his followers to some remote place, in a deep valley surrounded by mountains, forests, and bogs, or on some almost inaccessible little island, where they took up their abode.
Each man built a cell for himself: and these cells, with a little church in the midst, all surrounded by a low cashel, rath, or wall, formed an eremitical monastery: a monastic group like those known in the East by the name of “Laura.” Each monk passed the greater part of his life in his own cell, holding little or no communication with his fellows, except only at stated times in the clay or night, when all assembled in the church for common worship, or in the refectory for meals. Their food consisted of fruits, nuts, roots, and other vegetables, which they cultivated in a kitchen-garden: and it must often have gone hard with them to support life.

The remains of these little monasteries are still to be seen in several parts of Ireland, both on the mainland and on islands: as, for instance, at Gougane Barra lake, the source of the Lee in Cork, where St. Finbarr, patron of Cork, settled with his hermit community in the end of the sixth century; on Inishmurray off the Sligo coast; on Ardoilen, a little ocean rock off the coast of Galway, where a laura was founded by St. Fechin in the seventh century; and on the Great Skellig off the Kerry coast, where there still remains an interesting group of cloghans, i.e. beehive-shaped stone houses.”

“A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland Treating of the Government, Military System, and Law; Religion, Learning and Art; Trades, Industries, and Commerce; Manners, Customs, and Domestic Life, of the Ancient Irish People” [London, New York, and Bombay, Longmans, Green, & co, 1906]

Diet in The Desert and Beyond

Posted in Uncategorized on December 27, 2015 by citydesert

David Grumett and Rachel Muers “Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet” [London: Routledge, 2010]
“Food – what we eat, how much we eat, how it is produced and prepared, and its cultural and ecological significance- is an increasingly significant topic not only for scholars but for all of us. “Theology on the Menu” is the first systematic and historical assessment of Christian attitudes to food and its role in shaping Christian identity. David Grumett and Rachel Muers unfold a fascinating history of feasting and fasting, food regulations and resistance to regulation, the symbolism attached to particular foods, the relationship between diet and doctrine, and how food has shaped inter-religious encounters.”

Angel F. Mendez-Montoya “The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist” [Wiley-Blackwell, 2012]
“The links between religion and food have been known for centuries, and yet we rarely examine or understand the nature of the relationship between food and spirituality, or food and sin. Drawing on literature, politics, and philosophy as well as theology, this book unlocks the role food has played within religious tradition.
A fascinating book tracing the centuries–old links between theology and food, showing religion in a new and intriguing light
Draws on examples from different religions: the significance of the apple in the Christian Bible and the eating of bread as the body of Christ; the eating and fasting around Ramadan for Muslims; and how the dietary laws of Judaism are designed to create an awareness of living in the time and space of the Torah
Explores ideas from the fields of literature, politics, and philosophy, as well as theology
Takes seriously the idea that food matters, and that the many aspects of eating table fellowship, culinary traditions, the aesthetic, ethical and political dimensions of food are important and complex, and throw light on both religion and our relationship to food”

Norman Wirzba “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating” [Cambridge University Press, 2011]
“This book provides a comprehensive theological framework for assessing significance of eating, employing a Trinitarian theological lens to evaluate food production and consumption practices as they are being worked out in today’s industrial food systems. Norman Wirzba combines the tools of ecological, agrarian, cultural, biblical and theological analyses to draw a picture of eating that cares for creatures and that honors God. Unlike books that focus on vegetarianism or food distribution as the key theological matters, this book broadens the scope to include discussions on the sacramental character of eating, eating’s ecological and social contexts, the meaning of death and sacrifice as they relate to eating, the Eucharist as the place of inspiration and orientation, the importance of saying grace and whether or not there will be eating in Heaven. Food and Faith demonstrates that eating is of profound economic, moral and theological significance.”

Richard Alan Young “Is God a Vegetarian?: Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights [Open Court, 1998]
“ “Is God a Vegetarian?” is one of the most complete explorations of vegetarianism in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Young, a linguistics and New Testament scholar, attempts to answer the question being asked with greater and greater frequency: “Are Christians morally obligated to be vegetarians?”
Many people are confused about the apparent mixed messages within the Bible. On the one hand, God prescribes a vegetarian diet in the Garden of Eden and the apocalyptic visions of Isaiah and John imply the restoration of a vegetarian diet. However, it is also clear that God permits, Jesus partakes in, and Paul sanctions the eating of flesh. Does the Bible give any clear guidance?
Close readings of key biblical texts pertaining to dietary customs, vegetarianism, and animal rights make up the substance of the book. Rather than ignoring or offering a literal, twentieth-century interpretation of the passages, the author analyzes the voices of these conflicting dietary motifs within their own social contexts. Interwoven throughout these readings are discussions of contemporary issues, such as animal testing and experimentation, the fur industry, raising animals in factories, and the effects of meat-eating on human health.”

See also:


Posted in Uncategorized on December 27, 2015 by citydesert

One of the great dangers of the life of the Hermit is disorganization and a lack of structure. Living alone, without any external supervision, allows for the possibility of an entirely self-centred and self-indulgent life. Unlike monks and nuns who live within a structured community, usually according to a formal rule and under the supervision of official superiors, the Hermit can do whatever he or she likes. A Monk or Nun may like to read novels (or watch television) all day while lying in bed, but such behaviour would be noted and (presumably) subject to comment if not correction. Not so in the case of the Hermit or any other religious solitary. Or, indeed, for most Christians living outside a religious community.

Traditionally, however, Hermits lived a structured life, with a discipline and a routine distinguishing that life from, for example, a holiday, a time or personal recreation, or a life of retirement. This was often based on a “Rule of Life”, which may have been formal or informal, written or (in the case of the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the early Hermits) unwritten. The development of a Rule of Life can be a very helpful means of providing structure to the spiritual life of every Christian.
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The word “rule” comes from the Greek word κανών (canon), a rod or straight piece of rounded wood to which anything is fastened to keep it straight; a measuring rod, a ruler; a carpenter’s line or measuring tape, This includes a trellis, a structure that enables a grapevine to get off the ground and grow upward, becoming more fruitful and productive. The Rule of Life is intended to provide a framework, a structure of support, to facilitate growth in the spiritual life. It is like a training regime developed by a coach to assist an athlete in the development of his or her abilities.

The busyness of life in the modern world creates a need for – sometimes almost an obsession with – structure, organization, planning, scheduling, timetabling….to fit everything in and to ensure that there is time for everything to be done. This is, of course, almost a necessity for those who work, have families, maintain homes and try to have “outside interests” as well. It is somewhat alarming to see in some models for life planning periods assigned for “free time” or “fun” or even “unplanned activities”! Modern electronic technology – i-phones, i-pads and such like – facilitate planning and structuring.

However, even those who, in all other aspects of their lives, take care to plan and organize, rarely do so regarding the spiritual lives. Perhaps attendance at a church service may be included in the week’s busy schedule. But church attendance, while it may be a valuable part of a Rule of Life, is insufficient.
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“A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. A Rule establishes a rhythm for life in which is helpful for being formed by the Spirit, a rhythm that reflects a love for God and respect for how he has made us. The disciplines which we build into our rhythm of life help us to shed the “old self” and allow our “new self” in Christ to be formed. Spiritual disciplines are means of grace by which God can nourish us. Ultimately a Rule should help you to love God more, so if it becomes a legalistic way of earning points with God or impressing others, it should be scrapped. If the traditional, ancient term “rule” concerns you because it sounds legalistic, think of “rule” as a “rhythm of life” or as a “Curriculum in Christlikeness” (Dallas Willard), or as a “Game Plan for Morphing” (John Ortberg).
In order to be life-giving, a Rule must be realistic! It is not an ideal toward which you are striving to soar. Instead, your initial Rule should be a minimum standard for your life that you do not want to drop below. It’s a realistic level of engaging in the spiritual disciplines for which you can honestly and truly be held accountable.
Rules will vary widely, depending on the character and life situation of a person. Not only will people choose different disciplines but how the disciplines are practiced will also vary. Although every believer should pray, for example, the frequency or length or times or kind of prayer will differ. Thomas à Kempis writes, “All cannot use the same kind of spiritual exercises, but one suits this person, and another that. Different devotions are suited also to the seasons [of life]….””
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Some guidelines for the development of a Rule of Life:

1. The Rule should be developed with care and attention, prayer and reflection, perhaps some research and reading. If it is to be a guide for the next (say) five years of life, it should not be, and indeed cannot be, rushed. If other people are to be involved, even indirectly, it should be developed in consultation with them. It can be helpful to seek the guidance of someone who has developed and lives according to a Rule of Life, particularly about potential problems.

2. The Rule is a guide or an ideal model – not set of laws “engraved in stone”. Rigid and obsessive conformity to the Rule is unlikely to be possible, and is certainly not spiritually or psychologically healthy.

3. The personal Rule must be personal. Religious communities usually develop and apply a Rule for the community which individual members will follow. But an individual developing a personal Rule needs to ensure that it meets his or her personal needs. A model or template can be helpful in provided some guidance on what such a rule might, or even should, include, but it must be adapted and developed for the individual. Such personal application will change over time. A Rule that is relevant for the mother of a newborn child will necessary be different to that for the same woman when her children are attending school and she has returned to paid work. Likewise, a Rule for a Hermit, or anyone else living a solitary life, will be different to a Rule for someone living with another (especially in a relationship like marriage) or others.

4. The Rule must be realistic. There are only 24 hours in a day, and sleep is necessary! For many people full-time paid employment is necessary and must be taken into account.

5. The Rule must be balanced. The ancient Rules included work (by which was meant physical labour), prayer, and intellectual activities (like reading) – “hands, and heart, and mind”. The Rules also included time for rest and recreation.

6. The Rule must be practical. In the absence of servants, it must allow for supposedly “non-spiritual” activities – putting out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom, preparing meals, sweeping the yard, paying bills, shopping. Such practical obligations cannot be seen as somehow “unspiritual” or as interruptions to the spiritual life; they must be incorporated into that life.

7. The Rule must not be oppressive. It may include, for example, two hours of prayer each day, but that cannot require that 110 minutes on one day represents either a failure or a “sin”, or that the prescribed period cannot be exceeded. The aim is not a mechanistic “ticking the boxes” approach to the spiritual life. Nor is a Rule likely to endure if it fails to include time for recreation and (although the term is usually, and wrongly, assumed to be “unspiritual”) “fun”.

8. The Rule must be encouraging. An unrealistic Rule, like an unrealistic plan for health and fitness, will usually be followed enthusiastically for a short time, and then abandoned when it becomes too hard. While endeavouring to run 5km every morning may sound good, starting out with a lesser distance and gradually building up to a longer one is less likely to lead to early abandonment of running altogether.

