Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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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: The quiet hours of Leonid Brezhnev

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On first meeting Dr. Andrzej Grajewski, you probably wouldn’t guess that this mild-mannered Polish historian is one of the world’s leading experts on the ecclesiastical Dark Side of the Cold War: the relentless communist assault on the Catholic Church. But he is, and his expertise comes primarily from years of patient combing through the Bad Guys’ secret intelligence service files. Some of those files went up the smokestack in 1989 (or are still locked down in Moscow), but many are now available to scholars. Grajewski’s recent research in that often-sordid underworld raises some interesting questions about the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981.

What do we know with certainty about that affair?

We know that, by the fall of 1979, Yuri Andropov, the highly intelligent, ruthless head of the KGB (the Soviet secret intelligence service) had concluded that John Paul II was a grave threat to the Soviet system, both internally and in the external Soviet empire. And we know that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a decree on November 13, 1979, authorizing the use of “all available means” to forestall the effects of John Paul’s policy of challenging Soviet human rights violations.

We know that the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a professional killer who somehow escaped from a Turkish military prison shortly after that 1979 decree was issued and received further training in a Syrian camp run by Soviet bloc intelligence services. We know that, after meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer in Tehran, Agca got into Bulgaria with the help of the Bulgarian security services and lived for two months in a luxury hotel in Sofia. We know that Agca’s finances were handled by a Turk, associated with communist intelligence services, who subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

What we do not have is documentary evidence that all of this was done on the direct orders of Andropov, or Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, or both. But we do know that, as the Bulgarian spooks would have hesitated to change the brand of soap in their office washrooms without permission from Moscow Center, they certainly wouldn’t have run an operation against John Paul II on their own.

And now we know something else, thanks to an achingly dull, three-volume history of the schedule of Leonid Brezhnev, published three years ago in Russia.        Andrzej Grajewski plowed through these materials, concentrating on Brezhnev’s activities in April and May 1981 (shortly after Agca, by then in Zurich, met with several shady characters to complete the logistical and financial arrangements for the assassination attempt, which was set for May 13, 1981). Over the course of his reign as de facto head of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev did not meet all that often with Andropov, the KGB spymaster. But the tempo of their meetings increased dramatically in April and May 1981, as did the frequency of their phone conversations. Why this sudden intensification of contact between the Soviet chieftain and Andropov, at that precise time? Inquiring minds will wonder.

As they will wonder about Brezhnev’s schedule on May 13, 1981. That morning, Brezhnev met with a delegation from the Congo to sign several agreements. About 1 p.m., he came to his Kremlin office and worked by himself on documents; but the schedule does not indicate that he met with anyone that entire afternoon, nor did he make any phone calls. What was he waiting for? Was news anticipated? After 6 p.m.  — i.e., soon after Agca’s fired his shots in St. Peter’s Square — Brezhnev left the Kremlin for his residence in the Moscow suburbs. The next day he met in the Kremlin with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and on May 15, with Yuri Andropov.

Andrzej Grajewski’s careful but suggestive conclusion: “Does such a sequence of events prove that Brezhnev was informed about…the attack? We do not know that. Assuming that the idea of assassinating the Pope had arisen in the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev knew when it would happen. Of course, the records of [his] Kremlin schedule are not irrefutable evidence in this matter. However, they indicate that… May 13, 1981…was not a routine day for [Brezhnev]. His schedule shows that, during almost 18 years at the pinnacle of power, there was only one day, May 13, 1981, when Brezhnev’s attention was not absorbed by acting, directing, managing — but perhaps waiting for something to happen.”

Inquiring minds wonder.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano