After Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church lost its distinctive counter-cultural and missional focus. Many saw the church as being too accommodating of the surrounding culture, with many converting to the faith in name only. As a result, “dissatisfied Christians began to flee the church in search of a purer form of Christianity untainted by collusion with empire.” 1 Those who fled into the wilderness went into the deserts surrounding the Roman Empire where they lived in caves, which became places of prayer or “cells”, to practice a more solitary and ascetic form of faith. This monastic lifestyle grew such that “By the end of the fourth century, thousands of these hermits had settled along the length of the Nile River, and nearly 5,000 had established themselves in the desert on the outskirts of Alexandria.” 2 Eventually, their extreme devotion led others from the Empire to seek out these desert fathers and mothers, at they came to be known, in order to learn how to grow in discipleship.
Margaret Guenther, in her classic book on prayer, The Practice of Prayer, draws on the wisdom of the desert fathers when she quotes Abba (Father) Moses, “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”. 3 Guenther applies the idea of the cell to our everyday lives, whether that be cooking in the kitchen, driving in a car, or working in a cubicle. Our modern-day “cell” is whatever happens to be our place of encounter with God. But often, we yearn for a life that seems more “spiritual”, more transcendent, and so our cell is also that which tempts us to boredom or dissatisfaction with the life we have. Just as the noonday heat and the monotony of the desert created a condition of acedia, or sloth, which the desert fathers sought to fight against while praying, so we also must fight against our own “noonday demons”. Her insight into our contemporary interior struggles and how it impacts our daily work is worth citing at length:
The noonday devil is gray and shabby, nothing like Milton’s splendid Lucifer. He is thoroughly at home in the ordinary and quite expert in the unspectacular, tacky sins of the everyday…The noonday devil can tempt us to little acts of meanness and impatience. He can encourage our ugly little spurts of envy and persuade us that only the uptight pay much attention to the sins of gluttony and lust. Perhaps most insidious of all, the noonday devil can insinuate himself into our thoughts, suggesting that God is not very interested in us and that consequently what we do is not important. 4
I don’t know about you, but I struggle from time to time with feelings of being appreciated and acknowledged. It’s not so much that I need others to praise me, since I tend to be the sort of personality a little suspicious of too much praise, as it is that by not being appreciated I worry that what I do is not that important or that it’s not making much of a difference. Even worse, I might begin to fear that my efforts are perceived as hindrances or that I’m not pulling my own weight. This can lead me to a place of discontentment and dissatisfaction, where my motivations become based on the praise of others rather than the desire to serve God alone. In fact, so great has been this struggle for me recently, that I decided to journal about it on a retreat. The organizer of the retreat had brought a book, and as I was journaling, I decided to “take and read”. 5
It’s a children’s book called The Right House for Rabbit. The story begins with a rabbit who has grown tired of the view from his house of a brown hill and a crooked tree. So he goes to Mr. Fox, something of a real estate agent, in search of a new home. Mr. Fox sends him to Mrs. Robin’s house, but that house, while having a great view, is a nest in a tree and has no roof and no walls. Then Fox sends Rabbit to Mr. Beaver’s house, but while his house has walls and a roof, the only way in is to go underwater. Finally, Mr. Fox takes Rabbit to a third house which is, unbeknownst to Rabbit, Mr. Fox’s own home. Mr. Fox tries to capture Rabbit to make stew, but Rabbit slips out the window and races all the way back to his own home. Once in his own home, Rabbit realizes that with a little shift in position and perspective, he has a different view from his house and learns to be content with where he is. 6
After reading that story, I bean to realize how small my perspective had become. Interestingly enough, I had also opened to Scripture while journaling to one of the Old Testament prophetic books. The prophet Isaiah records the following scene:
A voice was saying, “Cry out!” Another said, “What should I cry out?” “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word our God remains forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8
At the time, I could not understand how that passage connected with my motivations and my struggle for why I do what I do. But as I have since reflected, it is clear that we should strive for and ground our sense of worth on what is lasting, which is God and His Word, not on worrying about what is here one moment and gone the next. All that I do, and even my own self, will not last. Even though I believe I will continue to exist beyond death, my life and accomplishments on this earth is but a blink in the eye of eternity.
Rather, I believe God’s priority is about forming His children into a community that lives joyfully and contentedly, rather than anxiously worrying about the opinion of others. In a conversation that is reminiscent of the passage above from Isaiah, Jesus tells his disciples, “Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these! If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you – you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30). Jesus then proceeds to exhort his disciples to seek first God and His kingdom. All that we need comes from God, including affirmation and acceptance.
At the end of all my journal writing and reflections, I penned the following prayer:
Teach me to be content and to not be distracted by the noonday demon. Enable me to go to my cell, my workplace crucible, with a gladness and joyfulness of heart, knowing that through it You are forming me into the person You are calling me to be. May the sacrifices of my time and effort be pleasing and acceptable to You. And may my presence, like that of incense which is here one moment and gone the next, be a fragrant offering that brings You glory and honor.
Lord Jesus, In Your Name, Amen.
1 Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2010), 12, ebook.
2 Ibid., 13.
3 Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998), 108.
4 Ibid., 110.
5 The great Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, was converted to the Christian faith after hearing a child in a garden in Milan speak those words. The child was speaking the Latin words, “tolle lege”, which translates to “take and read”. He picked up Scripture, which he had with him. He had been struggling with his inability to live a Christian life, and the words from Scripture which were from the apostle Paul on living a licentious lifestyle, convicted him of the truth of God’s Word. For those who worry about not hearing from God when reading Scripture, all I can say is that learning to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit through Scripture is a practice that takes time, effort and discipline. I won’t guarantee that you will always sense God’s presence when reading the Word of God. In fact, I don’t always sense God’s presence. But one thing I know: you surely never will if you don’t “take and read” for yourself. We all have to begin somewhere.
6 Susan Saunders, illustrations by Jody Lee, The Right House for Rabbit (New York, NY: Merrigold Press, 1986).