Are We Asking the Most Important Questions of Our Lives?

With discernment it is possible to reach the utmost heights with the minimum of exhaustion.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers highly valued the virtue of “discernment”— the ability to hold the complexities of life within an atmosphere of patient wisdom as we wait for God’s salvation to unfold. Abba Moses, one of the most compelling Egyptian monks, said to Cassian and Germanus that no virtue can come to full term or can endure without the grace of discernment … It is discernment which with firm step leads the enduring monk to God … With discernment it is possible to reach the utmost heights with the minimum of exhaustion. Without it there are many who despite the intensity of their struggle have been quite unable to arrive at the summit of perfection. For discernment is the mother, the guardian, and the guide of all the virtues.

What a remark. Only when we experience the wisdom of community do we reach the summit of perfection held out to us as the goal of the spiritual life. 

One of the curiosities of our day is the staggering naiveté we bring to conversations and questions surrounding the most important matters of life. To become a lawyer, doctor, or scientist, a person must spend many years in training, submitting their minds and bodies to the wisdom of those who have gone before them, habituating themselves to the realities of their subject matter. But for some reason, when it comes to the very important questions—“Who are we? What are we made for? What does it mean to have a soul, how does it work, and what ruins and redeems it?”—we have an inbuilt assumption that one person’s ideas about those questions are as good as the next, and that no one has a right to criticize anyone else’s thoughts about the matter.

I can only conclude that we either think that those questions are purely subjective and have no essential bearing on what’s really real, or we’re just foolish enough to prioritize some vague idea of “tolerance” over our desperate thirst for genuine wisdom. Either way, it takes a pretty sturdy and ongoing denial of reality to fail to realize that the questions really do matter. As nice as the idea that no one has the right to criticize anyone else is, when push comes to shove, we need wisdom, and some notions of what is good and right for our humanity are better than others. When I’m under the knife for heart surgery, I don’t want my doctor saying that “all roads lead to successful heart surgeries.” I want her saying, “I’ve studied and trained, and, in my considered judgment, the path we are about to take is the best path I know of. You can trust me.” We are not relativists about things that really matter.

Part of what Christianity offers is a several-thousand-year-old ongoing reflection on the deepest and most vexing questions facing humanity. It assumes that we are moral and spiritual beings submerged in unfathomable mystery from the very moment of our conception, and that therefore, even at our wisest, not only is it healthy for us to submit ourselves to the community that carries that ongoing reflection, but it is indeed our only hope. 

But note—it takes a certain posture of soul to engage the wisdom of community rightly. “True discernment,” Abba Moses says, “is obtained only when one is really humble. The first evidence of this humility is when everything done or thought is submitted to the scrutiny of our elders … Someone who lives not by his own decisions but by the example of the ancients will never be deceived.”

I recognize that the word submit has become cringeworthy in our day. There’s no getting around it—it’s a difficult word, not least because the folks that would seem to be worthy of our submission often prove themselves to be spiritually blind—or worse, corrupt. Countless are the stories of people whose faith was shipwrecked by spiritually blind, corrupt, oftentimes abusive leaders. The results are catastrophic. God forgive us.

But even here, the desert tradition is more than well aware of this peril, which is why—again—it is not simply a matter of cleaving to this or that leader (although it was crucial to have an “abba” or an “amma” who watched over your soul and who you sought to imitate) but, more broadly, of cleaving to the total communion of saints. To illustrate, Abba Moses tells a story of a young man who brought a lifelong struggle to an apparent “abba,” only to leave full of despair that he could ever be holy. He would have left his monastic vows entirely had not another abba—one who was genuinely wise—intercepted him, offering him consolation and better counsel (and rebuking the first abba in the process!).

The point is that we need the church in its entirety. One of the things I often hear people say nowadays is, “I need a mentor” or, “I am looking for someone to become my spiritual father/mother.” I understand the need. But I think the impulse to cleave to a single individual at the expense of the multitude of relationships offered to us in the body of Christ is a mistake. It assumes that one person can lead us in the way of salvation. They cannot. But Christ—the total Christ, operating through the entirety of the community of faith, across time and geography and in the lives of all of those who surround us now—can

Which is why I have often said that in my own life, a constellation of relationships have kept me sane and sound, guiding me to God. Here are just a few:

  • my pastor
  • my elders
  • my colleagues (other pastors) on staff at my church
  • my spiritual director
  • fathers and mothers in the faith at my church
  • brothers and sisters in the faith at my church
  • fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters beyond my church
  • my wife, my parents, my siblings
  • my therapist
  • mentors and coaches I’ve had in the past . . .

not to mention the witness of the saints preserved in their writings down through the centuries. I could go on and on. The point is that Jesus is saving Andrew through his people! Which is the only way he saves anyone—as by faith he unites us to his body, which is the church.

It’s not easy. Our ingrained pride and selfishness make submitting to the voice of the Lord as it comes to us through his people challenging. Deeply challenging. But it always bears fruit. Recall the story of John the Dwarf submitting himself to an older monk who took a piece of dry wood, planted it in the ground, and told John to water it every day until it bore fruit. As the story goes:

Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

This story illustrates a central point of desert spirituality: that Christ, operating through the communion of saints, knows things that we don’t—and that as we submit ourselves to him in robust relationship with the communion of saints, we discover, beyond our wildest expectations, that our lives have become fruitful.

Adapted from Streams in the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Andrew Arndt. Copyright ©2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

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