Some of the most accessible and practical wisdom from the ancient Christian desert tradition can be found in the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John. They lived in Gaza (Palestine) in the early sixth century. Over 800 letters are preserved for us, and in these letters we get an inside look at what spiritual guidance looked like in the desert monasticism of those early years. And although much is different in the cultural context, even more seems to be the same in regard to the human struggle to draw near to God.
In the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John (461 and 462), an aspiring hermit writes to St. Barsanuphius asking him to discern if he is ready to live the life of a hermit, as opposed to remaining in community with the rest of the monks in the monastery. And he also asks for the saints’ prayers because he is “troubled by bodily warfare.”
St. Barsanuphius writes back and tells this fellow that he is not ready for the hermetic life and, among other things, he writes that it is through his warfare that God is training him. This fellow writes back, this time to St. John, asking for clarification. (This happens commonly in the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John: St. John helps the writers interpret and apply the sometimes cryptic wisdom of St. Barsanuphius.) Also, in this second letter from this fellow, we find out more detail about what the “bodily warfare” is: fornication, gluttony and avarice.
Fornication, gluttony and avarice. It strikes me that these are the same forms of bodily warfare that trouble me and that trouble many of my spiritual children. And what is worse, what is sort of on top of these more easily identifiable struggles, is the sin of pride. At the same time as this fellow is asking for help to overcome the bodily warfare of fornication, gluttony and avarice, he is also thinking that he has matured to such a place that he can separate himself from his brothers in the monastery and begin to practice a solitary life. It is as if he is saying, “I’m struggling with bodily passions, yet I am more spiritually advanced than my brothers and teachers in the monastery.”
Does this sound familiar to anyone? It sounds familiar to me. I too sometimes think, or have been tempted to think, that I have outgrown my spiritual father, that I am more spiritually advanced than my peers, and that perhaps it is time for me to consider a more strenuous asceticism. I think such high thoughts of myself even though I still struggle with the bodily warfare of fornication, gluttony and avarice. How can I know that I still struggle with this basic bodily warfare and yet also have such high thoughts about myself and my spiritual achievements? I can do this because on top of the bodily warfare that I experience, I am also bound up in pride—and I don’t even see it!
St. Barsanuphius tried to point this out to the writer of these letters in his response to the first letter. St. Barsanuphius pointed out that God was able to deliver this man from his bodily warfare at any time. But God would not deliver him yet. Why? “Because He loves you, God wants you to be trained through many battles and exercises in order to reach the measure of good repute.” And, St. Barsanuphius goes on to say, you will not reach this measure unless “you keep all that I have commanded you through my letters.”
But what is this “measure of good repute” that St. Barsanuphius is referring to? In the second letter, St. John states explicitly that what St. Barsanuphius was pointing to is humility. St. John explains: “Brother, God grants us humility and we keep pushing it away…. Humility means cutting off one’s own will in everything and becoming entirely carefree. In regard to cutting off the root of the passions, which you mention, this occurs by cutting off one’s own will…” St. John goes on to explain that, along with obedience, it is the very suffering, or torment, that we experience as we struggle with bodily passions that creates humility in us. And it is humility that destroys demonic pride, the pride that we very seldom see in ourselves, but is hiding on top of our more easily noticeable bodily sins.
Someone once said that the devil will always trade a bodily sin for a spiritual one. That is, for the devil, pride is a much greater prize than a bodily passion. St. Barsanuphius tells us that because God loves us he does not deliver us from our bodily passions (something God could easily do). Why not? God does not deliver us because lurking right on top of those more easily identifiable bodily passions is the spiritual passion of pride. And it is that pride which will keep us from God eternally. It is that pride that caused the very fall of Lucifer.
We need to let God work humility in us in order that we might reach “the measure of good repute.” And as St. John points out, it’s really a matter of not pushing away the humility God grants us. When we fail, when we feel the pain, the torment, of our struggle, we realize again our utter dependance on the mercy of God. We realize again that we cannot fix ourselves, that we can only offer ourselves completely to God, broken bits and all. This is what St. John was referring to when he wrote of being carefree. We strive for self control and holiness, not because we think we are able to achieve it by ourselves, but because it is how we tell God what we want. We strive, we are tormented in our bodies and minds by trials and temptations that we sometimes overcome and sometimes fail to overcome. But this striving is somewhat carefree.
How can that be? How can we strive and be carefree at the same time? Aren’t they opposites? Yes and no. It is like a child who wants to please her mother by making her bed for the first time. She tries, but she fails, she doesn’t do a very good job. But she is carefree because she knows her mother will appreciate her trying her best and will be able to fix any mistakes she makes. She knows her mother loves her. Our problem is we do not know that God loves us—more than even the most loving mother.
Even as we strive to please God by disciplining ourselves and obeying His commands, we know that God loves us (already, before we begin). We know that God will accept our striving for righteousness, even if we don’t do it very well, even if we fail. God is able to fix our mistakes. Therefore, like children striving to please a parent whom we know loves us completely, we offer what we have, what we can do, in a carefree way, knowing that 100% will never be enough to succeed completely all of the time, but it is enough to please God.
That’s what humility is like. It is this childlike simplicity, this childlike desire to please a loving parent. Humility is a simple trust that our Heavenly Parent will take care of us, that our Heavenly Parent will appreciate our puny but heartfelt efforts to please Him. This is a large part of what Christian spiritual maturity looks like according to Sts. Barsanuphius and John. This is what success in bodily warfare looks like.