I long have been deeply moved by the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers who began living in the deserts of Egypt in the third and fourth centuries of the church. The most famous of them was St. Anthony of Egypt (251?-356 AD). His biography, written by St. Athanasius, inspired thousands of young men and women to flee the cities of the Byzantine world for the solitude of the desert. These spiritual warriors, as they saw themselves, had left everything for the sake of Jesus Christ. Now they had arrived in the desert to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. Many were unprepared for this task and as a result sought out the advice of spiritual elders. This advice was soon collected and widely distributed in the ancient Christian world.
The teachings of the elders were not systematic but rather were a collection of answers to questions from those who came to them for spiritual advice and counsel. A good many of the requests directed to the elders began with these simple words, “Speak to me a word that I may live.” The answers the seekers received most often were not what they expected. Often, they sent the seeker away to re-engage with the very question he or she had hoped the elder would solve.
One elder apparently was asked why it was so difficult to grow in the life of service and prayer to God. He answered: “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.” The last sentence is telling. The young seeker thought that his radical renunciation of the world should be enough to catapult him to virtue. The only way, however, that we gain virtue is by repeated effort.
Virtue in the ancient world was understood to be something gained by practice. We learn to love as we love, to be a giving person as we give, to be forgiving as we forgive and so forth. None of these virtues can be purchased off the shelf or given to us by God or anyone else. To learn to do these things we have to do them. And we most likely will not learn how to do them unless we fail over and over again. “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.”
It takes discipline and effort to grow and mature. Lent is the season the church sets aside for particular devotion and dedication, not to burden us with one more thing to do, but as a time in which we can learn more about ourselves and our limits. May you have a blessed and holy Lent.
This Lenten booklet (link below) provides resources to assist you in your daily Lenten devotions and readings. May you be drawn closer to our Savior Jesus Christ in this Lenten season.