In the deserts of Egypt, early Christian monastics lived deeply the lives of prayer and asceticism that developed the heart of the Church. Theirs was largely an oral tradition, having little or no printed word. Even the Scriptures were often committed to memory.
Among these hidden souls, some were regarded as “Abbas” (fathers) or “Ammas” (mothers) to whom others from both the world and the desert would come for spiritual guidance.
“Give me a word”, was often what the pilgrim would say. They could not expect to be given lengthy spiritual counsel by those who lived in silence. The word or phrase given often became a focus of prayer and reflection for many months, years or even for a lifetime.
This tradition was shared with me several years ago and it has become my practice to listen for a word as we transition from one calendar year to the next. While I could choose a word, most often I find that a word chooses me.
It is an interesting experience to have a word choose you. Often it has not been a word I would have “liked”, i.e. most of my words have not been comforting or inspiring but rather challenging – and challenging in the ways I most needed and least liked.
How do I know that a word has chosen me? Well, it enters my mind unbidden and takes up residence. One of them even came to me in a dream. But, however it arrives, it makes it clear that it is not going to go away.
Let’s see now…first there was “obedience”, followed the next year by “humility”. Then came “chasten”, a truly frightening word that, like the others, I became quite fond of once I saw it at work in me. This last past year was “mercy”.
Now another word has found me and will not let me go.
An interesting little word is this one. Of course, at the beginning of the year, I cannot know what God has in mind for me. But this word has some interesting potentials – not all of which can be considered pleasant from the human perspective.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that it is a verb. This suggests that something is going to happen or be done with me. I am not going to be allowed to bask in a noun, like “purity” or an adjective such as “pure”.
And, of course, I know that that is what I need. This is not a time for basking.
As I begin my reflections on my word, I am struck by the nuances it has in different contexts.
For example, in the Old Testament, we hear a lot about the need to “purify” in the sense of ritual purity. Various rituals are spelled out in Mosaic law to purify those who voluntarily or incidentally became impure because of disease, menstruation or other bodily discharges, corpse contacts and so on.
Often these rituals for the “unclean” included a temporary isolation from the community where there might be actual washing of the body and clothing, sometimes in special basins. Hair might need to be shaved off. Frequently, animal sacrifices were made at the Temple as part of ritual purification.
In these very tangible examples, I begin to glimpse that to purify is not simply an abstract, spiritual notion. Being purified involves all of me, body and mind, heart and soul.
Viewing more secular definitions and contexts, to purify involves removal or neutralization of contaminants, potentially dangerous substances – such as in the purification systems we build for water treatment.
But the idea remains the same. What is unclean, even dangerous, needs to be removed. What has gone bad needs to be made right.
While the cleansing of purification may sound refreshing if I imagine it as shower, Scripture gives me other images, “silver tried in a furnace…refined seven times” (Psalms 12: 6) and “the fuller’s lye” (e.g. Malachi 3:2).
So I view my word with some trepidation, with an awareness that God’s work in me may be uncomfortable, even quite painful. For there is a great deal in me that needs purifying, cleansing, removing, if I am ever to be open to the fullness of His presence.
But, deep in my heart, this is what I long for – the forfeiting of me to make room for the fullness of Him. And it cannot take place without sacrifice.
Thankfully, I am not in charge. Undoubtedly, I would want to take the easy route – step under the shower and call it finished.
But, knowing this cannot and should be the case, I place my trust in Him.
Let His will be my will and may I have no will but His.
A priceless thing indeed.
(Is there a word seeking you out this year? Feel free to share it here… Let us pray for one another, as always.)
Written scripture was available, but not in every cell and many of the desert fathers were unable to read. I like the story of Saint Arsenios the Great who was a wealthy man and the teacher of the Emperors children in Constantinople. He heard the voice of God telling him to “flee and you will be saved” which led him to the desert, giving up his wealth and educational advantages. Later he fled deeper into the desert and became a renowned abba. In his later years, one of his disciples came to him and essentially asked him, “Abba, you are well educations, speak six languages; why do you go to that Egyptian peasant (Arsenios spiritual father) for spiritual advice?” Saint Arsenios answered him, “I don’t even know the (spiritual) alphabet of that peasant.” Again, humility wins out over pride.
Thanks, John, for the clarification and for this story that helps us understand the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.
It strikes me how important humility is to true learning. And the learning that is most important to acquire has little to do with education or information. I know I have missed out on a lot of learning because my unacknowledged pride has led me to not regard everyone as a potential teacher. Even people who appear lost in sin can teach me a good deal, by the grace of God. (For am I not also lost in sin? He can and does make use of us despite this reality.)