9. The Rule must be flexible. Unexpected and unpredictable things happen. An obsessive-compulsive approach to the Rule will lead to anxiety, even panic, if rigid adherence is interrupted.

10. The Rule must be regularly reviewed and revised.

Some people may wish to seek guidance on, and even a blessing for, a Rule of Life from a Bishop or Priest, or a Spiritual Adviser or Confessor.

For rules of life, see:

See also:
Stephen A. Macchia “Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way” [IVP Books, 2012]
Margaret Guenther “At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us” [Seabury Books, 2006]
Fr. Michael Woodgate “A Rule of Life For Daily Christian Living” [Gloria Deo, 2007]

In the past decade, there has been an exciting re-discovery of the spiritual traditions and practices of ancient Christianity in some Protestant churches and communities. This has included the development of new models of Christian community living (sometimes known as “New Monasticism” or “Neo-Monasticism”), and the development of an interest in and explorations of the tradition of a Rule of Life. A number of the current websites on the idea of the Rule of Life comes from within the Protestant tradition – see, for example: , ,

The Desert Paradox

Posted in Uncategorized on December 27, 2015 by citydesert

“Why did the desert fathers choose to work out their spirituality in the desert?

They sought God, first of all, and they knew that God was most easily found in a place without distractions. Second, the desert was also a marvelous laboratory for dealing with the self, which was their other major spiritual project.
How do you handle the ego and its anxiousness, its constant need for support?

You walk into the desert, which doesn’t care one bit about who you are or what you bring to it. That kind of terrain offers a marvelous antidote to the problem of the ego, the false self.
In the Bible and Greco-Roman culture, the desert is not so much a place of spiritual growth but a place of evil and temptation.

Didn’t the monks believe that?

They did, and that is another reason they went into the wilderness. They found precedents in the life of John the Baptist (you won’t find a desert monastery without an icon of John the Baptist) and especially in Jesus. Throughout his life, Jesus withdrew into the desert to pray. He began his ministry in the wilderness, being tempted for 40 days. Likewise, Antony started his ministry by going into the desert to empty himself and face temptation there.
The desert is a place where you expect the temptations of hunger, of power, of beauty—the things the desert lacks are the things you find yourself wanting desperately. The monks looked on demons and temptation as aides to their spiritual lives. But they were not overwhelmed by trials and temptations. Instead, they found God in the midst of temptation and struggle.
Today, many go into the wilderness to “get back to nature.” Was that part of the monks’ motivation?

No. It’s so easy for us to romanticize their motivation today. Abba Macarius in Egypt was said to be a lover of the desert, but this was only after spending years there. For the monks, the desert was primarily a training ground.

How did the desert as such shape these monks’ spiritual lives?

The desert asks two questions: What do you learn to ignore? And what do you learn to love? In other words, how do you let go, and what do you hold onto? Those are the basic dimensions of the spiritual journey that the desert monks went through as they embraced the desert.

Let me paraphrase one of the best illustrations of this, found in “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”: A young man, a spiritual groupie of sorts, comes to Scetis, west of the Nile, to seek out the great monk Abba Macarius. He asks Abba Macarius, “How do I get to be a holy man? I want to be a holy man. And I want to be one tomorrow.”
Macarius smiles and says, “Spend the day tomorrow over at the cemetery. I want you to abuse the dead for all you’re worth. Throw sticks and stones at them, curse at them, call them names—anything you can think of. Spend the whole day doing nothing but that.”
The young man must have thought the great monk was crazy, but he spent the next day doing everything he was told. When he returned, Abba Macarius asked him, “What did the dead people say out there today?”
The young man responded that they didn’t say a thing. They were dead. Macarius said, “Isn’t that interesting? I want you to go back tomorrow, and this time spend the day saying everything nice about these people. Call them righteous men and women, compliment them, say everything wonderful you can imagine.”
So the young man went back the next day, did as he was told, and returned to Macarius. The monk asked him what the dead people said this time.
“Well, they didn’t answer a word again,” replied the brother.
“Ah, they must indeed be holy people,” said Macarius. “You insulted them, and they did not reply. You praised them, and they did not speak. Go and do likewise, my friend, taking no account of either the scorn of men and women or their praises. And you too will be a holy man.”

It’s a wonderful story that asks two questions: What do you ignore? The answer is the scorn and praise of others. The other question is more indirect—What do you love? That is, since you are not going to be motivated by what others think, what are you going to give yourself to fully?

But how is it possible to learn love when you’re solitary?

The monks learned that the desert teaches you how to live apart from others, how to live without compulsively needing them to give you worth or make you feel loved. In the desert, you learn how to live with yourself. Only then are you capable of giving love—sacrificial love that accepts or needs nothing in return.
Let me give an example from our lives, because even when we live in the city, we can have this type of desert experience. There’s a point when you realize you have to let go of what you love most if you ever hope to really keep it. And only when you reach that point (e.g., in your career or your marriage or your deepest relationships with others), when you move beyond a compulsive need for them. Only then is it going to be possible really to love for the first time.

It’s incredibly painful letting go. But once you do that, there is an incredible sense of the desert, as Isaiah says, blossoming like a rose. Suddenly in the place of abandonment, in the place where you let go of everything you knew, you realize that what you could not hold God gives back. And love is born there in the very place where you had lost everything.
Now as the monks learned, the desert makes no promises. If you’re going out there to suddenly become a deeply loving person, if like the young man you want to become holy, there are no guarantees. It is only at profound risk—letting go, ignoring yourself and the distractions of the world—that love and compassion might occur. But as many mystics, East and West, have discovered, “The experience of emptiness engenders compassion.”
In a lot of the desert father stories, it feels as if the monks practiced ascetic disciplines to earn salvation.

