Spiritual Disciplines and the Desert

Or maybe, “spiritual disciplines in the Desert.”

Registration is almost closed for my course on the Desert Fathers! I do hope you sign up or encourage someone you know who would profit from this course of study. One of my multiple points of entry into the world of the Desert Fathers and the Great Tradition of the church catholic was the Quaker Richard Foster, first his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home and then Celebration of Discipline followed by a number of other works of his.

He and Dallas Willard are perhaps the two most recogniseable names in the spiritual disciplines movement. If you are into the spiritual disciplines, or if you want to go deeper, then the Desert Fathers are foundational for any such pursuit of practical wisdom. And if you study the Desert Fathers (with me, I hope), you will encounter these disciplines:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Study
  • Simplicity
  • Solitude
  • Submission
  • Service
  • Confession
  • Worship
  • Guidance
  • Celebration

Each of these has its own manifestation in the wilderness of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Palestinian/Judaean deserts. We are not monks in the technical sense (but see Greg Peters, The Monkhood of All Believers about how we can all seek interior monasticism), so how the disciplines play out in our lives will different. For example, we’ll eat more than meal per day, most likely, and we’ll have to leave our houses on necessary business frequently.

And none of us will live atop a pillar, I suspect.

Here are some brief sayings on these 12 topics:


It was said of the same Abba John that when he returned from the harvest or when he had been with some of the old men, he gave himself to prayer, meditation and psalmody until his thoughts were re-established in their previous order.


When I was younger and remained in my cell I set no limit to prayer; the night was for me as much the time of prayer as the day. -Abba Isidore the Priest


Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away. -Amma Syncletica


The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.

Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.

It is a great treachery to salvation to know nothing of the divine law.

Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.

-Epiphanius of Salamis (not a Desert Father, but included in their sayings)


A monk’s treasure is volulntary poverty. Lay up treasure in heaven, brother, for there are the ages of quiet and bliss without end. -Abba Hyperechius


He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and this is with fornication. -Abba Antony


As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility. -Amma Syncletica


It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.


A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest; Abba Bessarion got up and went with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”


It was said of Abba Poemen that every time he prepared to go to the synaxis (worship service), he sat alone and examined his thoughts for about an hour and then he set off.


At the moment, no great, simple statements about guidance come to me from the sayings. Yet the entire collection is about precisely this. “Abba, give me a word…”


Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of men, let us rejoice that we are honoured in the sight of men. -Abba John the Dwarf

Meditating on each of these sayings will help us go deeper into our own practice of the disciplines and our own pursuit of God, the pursuit of endless perfection (epektasis) and theosis, union with Christ.


My interview on the Restless podcast

I was recently interviewed by the gentlemen on the Restless podcast about the Desert Fathers — largely to promote my upcoming course. But I had a great time talking about my favourite monks, discussing five points (I wanted to spell a word, but couldn’t put the letters in an order that would make logical sense):

  1. TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space): When, Who, Where were the Desert Fathers.
  2. Legacy: From Cassian to Benedict to Bernard and Calvin, Thomas a Kempis, and more
  3. Orthodoxy: These guys were not, for the most part, doctrinally fringe — even Evagrius Ponticus held orthodox Trinitarian and Christological beliefs
  4. Prayer: The raison d’etre of all monasticism
  5. Scripture: At the heart of the Desert life, at the heart of prayer

Give it a listen! And if you become a Patreon donor to them, you can catch some bonus material where I talk with them about St Athanasius.

“If you pray truly, you are a theologian.” -Evagrius Ponticus

Rediscovered this old post of mine about Evagrius over at The Witness Cloud while preparing for promoting my upcoming Desert Fathers course!


A monk at prayer, Bebenhausen, Germany (photo by MJH) A monk at prayer, Bebenhausen, Germany (photo by MJH)

One goal of the Witness Cloud is for us members to restructure our lives around prayer. Our primary means of doing this is joining the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12) who have prayed the regular structure of the daily (or divine) office, 2 to 4 times a day. Rather than the structure and rhythm of our lives being dictated by television times or solely by the work/school routine or by nothing at all, they are to be increasingly ordered through prayer —

True prayer, of course.

Merely reading the words of the liturgy and barely comprehending them to be able to say, ‘I prayed the office,’ is not true prayer. These thoughts come inspired by Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399), one of the most influential (and simultaneously controversial) mystical/ascetical theologians of the Egyptian desert; my brother (the other who…

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Watch my latest video, “Maybe there is a literal meaning” on YouTube!

In this video, I try to nuance the concept of the “literal” meaning of Scripture in response to Jonathan Pageau. I bring Augustine’s theory of signs and things as well as Maximus the Confessor on the Bible, closing with my own literal-symbolic reading of the Ascension narrative from Acts 1.

To Battle Against Gluttony (An Ash Wednesday Reflection)

My brother’s thoughts on Evagrius and Cassian on gluttony. Appropriate for the start of Lent!


In the Philokalia, Evagrios the Solitary’s Texts on Discrimination in respect of Passions and Thoughts is the product of a long life of contemplative prayer. It offers insight into discrimination (though we, today, would be more comfortable using the word discernment for what Evagrios means). There are many spirits at work in the world around us, and holy scripture challenges us to be discerning of these spirits – to have discriminating taste. We are not, as some may fancy, invited to entertain all spiritual influences from whatever quarter. We are to exercise this discrimination for the sake of the preservation of our souls – for the sake of the purity of our souls. And Evagrios is interested in helping us (other Christians) to discriminate well. Well, technically his purpose is to instruct new monks – to advise them in guarding against the wiles of the devil… but while we may…

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Richard Hooker and the Coronavirus

Here’s a helpful and readable explanation of Richard Hooker’s doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s only marginally related to Coronavirus inasmuchas Anglicans who are missing the Eucharist right now actually are missing something Real, according to the English Reformation’s greatest theologian.

via Richard Hooker and the Coronavirus

What it’s all about

The point of the Collect for Purity, the end point of justification by faith, sanctification by whatever means necessary, of the means of grace, of any ascetic life or holy living, is not merely “to be good.” The end point — the telos — of all this God himself. Reading about Richard Hooker, reading The Cloud of Unknowing, thinking about historic asceticism — in all of it I need to keep this in mind.

It is expressed most beautifully by John Cassian, Conference 10.7:

And this will come to pass when God shall be all our love, and every desire and wish and effort, every thought of ours, and all our life and words and breath, and that unity which already exists between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, has been shed abroad in our hearts and minds, so that as He loves us with a pure and unfeigned and indissoluble love, so we also may be joined to Him by a lasting and inseparable affection, since we are so united to Him that whatever we breathe or think, or speak is God, since, as I say, we attain to that end of which we spoke before, which the same Lord in His prayer hopes may be fulfilled in us: that they all may be one as we are one, I in them and You in Me, that they also may be made perfect in one; and again: Father, those whom You have given Me, I will that where I am, they may also be with Me. (John 17:22-24)

(The Orthodox call it theosis.)

Grace and labour working together in sanctification (more Richard Hooker)

Hopefully not wrenching this passage out of context, I have just found another bit of Richard Hooker that is germane to the relationship between grace and works in sanctification. It was quoted in David Neelands chapter on Predestination in Brill’s A Companion to Richard Hooker, p. 189. I am going to do something I usually avoid, and give it to you with modernised (i.e. readable) spelling:

For let the Spirit be never so prompt, if labour and exercise slacken, we fail. The fruits of the Spirit do not follow men as the shadow does the body of their own accord. If the grace of sanctification did so work, what should the grace of exhortation need? It were even as superfluous and vain to stir men up unto good, as to request them when they walk abroad not to loose their shadows. Grace is not given us to abandon labour, but labour required lest our sluggishness should make the grace of God unprofitable. Shall we betake ourselves to our ease, and in that sort refer salvation to God’s grace, as if we had nothing to do with it, because without we can do nothing? Pelagius urged labour, for the attainment of eternal life without necessity of God’s grace, if we teach grace without necessity of man’s labour, we use one error as a nail to drive out another. …. In sum, the grace of God has abundantly sufficent for all. –Dublin Fragments, 13.

What I think Hooker is saying is that we need grace to be able to do good. But once we are justified, our labour is a real part of the life of the justified Christian. Sure, our works won’t save us in terms of making us right with God. But they are part of us becoming holier. Those who reject such teaching are replacing one error with another — the idea that the Christian life does not require our labour.

This sort of thinking is what lies at the root of what inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Protestants (he was looking at his own Lutheran tradition) take seriously Luther’s statement that justification is by faith alone. However, we have forgotten that this is essentially the beginning of our life in Christ. The rest — the rest involves, to use Hooker’s word, our labour.

I believe that an excessive focus on the doctrine of justification and a fear of over-reliance on our works has led to what Dallas Willard calls “the great omission.” We need to rediscover how grace works in our hearts to enable us to perform the good works that make us holy. Or how grace works in our hearts to make us holy, using our labour to that end.

We need to reject cheap grace and grace abuse, and recall St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), who said on the way to his martyrdom, “Now I begin to be a disciple.”

Here is the cost of discipleship:

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Palm Sunday: A Sonnet

I wanted to post something each day for Holy Week but missed yesterday. In lieu of that, here’s a worthy sonnet from Malcolm Guite, which my brother read out at the close of his sermon (we beamed in to Manitoba from Ottawa for church yesterday!).

Malcolm Guite

We come now, on Palm Sunday, to the beginning of Holy Week: a strange Palm Sunday, a strange Holy Week, in which we cannot make the outward and visible journeys and gestures, exchanges and gatherings that have always bodied forth the inner meaning of this week; the procession of palm crosses, the choral singing of hosannah, all those things that echo the events of the first Palm Sunday.

But the inner journey is more necessary than ever, and in the sonnets that follow I have explored the truth that what was happening ‘out there’ and ‘back then’ as Christ entered Jerusalem is also happening  ‘in here’ and ‘right now’. There is a Jerusalem of the heart. Our inner life also has its temple and palaces, its places of corruption, its gardens of rest, its seat of judgement.

In the sequence of sonnets which begins today I invite you to walk…

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