St. Anthony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes. Icon from the Coptic Museum, Cairo, Egypt.
An advertising billboard frequently encountered in our part of the country a few years ago carried the slogan: ‘Great adventures rarely begin at home.’ Now I can’t recall the product being sold, but it could not have been the spiritual life, because that is an adventure which most definitely not only begins, but finds its entire progress and completion, in its most essential sense, exclusively at home: in the interior of one’s heart and soul. That is not to say, of course, that our spiritual life should be some kind of dream world, unconnected to others and the world around us. Or that it would could not include pilgrimages to distant holy sites which would bring us not only inner but also physically demanding and externally exploratory adventure. Yet the greatest and most fundamental adventure of the spiritual life finds its locus within. Here the precision of spacial terms escapes us, so much so that the prayerful person might well look up into a vast night sky shimmering with countless numbers of stars and say: ‘Each individual soul is just so vast, in terms of the depth of mystery which it contains as God’s creature, yet God in his holiness is infinitely more limitless than that!’
I read an interesting short article by Dylan Pahman recently, entitled ‘The Desert Fathers as Spiritual Explorers’ (http://blog.acton.org/archives/35117-the-desert-fathers-as-spiritual-explorers.html), which examines the idea that early desert dwellers like St. Anthony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes, whose anchoritic and other ascetic labors in the wildernesses of Egypt and Syria both preceded and served as the basis for the various types of monastic communities which would soon develop in the early Church: they were the externally primitive but internally advanced prototypes of the much later explorers of the physical planet which led to the discoveries of new continents and lands. You might want to check it out. Magellan and Columbus were concerned with winds and storms at sea, with newly encountered indigenous populations and geographical wonders. But the early Desert Fathers looked within, to how God had created them, to who God might be in himself, and to how the serious follower of Christ might pray and live in order to find salvation and peace.
As the Orthodox approach Forgiveness Sunday and the beginning of the Great Fast on March 18, and Roman Catholics and other western Christians prepare to observe the 5th Sunday of Lent (or the beginning of Passiontide for those who follow the pre-Conciliar calendar), we might well look to the Desert and other Church Fathers for guidance along the way. Such as St. Isaac the Syrian, who tells us: ‘Someone who bears a grudge while he prays is like a person who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest.’ Or St. Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Virtue is a light and buoyant thing, and all who live in her way “fly like clouds”, as Isaiah says, “and as doves with their young ones”, while sin is a heavy affair, as another of the prophets says, “sitting upon a talent of lead”‘. For we are called to look within, as Psalm 83(84) reminds us, while addressing the Lord: ‘Happy are those whose strength is in You, in whose hearts are the roads to Zion.’