You could interpret it that way on a surface level. But I see them living out what medieval mystic Meister Eckhart once said, that the spiritual life isn’t so much a matter of addition as subtraction.

Though we Protestants talk about justification by faith (versus by works), we often act as if the key to the spiritual life is adding all the active virtues, doing great things for God, sharing the gospel with others, and the like. Eckhart said, no, it’s a matter of subtraction. How much can you let go of? It’s not a matter of anxiously having to prove yourself to your teachers, to your parents, or to God so as to finally make yourself acceptable. It’s a matter of letting go of all those compulsive needs for approval and recognizing that only after you abandon those compulsions will you be able to accept God’s utterly free grace that comes in the gospel, in Jesus.
The desert is a perfect place to let go of the need for recognition. I love the image of the canyon cliff that Gregory of Nyssa used back in the fourth century. Being on top of that cliff, in a place of beauty and uneasiness—that’s where you discover the majesty, greatness, and glory of God. You look at that canyon cliff, think about it being there thousands, maybe millions of years, and you ask yourself, how did that canyon cliff change on the day your personal world fell apart?

What’s an example of that?

For me, that was the day my father was tragically killed when I was 13, and I thought the whole world had fallen apart. What did that canyon cliff do that day? Or how did it change on the day of your divorce, or the day you admitted your dependence on alcohol, or the day you finally shared a hidden shame with someone else?

And you find, sitting there watching that canyon wall, that it didn’t change at all. In the midst of your world falling apart, something didn’t change. It was waiting, staying there as if for you, in the same way that God does not change. That stone cliff, a metaphor of God, invites you to pour out all the grief and anguish you can muster, then accepts it all without rebuke, receives it all right there in the desert.
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Something amazing happens at that point. When you become silent enough and empty enough, pouring out your needs to God in that desert place, you are able for the first time to hear what you had never heard before, and that’s a single word whispered by Jesus: love. It’s one of those words that you can’t hear until you are utterly silent and utterly empty.
Speaking about what the most devout desert monks had experienced, John Climacus wrote, “Lucky the man who longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved.”

To me, this is what attracted and held monks in the desert, and why it still attracts some souls to this day.”

From: “Discovering the Desert Paradox”, and interview with Belden Lane in “Christian History” Issue 64. Whole test available on-line at:
Belden Lane, a Presbyterian professor of theology at St. Louis University, is the author of “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Mountain and Desert Spirituality” (Oxford, 1998), a brilliant analysis of how geography has played a vital role in the history of Western spirituality.


Daniil Sihastrul

Posted in Uncategorized on December 26, 2015 by citydesert

Pious Daniil was born in a village not far from Rădăuţi, to righteous parents, being baptised with the name of Demetrius. Having loved spiritual life, when he was 16 years old, he left his parents’ house and joined the community of the Rădăuţi Monastery dedicated to Saint Nicholas, growing in faith, good deeds, prayer and night vigils. He was reading every day the writings of the Holy Fathers and liturgical books, showing obedience and humbleness in everything he had to do by the abbot’s decision. He became a monk as a reward for his efforts, by the name of David, but his aspiration for more severe spiritual efforts led him to Saint Leontius of Rădăuţi Monastery, close to today’s Laura village. There, he worked together with the brethren of the monastic community during the day and prayed incessantly in his cell at night. Having seen his endeavours and noticing his continuous aspiration to God, the abbot of the monastery gave him the Great Schema, advised by his father confessor, receiving the name of Daniil.
Soon after he received the Great Schema, he retired, with the blessing of his abbot, near Viţău brook, in the forests around Putna, where he dug a cell in a rock that can still be seen today, not far from Putna Monastery.
His ascetic efforts would make him known rather soon, having been visited by many faithful who wanted his advice and spiritual guidance, as well as to intercede to God for healing their spiritual and physical diseases.
Out of his many spiritual children that used to come to him rather often, one can mention Holy Ruler Prince Stephan the Great (†1504), who received spiritual advise and blessing of the pious hermit. Stephan is said to have come to the cell of the pious hermit for the first time in 1451, when his father was killed at Reuseni. Pious Daniil encouraged him and predicted he would be ruling prince. That came true after six years (1457). Following his advice, great Stephan founded Putna Monastery in 1466. After the monastery was consecrated, in 1470, the pious hermit went to live at the Eagle’s rock, near Voroneţ. Stephan the Great went to ask for his advice there too, in 1476, after he was defeated at Războieni. The hermit encouraged him to gather his army again and defend the country and Christianity against the invading pagans. The prince followed his advice and promised that after every victory he would raise a church, and so he did. Thus, besides the great prince, Venerable Daniil was also protecting Moldavia through his permanent prayers well received by God. In 1488, Stephan the Great built Voroneţ Monastery in only four months and a half.
Then, venerable Daniil came to the community over there and was elected abbot. There, he advised the monastic community and the hermits from neighbourhood, having been spiritual father of many faithful who came to him to receive spiritual benefit. God has also given him the gift to perform miracles, which the pious always tried to hide. Yet, the healing of diseases and casting out the bad spirits were signs of his holiness for which he was greatly venerated.
In 1496, pious Daniil has fallen asleep into the Lord, Whom he had served ever since he was a young man. The text on his gravestone laid by Holy Ruler Prince Stephan reads: “This is the grave of our father David, hermit Daniil”. In 1547, at the command of the metropolitan of Moldavia, Gregory Roşca (†1570), one of his disciples, his face was painted, with a saint’s halo, over the entrance door, on the southern side of the church. The parchment Pious Daniil holds in his hand reads: “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD” (Psalm 34:11).
On 5 March 1992, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church decided that Holy Venerable Daniil the Hermit be enlisted in the calendar and celebrated on 18 December.
Through his holy prayers, Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us. Amen.”

Troparion, plagal 4 tone 8:
“In you, oh, Father, the one created in the image of God was saved, for taking up the Cross, you did follow Christ and, by your deeds, you did teach us to overlook the flesh, for it is perishable, but to be attentive to the soul since it is immortal. Therefore, oh, Pious Father Daniil, your spirit rejoices with the angels”.
“Our venerable and God-bearing Father Daniel the Hermit of Voroneţ, Sf. Daniil Sihastru de la Voroneţ in Romanian, was a 15th century monk and the spiritual father of Stephen the Great, the Voievod of Moldova. Under his guidance, Stephen the Great defended Moldova from Ottoman invasion and dedicated himself and his rule to God.
Daniel lived alone for 14 years in a cell carved from a boulder in a forested valley close to Putna Monastery, which is now used as a chapel according to the rules of Mount Athos.
His relics are housed at Voroneţ Monastery, and he was officially glorified by the Synod of the Church of Romania in 1992. He fell asleep in 1496, and his feast day is December 18.
Daniel was born into a poor family in a village close to Rădăuţi in the early years of 15th century. He was baptised with the name Dumitru but took the name David when he entered the cathedral monastery at Rădăuţi. Here he learnt to follow the monastic life, but eventually, wishing to lead a truly holy life away from the temptations of the world, he retired to the St. Laurence Skete in the community of Vicovul de Sus. Here he entered the Great Schema with the name Daniel (Daniil).
Later he went to live alone in a small cell carved from a rock in the Putna valley. Eventually, he became the spiritual father of Prince Stephen the Great of Moldova whom he advised for many years and who built, at Daniel’s urging, Putna Monastery close to the site of his cell. After the death of Metropolitan Teoctist of Moldova in 1478, he left Putna and made himself a new cell, carving it from a cliff close to the river Voroneţ. He lived here in great poverty and unceasing prayer, earning wide reknown as a monk of great spiritual wisdom, and continued to encourage the Prince in his defense of Moldova against Turkish aggression. In 1488 Stephen the Great had another monastery, Voroneţ, built close to Daniel’s new cell. On his death, Daniel was buried in this monastery.”
“Daniil Sihastrul (Romanian for “Daniel the Hesychast”; after 1400 — ca. 1482), a saint of the Romanian Orthodox Church, was born into a peasant family at the beginning of the 15th century in a village near Rădăuţi, and baptised under the name Dumitru. He was given the name David when he entered Bogdana Monastery as a youth. Desiring a more eremitical life, he moved to Saint Laurence Monastery near Vicovu de Sus, where he became Daniil. However, he left for a mountain cave hermitage that he dug in a rock, where many came for confession and spiritual guidance. One of his visitors was the young prince Stephen III of Moldavia, who on Daniil’s advice began Putna Monastery nearby in 1466. However, when Stephen wished to make Daniil the metropolitan, the monk withdrew to Voroneţ in 1470. Six years later, when Stephen was about to cede the region to the Turks to avoid more bloodshed after his defeat at Războieni, Daniil prophesied that he would eventually be victorious, which proved to be the case. This visit was the subject of a poem by Dimitrie Bolintineanu. In 1488, after Daniil’s death, Stephen built a monastery at Voroneţ in honour of his victory; the monk was buried there. Long venerated locally, the church canonised him formally on 20 July 1992; his feast day is 18 December.”

See also:

A Hermit in Culcairn

Posted in Uncategorized on December 26, 2015 by citydesert

“St Patrick’s Church in Culcairn made history last week with the first ever Christian hermit professed at the church.
Ross McKeown has taken on the “unique lifestyle” of a religious hermit.
“It probably won’t ever happen here again,” Mr McKeown said.
Ross McKeown
As a religious hermit Mr McKeown prays seven times a day and helps the community and people wherever possible.
“You don’t stand behind a door by yourself, that’s not Christian at all,” he said.
“My day starts very early in the morning but I get ready to pray not ready for work.”
Aside from praying he supports the parish priest and community.
He has an obligation to pray every day and support people if they need it.
“If someone wants to talk all day I put aside anything I had planned to sit and talk with them,” he said.
Since being professed his lifestyle hasn’t changed greatly as he was already living a life of prayer.
“This prayer life has always been attractive for me,” Mr McKeown said.
“It was 10 years ago when I first approached the bishop (about becoming a hermit).”
Before becoming a Christian hermit Mr McKeown worked as a nurse in Henty for 12 years but always lived in Culcairn while working there.
Originally from Northern Victoria he moved to Sydney and lived in various cities around the world before settling in Culcairn.
As a Hermit Mr McKeown inhabits and maintains a “kind of powerhouse of prayer” that “helps illuminates the lives of the community with the presence of Christ”.
Mr McKeown said there are around 20 people living as Hermits around Australia with the number growing. In France there are around 400.
While many people may think of a hermit as an old man who lives alone and hates everyone a religious hermit is very different.
“The simplest definition of a Hermit or spiritual solitary is someone who lives alone by choice for spiritual reasons,” the definition states.
This excludes people who live along through unwanted circumstance or those who dislike society.
“They are not selfish individualists merely seeking their own comfort, but rather passionate lovers of humanity who, through their lives of prayer foster a compassionate care for all their brothers and sisters.””

