Letter 9: Obedience, Conversion and Stability

The main reason for the hermits being in the desert was their intense longing to follow the way of life and teaching of Jesus and thus enter the ‘Kingdom of God’, to live in the Divine Presence. They knew from His example that this would only be possible through deep interior silent prayer. To enable this they had to let go of all self-centred thought, in their words to ‘purify their passions’, so that they may reach ‘purity of heart’. Without letting go of ego-centric thoughts and turning within, pure prayer was considered not to be possible: “One of the Fathers said, ‘In the same way as you cannot see your face in troubled water, the soul, if it is not emptied of foreign thoughts, cannot reflect God in contemplation.” In the words of Thomas Merton: “What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in ‘the world’.”

‘Purifying the passions’ was seen in terms of a struggle with the ‘demons’. We would now interpret ‘fighting the demons’ in psychological terms - as Thomas Merton does - as an attempt to understand the damaging drives of the wounded ‘ego’- ‘demons’ as negative energies and unmet psychological needs. We too have to face and acknowledge the wounds of the ego and their consequent, often harmful, behaviour before we can be made whole and “see Reality as it is infinite.” (William Blake) These energies are very powerful, so it is not surprising these forces were in those days personified as ‘demons’. Moreover, at that time there was a strong belief both in angels and in demons.

The conditions that encourage spiritual growth were beautifully captured by St Benedict a century later in his rules:‘Obedience, Conversion and Stability’. Although we may not think so, these three attitudes are still relevant for us on our journey. Let’s have a closer look at them.

The first essential attitude is Conversion. Often at the start of the spiritual journey there is a sudden deep spiritual insight, a glimpse of a wider dimension. The early Church Fathers called this the moment of ‘conversion’ or ‘metanoia’, an insightful change of heart and mind, that allows the memory of our true ‘self’ to come to the surface and enables us to step over the threshold between the different levels of perception. This then encourages us towards deep silent prayer. By letting go off thoughts, images and fantasies it will be possible for us to experience the reality that enfolds the ordinary one, in which we live our lives. That heightened perception makes us aware of our essential connectedness to the Divine and our life becomes one of total dedication to God, seeing God in all things and all people.

The second one is Obedience. In the desert Obedienceto the Abba or Amma was paramount. The natural authority of the Abbas and Ammas was based on their wisdom, a result of their own lived experience of deep prayer. As far as Obediencefor usis concerned, we can only jump the hurdle that being obedient presents to us in our time, when we understand that Obediencereally means ‘listening intently’. The aspiring hermits had first of all to listen carefully to the word of God, as they heard it in Scripture, especially in the commandments in the form of the Beatitudes and make these their rule in life. Secondly they needed to listen carefully to their Abba or Amma, their spiritual guide, whose wisdom and compassion supported and upheld them. They needed to let go of their own will and leave their individual ego desires behind to be open to hearing the will of God. Hand in hand with Obediencegoes an attitude of humility; together they would lead to two of the main virtues mentioned in the Beatitudes: not only purity of heart, a freedom of selfish desires but also poverty of spiritin the sense of ‘knowing their need of God’.

We too need to listen carefully to the real meaning of Scripture. Again a discipline from the Benedictine tradition lectio divina is invaluable. We too need to listen carefully to the teaching and guidance of John Main OSB and Laurence Freeman OSB. We too need to let go off our ego-centric thoughts and rely on intuition, our Divine guidance, the ‘still, small voice of calm’.

And finally Stability is stressed in the following saying: “A brother in Scetis went to ask for a word from Abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." The emphasis laid on Stabilitywas meant to help the hermits to lessen their innate physical and mental restlessness. The fact that the hermits found this rule of Stability a challenge can be seen from the accounts of many of them wandering from settlement to settlement, a common problem, but one that was not encouraged, as we can see from what Amma Syncletica said: "If you find yourself in a monastery [community of hermits] do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the male and female hermit grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another.” The virtue of stability means for us too a rootedness in a Community, a rootedness in prayer/meditation, in the spiritual path, but most of all a rootedness in God.

Kim Nataraja