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: School scholarships continue legacies, support Catholic education

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With school back in session, Catholic schools are beginning to grant scholarships and provide tuition assistance for well-deserved students enrolled in the upcoming school year.

St. Vincent de Paul School is just one example. In the spring, staff and parents from the Denver Catholic school will select fourth graders going into fifth grade who will receive the McKaila Steffes Scholarship Fund, established by Montgomery and Andrea Sykora through The Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado.

The memory of the spirited and loving young McKaila, who bravely fought a neurological condition that caused tumors, lives on in the scholarship fund that gives young students tuition assistance.

“I remember McKaila when she was here,” said Suzanne Meyer of St. Vincent de Paul. “She was just so full of life — she touched everyone’s lives. She passed away when she was nine (in 2006). This scholarship is a nice memorial for McKaila.”

Donations to the scholarship fund greatly help current students, Meyer said, who exemplify the same great qualities as McKaila.

Jean Finegan, Gift Planning Officer for The Catholic Foundation, said anyone may give to the scholarship funds held at the Foundation either through a current gift or planned gift.  This allows for these funds to grow and continue providing tuition assistance for generations to come.

Assistance is offered for hard-working families in need at other schools, including St. Catherine of Siena School. The Elizabeth C. Giordano Garden of Hope Scholarship Fund was established by Gwen and Andrew Pomper to help children obtain an education grounded in the Catholic faith.  Giordano was an immigration attorney and active fundraiser for the parish and school before she passed away in 2013. The scholarship fund continues to honor and remember her and her contributions to the community by making a Catholic education more accessible for families.

The Catholic Foundation also holds scholarship funds for families sending their children to Bishop Machebeuf High School. The late Elinor Travis had faith that students at the school could achieve their dreams. She aimed to help them get there by establishing an endowment fund to provide tuition assistance. She named the William and Vicki Lynn Ingram Endowment Fund Memorial Scholarship in memory of her daughter, who attended Machebeuf, specifically to help the 65 percent of students from low-income families in need of financial aid.

“Elinor always valued education,” said her friend, Pat Brewster. “I think she had a passion for people and passion for life, and she was very generous with her money.”

Also benefiting Machebeuf students is the Sister Rosemary Wilcox Scholarship fund, named after the Sister of Loretto, founding principal of the school and later chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver. She passed away in 2012. Continued support for students can also be made through the Bishop Machebeuf High School Student Scholarship and Financial Aid Endowment Scholarship.

High school students at Holy Family may also be aided by the school scholarship fund designed for tuition assistance at the Broomfield school. The Catholic Foundation accepts donations to this fund, established by Deacon Jim and Karen Doyle, to help students in need of tuition assistance.

Catholic education can also be supported through the Don and Meredith Jung Scholarship Fund, established by Don Jung in memory of his late wife. Jung is an active member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lafayette and offers the scholarship for students who are parishioners at the church and interested in attending a trade school.

The Annunciation School community won’t forget Sister Jean Panisko, S.C.L., who served as principal for 29 years at the school before retiring in 2010. Martha Diss Sundby started the fund in honor of sister in order to provide tuition assistance to families at Annunciation Elementary School.

Scholarship funds that further Catholic education held at The Catholic Foundation:

  • Bishop Machebeuf High School Student Scholarship and Financial Aid Endowment Scholarship -Elizabeth C. Giordano Garden of Hope Scholarship Fund – St. Catherine of Siena School
  • Holy Family High School Scholarship Fund
  • Don and Meredith Jung Scholarship Fund – Immaculate Conception Parish
  • McKaila Steffes Scholarship Fund – St. Vincent de Paul School
  • Saint Clare Christian Education Endowment Fund
  • Sister Jean Panisko S.C.L. Fund – Annunciation School
  • Sister Rosemary Wilcox Scholarship Fund – Bishop Machebeuf High School
  • William and Vicki Lynn Ingram Memorial Scholarship – Bishop Machebeuf High School
  • St. Joseph Scholarship Fund – Supporting the high schools within the Archdiocese of Denver
  • Elmer Von Feldt Scholarship Fund – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

To make a donation to the Foundation in further support of Catholic education for young students in need, contact Jean Finegan at (303) 867-0613 or jfinegan@thecatholicfoundation.com.