Culcairn is a town in the south-east Riverina region of New South Wales, 514 kilometres (319 mi) south-west of Sydney.

An Early Arabic translation of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”

Posted in Uncategorized on December 21, 2015 by citydesert

An early Arabic translation of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” (“Apophthegmata Patrum”), a manuscript from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai and dated 288 Year of the Hegira (900-901 AD), predating most of the Greek manuscripts of the “apophthegms”.
Available on-line at:
Thanks to Ramez Mikhail and Alin Suciu for drawing this to my attention.
For the “Apophthegmata Patrum”, see:

A Spiritual Experiment for Advent – Being a Shepherd or a Wise Man in Your City

Posted in Uncategorized on December 20, 2015 by citydesert

Most traditional Orthodox spiritual preparation during Advent or the Nativity Fast is individual (like fasting, prayer and reading), or undertaken within the family or within the Church community. Perhaps we could benefit from departing from the safety (even selfishness or self-centredness) of solitary preparation and from the safety and security and supports of our families and Church communities? Perhaps we could learn much from imitating the Shepherds [Luke 2:8-15] and the Wise Men [Matthew 2:1-12] and set out on a journey to find the Christ Child without any map or guide-book and in places (like Bethlehem) where we would least expect to find Him? Perhaps our spiritual preparation could be enhanced by an unconventional, practical approach?
An interesting, indeed exciting, spiritual exercise – or experiment – developed by Father Christian Herwartz SJ in Munich (Germany) as part of a series of “Street Exercises”, was summarized as “Going Barefoot in Munich”.
“Can God be found on the streets of Munich? Munich, of all places, a city of wealth, pride and power with its designer stores and business headquarters?

Cities are the deserts of the 21st century. Brick and concrete walls radiate the loneliness that pervades these places, just as the rocks and sand did when the desert fathers moved away from the centers of worldly Christianity to find God afresh.

There are no strict rules to follow during street exercises. Our biblical guideline was Moses in the book of Exodus who went beyond where he had been before (the grassland) to encounter a burning bush and the voice of Israel’s God who tells him to take off his shoes. In the same way, we went to places where you would not go if you came as a tourist or on some sort of business…

In our evening conversations we realized that every now and then we had been talking to angels. Not in the metaphysical sense of the word (at least they seemed to be real people of flesh and blood) but in the biblical sense of a divine messenger. Like someone stumbling onto a movie set with no idea of the screenplay saying something and disappearing without waiting for our response but giving a new and unexpected twist to the story, perhaps even pointing to a theme that lies still in the future. So the movie director decides to keep the unintended footage and includes it in the story. Similarly, several of us felt that they met strangers who spoke truth to us without even knowing what their words would mean in the context of our particular quest…

As Christian activists, most of us had to resist the occasional urge to launch social projects among the strangers, homeless or alcoholics or any other group with visible, tangible needs. Only then we discovered how they had become our neighbors, sharing whatever they had, gracefully allowing us to come out of our position (and posture) as the socially privileged. Much to my surprise, there had not been a single moment when I had not felt perfectly safe during that whole week….

God, I have learned, can find me even in a place like Munich, if I adopt a contemplative view of life. As Richard Rohr once wrote, contemplation ‘…keeps the field open; it remains vulnerable before the moment, the event, or the person – before it divides and tries to conquer or control it. Contemplation refuses to create dichotomies, dividing the field for the sake of the quick comfort of their ego.’ [Richard Rohr “The Naked Now. Learning to See as the Mystics See” 2009:32]

Looking back, I wonder what church would look like if we would stop treating it as a project; if we would stop trying to fix people to make them like us (so that we feel better about ourselves?); if we would stop to hide behind our ancient – or even fairly modern – walls and routines; if we walked our streets ‘barefoot’ – with receptive hearts, discerning and welcoming whatever God sends our way?”

From Peter Aschoff “Barefoot in Munich” “Journal of Missional Practice” (2015) at

Perhaps we might not want to “go barefoot” – although there is great psychological power in doing so! Think how vulnerable most of us would feel “going out” without footwear. But we can at least approximate that state by ensuring that we do not appear in any way distinguishable from those amongst whom we are journeying… visible signs (like cassocks or crosses) to mark us out as different (by which, alas, we usually really mean “better”). Leave the usual “travel accessories” (notably the mobile telephone) behind: yet more vulnerability!

Just walk, alone, silently and meditatively, experiencing and observing without critical reflection, let alone judgment. Some prefer to have a “map”, but there is great benefit in walking without any itinerary. Go to areas you would not usually visit or might even avoid, whether those are areas of poverty or wealth, of businesses or residences. Even the risk of being “lost” will provide valuable lessons. Certainly, the experience of being in strange places and amongst strangers – “the stranger in a strange land” – has much to teach us. Knowing that we will have to find our way home is part of the experience.
This spiritual exercise should conclude – after our return home – with a time of reflection, again without judgment or too much intellectualising. For some, it may be enhanced by a discussion with a close companion or, as was the case in Munich, for others who have undertaken a similar, but different, journey. That reflection can include considering:

What did I experience on my journey?
Where did I feel most comfortable? Why?
Where did I feel least comfortable? Why?
With whom did I most identify? Why?
From whom did I feel most alien? Why?
Where, if anywhere, did I feel unsafe? Why?
When, if at all, did I feel I was “entertaining angels unaware”[Hebrews 12:2]?
Where, if anywhere, did I sense “Bethlehem”?
What did I learn about myself on this journey?

Submission to the Will of God

Posted in Uncategorized on December 20, 2015 by citydesert

All Christians are called to submit to the Will of God. The Desert Mothers and Fathers, and Hermits throughout the ages, have begun and continued their lives upon the basis of submitting to the Will of God, however eccentric it may have appeared or how inconvenient and costly it may have been.
“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. [James 4:7]
“For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” [Matthew 12:50]
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” [Romans 12:2]

Christians are to submit themselves to each other (Ephesians 5:21), to government (Romans 13:1), and unto God (James 4:7). Wives are instructed to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1). The younger should submit to the elder (1 Peter 5:5), slaves should submit to their masters (Colossians 3:22-24), and citizens should submit to those secular powers having authority over them (1 Peter 2:13-14).

The concept of “submission” in Christianity is widely misunderstood. In English usage, it is commonly understood to mean (as the “Oxford English Dictionary” states) “the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person”, giving at least the impression of submission as a passive and involuntary state, as a sign of defeat or a surrender that cannot be avoided. The English word derives from the Latin submissionem (nominative submissio): “a lowering, letting down; sinking”, a noun of action from the past participle stem of submittere “to let down, put down, lower, reduce, yield”.

The Greek word used in the New Testament and usually translated into English as “submission” is ὑποτάσσω [hupotassó]. The word was originally often used in a military context, and meant “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden,” or “identifying with and supporting” – see

In its active form, hupotasso might be used of a conqueror concerning the vanquished. It means “to subject to” or “to subordinate.” But St Paul did not use hupotasso in its active form to describe any person. He used hupotasso in the middle voice. This is the form hupotassomai. Since it is asking for something that must be voluntary in nature, “be subject to” is an inaccurate translation. Hupotassomai means something like “give allegiance to,” “tend to the needs of,” “be supportive of,” or “be responsive to.”

It would seem, therefore, that “submission” as commonly understood in English (deriving from the Latin) and “submission” as understood in the Greek in which the New Testament was written are significantly different. The dominant-passive, victor-vanquished, superior-inferior implications of the English (and Latin) word are not found in the Greek. Submission is not “giving in” or “surrender” but freely chosen, voluntary mutual cooperation – or synergy, another Greek word which will be considered later.

A person may submit to a robber with a gun or to the overwhelming force of fire or flood. A Christian may submit to God from fear of punishment. That is not submission as understood in the New Testament or in Christianity. A wife may submit to her husband out of fear of violence, physical or otherwise. That is not the submission to which the Apostle refers (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1).

Passive and Active Submission

It is possibly to submit passive – and, indeed, resentfully – as one might do in obeying civil laws like those requiring the payment of taxes or conformity to building regulations. This involves external submission, but not internal submission. In Christianity, submission must be freely chosen and joyfully offered both externally and internally.

Co-workers with God

We are required to submit – in the sense of actively and freely cooperate with – to God.

“Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers [συνεργοί·]; you are God’s field, God’s building.” [1 Corinthians 3:8-9]
“…the fact that man is in God’s image means among other things that he possesses free will. God wanted a son, not a slave. The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon man’s freedom. To describe the relation between the grace of God and free will of man, Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy (synergeia); in Paul’s words: “We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). If man is to achieve full fellowship with God, he cannot do so without God’s help, yet he must also play his own part: man as well as God must make his contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what man does. ‘The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with God require the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will (A Monk of the Eastern Church, “Orthodox Spirituality”, p. 23). The supreme example of synergy is the Mother of God (See p. 263).” Timothy Ware, “The Orthodox Church” (Penguin UK 1993)

“We are saved through cooperation of our will with God’s–called synergy in Orthodox Christian theology–the doctrine famously expressed by Saint Athanasius the Great as “God does not save us without us.” Christ Himself promised His response to those seeking His help: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (St. Matthew 7:7-8).
On the other hand, God does not force salvation on anyone: otherwise, this would not be “salvation” but rather His re-making us into something that contradicts His Own original design of us. First He made us in His image and now He “saves” us by taking His image away from us and essentially equating us with all other living creatures? When Saint John Chrysostom was asked why not everybody is saved, he said, “Because you yourselves do not want to [be saved]. Even though the grace is indeed the grace, and it saves, it only saves those who desire it, but not those who do not want it and turn away from it.”
Synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. The word “synergy” comes from the Attic Greek word συνεργία [synergia] from συνεργός [synergos], meaning “working together”. We are called to work with God, not as equals but, indeed, as grossly inadequate and unequal “co-workers”. But, nevertheless, our voluntary participation is necessary.

Discerning the Will of God

“Often, we think of God’s will as some overarching plan for our lives. We tend to focus on the big picture and forget that God’s will for us is revealed every day; it’s discerned through a daily, if not moment by moment relationship and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity through His Church. We can forget or willingly choose to forget that “Thy will be done” goes hand in hand with “give us this day our daily (super-substantial) bread,” feeding on Christ through the Sacraments. It’s necessary for those who love God, who desire salvation, to suspend their own opinions and preferences to learn God’s way, to continue to struggle, to change into the likeness of Christ. In this way, we learn to participate more and more in the Life that He is.
The word that St. Paul uses to describe this relationship of cooperation in today’s Epistle is “synergoi,” “synergy,” saying, “we are God’s fellow workers.” This is no 50/50 relationship: We aren’t equals with God. We cooperate with God’s work in us through our obedience to His teachings, to His Church, to the hierarchy, so that we can be pastored, in order that we may grow in Christ-likeness and change, conforming ourselves to God’s will. Obviously, this is a great challenge, but a necessary one if we’re to grow in Christ and be deified.”

