Lenten Advice from the Desert Fathers

Lenten Advice from the Desert Fathers

In his message for this year’s Lent Pope Francis said: “It is good to contemplate more deeply the paschal mystery through which God’s mercy has been bestowed upon us. Indeed, the experience of mercy is only possible in a ‘face to face’ relationship with the crucified and risen Lord ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:20), in a heartfelt dialogue between friends. That is why prayer is so important in Lent”(no.2).

Rightly so, in his message for Lent 2020, the Holy Father is powerfully affirming the great efficacy of prayer. Without prayer how can you and I really progress in the road of holiness? Jesus already told us when he boldly said to you and me, some thousand years after the actual dating of the subsequent biblical text: I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) Thus, aloof from Jesus, we are much like that branch that immediately withers, simply because it is not connected with the vine! In fact, in the consecutive line of John 15 Jesus makes sure that His message is clearly understood when He says: If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:6)

The Desert Fathers, which in his catechesis of February 2020 Pope Francis dubbed them as “the first monks in history” lived principally in the Scetes desert of Egypt around the beginning of the third century. Each had much to say about the importance of prayer. For them a real spiritual life is one characterized by prayer. It is only prayer that gives the monk strength to overcome his temptations. Without prayer there is no spiritual life at all because the flame with which one is at war with his and her passions, namely prayer, becomes extinguished. Thus, the story goes by Abba Poemen:

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might be free from care. He went and told an old man this: “I find myself in peace, without an enemy,” he said. The old man said to him, “Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, “Lord give me strength for the fight.

In the liturgical readings of the Tuesday of the First Week of Lent we came across a very challenging gospel reading taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In it Our Lord does not mince his words at all. He tells us and even warns us that if we want to be one of His own we must truly forgive. Otherwise, Our Father in Heaven will not forgive us our sins. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14-15) The Desert Fathers understood Jesus’ precept very well. For them forgiveness of one’s enemies is the sine qua non, or the essential condition, if one wanted that his and her prayers are heard by God. Let us listen to what Abba Zeno wants to say to us regarding this matter:

Abba Zeno said, ‘If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.’

How many times have you and I seemed to not have the time to pray? We have so many things to do, how can we stop and find time to communicate with God? The Desert Fathers knew way back then that to pray is essentially a fight against the demons who will use every excuse for not letting us pray. But why would they do that? The first story of these great men and women of wisdom that comes into my mind is an interesting conversation between an elderly and a young demon.

Once a young enthusiastic demon wanted to show how skilful he was in making a monk fall into sin. Thus, he said to his mate old demon: “Do you see that monk? This night I shall wake him up and making him fall into sin.” Terrified at this foolish strategy the old demon immediately told him. “No! Don’t ever dare to do that. When I did so he started reading the Psalms and he burned me!”

The lesson is just awesome! If you want to defeat the evil spirit take up the book of Psalms and start praying with it! Another story which informs me about the inner struggle we all experience the moment we decide to pray is the one that involves Abba Agathon.

The brethren also asked Abba Agathon, “Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?” He answered, “Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

Such a marvelous wisdom by the Desert Fathers regarding the top priority of prayer greatly reminds me of the unforgettable experience the then Fr Angelo Comastri had with Mother Teresa when he met her. When he found her, while visiting Rome to personally thanking her for her reply to a letter he had sent to her earlier on, the holy Mother asked him: “How many hours do you pray a day?” A little embarrassed at this direct question the then Father Comastri went on to explain to her that he celebrated the Mass daily, prayed the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary. By praying these prayers he thought that he was almost a hero in the art of prayer. Mother Teresa’s reaction to his reply was categorical: “That’s not enough” because “love cannot be lived minimally.” Then Mother asked him to promise her to spend half an hour adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament daily. “I promised,” said the now Cardinal Comastri, “and today I can say that this saved my priesthood.”

When he told Mother Teresa that he was spending a lot of time doing charity she simply answered him, “And do you think if I didn’t pray I would be able to love the poor? It’s Jesus that puts love in my heart when I pray.” She aided the poor but it was “always Jesus’ love” which was the decisive catalyst for that. At that instant Mother told him something which impressed him: she greatly encouraged him to read meditatively the Bible. She reminded him that “without God we’re too poor to help the poor.” This, she pointed out, “is why so much assistance falls into the void. It doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t contribute anything because it doesn’t bring love and it isn’t born of prayer.”

From his personal experience upon meeting one of the greatest modern saints and of all-time Cardinal Comastri could only conclude the following: “Through this little woman … we are reminded that charity is the apostolate of the Church and that charity is only born if we pray.”

Is this not the gist of the Desert Father’s advices for a fruitful prayer life not only during the Lenten journey but also, practically, for each and single day of our lives?

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap