Patience (Part V): Patience Provides Space for Daily Repentance and Transformation
Abba Antony said:
Having therefore made a beginning, and set out already on the way to virtue, let us press forward to what lies ahead. And let none turn back as Lot’s wife did, especially since the Lord said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is fit for the Kingdom of heaven.” Now “turning back” is nothing except feeling regret and once more thinking about things of the world. But do not be afraid to hear about virtue, and do not be a stranger to the term. For it is not distant from us, nor does it stand external to us, but its realization lies within us, and the task is easy if only we shall will it.28
Repentance is a turning toward God with a desire for newness of life. Although initially it may have a specific beginning in time, it is a continuous movement toward God. Repentance creates a daily environment for transformation. It is not a moment etched in stone that lasts forever. Abba Antony speaks of this daily environment as “the way of virtue” and reminds monks and lay persons, alike, that if one is serious about this path one must keep looking forward. Although the destination lies within us, the journey away from attachment to “the things of the world” allows no looking back. This illustrates the intersection of chronological time and the eschaton, God’s time. Each monk’s transformation already lies within and yet the manifestation of that virtue is a struggle within chronological time. This is the struggle, the spiritual warfare of the desert: the tension between the monk’s desire for what already lies within and the distractions and disturbances of the world which he allows to deflect him from what he desires.29
The abbas and ammas realized there are many things which can deflect and scatter the monk’s desire for God. The ego would rather not have us discover our true self and the virtue within us. The list of distractions and temptations includes “good” things as well as “wicked” things. Listen again to Arsenius:
Someone said to Abba Arsenius, “My thoughts trouble me, saying, ‘You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that also is charity.”‘ But the old man, recognizing the suggestions of the demons, said to him, “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell” For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.30
Arsenius, echoing Antony’s wisdom, is aware of the danger of being scattered. The frustration of not being able to follow the rule within the cell leads the monk, through the demons in his thoughts, to “try something else.” Arsenius remembers the importance of “patient endurance” in the cell. If the work is discouraging, relaxation is possible and appropriate. But the monk should not leave the environment where, through the rule, he turns toward and experiences God’s presence.
~David G.R. Keller, Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
28. Athanasius, The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcel/in us, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1980) 46.
29. This struggle is recognized in the monastic vow of conversatio. It is a commitment to daily growth and transformation, recognizing that mystery of our life with God is not a goal we attain, but an evolving manner of life that draws us ever deeper into the heart of God and is manifested in the way we live.
30. Ward, Sayings, Arsenius 11, 10.