The Desert Fathers as Living Icons of the Perfect and Selfless Love of the Kingdom
Today’s readings for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time stand out for me while thinking of the Desert Fathers. The readings converge at one clear point: all is vanity - all that we toil for in this world and seek to store up for ourselves. St. Paul tells us to seek what is above where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. Put to death the parts of you that are earthly, immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed (Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11). We make ourselves “fools”, Christ tells us, when we seek to store up earthly treasures, for this day our life may be taken from us.
What a great error it would be for us to see the Desert Fathers as simply living in a degrading atmosphere. Rather we must seek to penetrate the deeper motives of their souls - to see them iconographically. The ascesis of the desert forms an image of unfailing significance and takes us to the heart of the Gospel. Paul Evdokimov, in his work Struggle with God writes: “The world finds its norm, its scale of comparison, in the extreme efforts of the ascetics; it perceives also the dreadful dullness and insipidity of the spirit of self-sufficiency. In the face of the declaration of common sense, ‘God does not ask so much of us’, the ascesis of the desert proclaims the terrible jealousy of God, who after giving himself, ask all from men. The desert Fathers have left us a picture of this total gift. Its excessive features strike our attention and ask us what is the utmost each one of us can do. The Christian type would not be what it is were it not for this ascesis, which from remote times has unconsciously made its purifying influence felt.
We can go deeper still. The ascetics renounced culture in their seeking for the one thing necessary. This desire had to become a passion for perfection: ‘Sell all that you have.’ Even more, ‘See all that you are.’ In the perfection of this attitude, all became a single act - the carrying of the cross. ‘Let him renounce himself and take up his cross.’ This is not liturgy, but is a preliminary to it, a compact and startling epitome of immolation.” (pp. 99-100)
Their very lives preach Christ crucified, the very power and the wisdom of God. This is not something that is attractive to the world or even could be, but seen through the eyes of faith it radiates the perfect love of the kingdom.