Discerning the will of God is discovering a vocation. The word “vocation” is too often identified with an exclusively Church-based calling – to be a Priest or Monastic. But every Christian is called upon to find her or his vocation. The English word vocation comes from the Latin vocātiō, meaning “a call, summons”: as the Apostle writes: “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called”[1 Corinthians 7:20].
In discerning a vocation or “calling”, we must exercise prayer, care, patience and conscious reflection. We can benefit from advice but must be cautious not to be unduly influenced by the advice of those who may have their own personal motivations for the advice, and those who may feel obliged to reflect back to us what they think that we want to hear. We need to be given honest, if sometimes discomforting, realistic advice.

It may sound strange, but some secular tools to assist in career (that is, vocational) planning can be equally helpful in helping in the discernment of a spiritual vocation: for example, compiling tables of strengths and weaknesses, interest and disinterests. We can list those gifts (or competencies to use the secular term) that we possess. We may find drawing up what is known as a “life line” helpful: that is, a linear chronological outline of our experiences, occupations, activities, successes and failures. This may assist in helping to discern where our life experience may be leading us.

In traditional Christianity, a “religious vocation” (which is mistakenly assumed to mean a vocation to the formal religious life of Priest, Monk or Nun) has usually been assumed to be discerned on the basis of:

• The individual’s own sense of “calling” [Beware! that may in fact be self-delusion or self-interest!];

• The “call” of the People of God in the Christian community to which the individual belongs [Beware! the community only sees the “outward and visible” person and may be influenced by irrelevant factors];

• The “call” of the Church through the Bishop [Beware! the Bishop only sees the “outward and visible” person and may be influenced by irrelevant factors].

To which might be added:

• The “call” of “life” – that is, that vocation to which the individual’s talents, personal aptitude and experience of life seem to be directing him or her.

Discernment is somewhat like making use of a compass to identify the direction in which the journey of life should proceed: “In what direction am I called to travel?”

Each Christian is called to three distinct vocations:

• The general vocation of all Christians to follow the teachings of the Lord and to cultivate the gifts of the Spirit wherever he or she may be and whatever and in what circumstances he may be living.

• The personal vocation is to cultivate those gifts (talents) with which he or she has been blessed; his obligation is represented in the Parable of the Talents [Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27].

• The specific vocation is that to which a man or a woman is called at a specific time, place and life circumstance; thus, all people with a gift of music are called upon to make good use of that talent (the personal vocation) but where and when that talent is to be exercised (the specific vocation) will depend upon the calling of the individual, and may vary over time.

Changing vocations

An individual’s vocation is rarely static, and seeking to discern the Will of God at different times of life, different vocations may be discovered: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8] This is seen at its most obvious in changes throughout different stages of life. A young person may have a vocation as a student, and then as a worker in a trade or profession, and then as a husband or wife, and then as a parent. Some vocations will overlap (for example, professional, spouse, parent). Some will be superseded. For example, a person whose primary vocation is that of parent may, when all family responsibilities have been fulfilled, find a calling to a vocation as a monk or nun.

The idea of such stages is made explicit in some Oriental religions. In Hinduism, it is taught that a man should pass through four Ashramas: The First Ashrama – “Brahmacharya” or the Student Stage; The Second Ashrama – “Grihastha” or the Householder Stage; The Third Ashrama – “Vanaprastha” or the Hermit Stage; and The Fourth Ashrama – “Sannyasa” or the Wandering Ascetic Stage. In Thai Buddhism it is common for young men to be ordained as sāmaṇera or novitiate monks for a single season or sometimes one to three years, and then to return to lay life, marrying and having a family and a career.
Discerning a Vocation

We need to approach the discernment of a vocation cautiously:

• Avoiding being directed (as distinct to being guided) by others;
• Avoiding being driven by a desire for reward (earthly or heavenly – including the praise of others, status, recognition);
• Avoiding being driven by a desire to avoid punishment (earthly or heavenly – including the approbation or criticism of others);
• Avoiding distorting “God’s Will” into “My will”;
• Avoiding being driven by a desire to escape a present situation.

A vocation must be carefully discerned and freely accepted. Likewise, the obligations of the vocation must be carefully discerned and freely accepted. A vocation to be a physician is entirely insufficient: the commitment and effort and resources to study and complete a medical degree is necessary.

A vocation cannot be a pseudo-spiritual justification to abandon responsibilities that have been previously accepted. For example, a person who has accepted responsibilities to a family, or entered into a contract with an employer, or incurred debts to others, cannot legitimately claim a right to abandon those obligations to fulfil a new vocation. Traditionally, most religious orders in the West required, and still require, that a person cannot enter a life within the order until he or she is free of all debts, including non-financial obligations.

The discernment and acceptance of the vocation, and a desire to submit to the Will of God is but the beginning. Just as a direction determined by a compass is not the process of travelling in that direction, and a map is not the journey, to the acceptance of the vocation and the submission to the Will of God requires action, ongoing and (usually) life-long action.