Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”

COMING UP: Saint John Institute hosts inaugural graduation

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Regina Ramsey was tired of hearing complaints about what’s wrong with the world and what needs to change within the Catholic Church. She wanted to act.

“I decided that I could either join the people talking about the changes that needed to be made or I could do something about it,” said Ramsey.

That’s when she turned to the Saint John Institute — an MBA program run by the Congregation of Saint John centered on the New Evangelization that helps students develop their gifts to become great leaders in the Church.

“An MBA through Saint John Institute seemed to be the right fit because it combined business knowledge with deep spiritual formation,” said Ramsey.

After graduating from the Saint John Institute with fellow student Brianne Schulze on April 15 — the first students to graduate from the program — Ramsey looks forward to centering her daily life on her Catholic faith. She hopes to one day help non-profits utilize business structures to help them with long-term success.

The Saint John Institute isn’t your average MBA program.

“Our program is different from other MBA programs because of the focus on developing an authentic prayer life and spirituality,” said Father Francis Therese Kratter, the program’s chaplain.

Father Nathan Cromley, president of the Saint John Institute, hands Brianne Schulze her diploma at the inaugural graduation ceremony for the institute April 15. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“We all know deep down that prayer is what makes our lives fruitful, but we rarely devote the time we know we should to this most important activity,” he said.

The Saint John Institute shapes students through two years of monastic prayer and study, said Father Kratter. He believes the success of current and future students steams from a foundation of prayer.

Students like Schulze were attracted to the program because of that spiritual formation.

“I saw the MBA as a necessary challenge to help me gain the practical business skills I needed to be able to evangelize more effectively through my art,” she said.

Schulze is an artist whose goal was to develop her skills and use them to glorify God.

“Art and beauty point to the eternal,” she said, “and I feel I have a responsibility in creating work that does that — work that gives people an opportunity to encounter Christ through the transcendent power of beauty.”

Schulze was deeply inspired by the Brothers of Saint John, who form the students both academically and spiritually.

“They challenged me in my faith and have helped lead me to Christ in a deeper way than I ever thought possible,” said Schulze.

For more information on the Saint John Institute, visit www.saintjohninstitute.org.