Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

That's how Mark describes Jesus' temptation in the desert--the Holy Spirit drove him out there.

In the early history of the Church there were many saints who were also driven out into the desert. In fact, there was a whole literature that grew up around their spiritual exploits. You can find a collection of these stories here. Lots of rich young men gave up everything and retreated to the wildreness of the Middle East in order to flee sin and pursue holiness. The most famous is St. Anthony of Egypt, whose life story can be found here. Anthony had many followers and imitators, and even played a role in the conversion of St. Augustine.

It is too easy for modern people to dismiss the stories as fanaticism (the English of a previous generation would have sneeringly called the monks "enthusiasts") and the extreme fasting and mortification as Manichaean hatred of the body. But I don't think that is true. Paul, Anthony, Hilarion and their like don't go to the desert out of hatred for physical things, but out of love for God and hatred of the sin that they find in cities and in themselves.

In fact, given the example of Christ, who was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, it might even be a Christian necessity to seek the desert. The Christian must in some way keep himself apart from the ways of the world, since the ways of the world are sinful. The Christian must also discipline himself, at times severely, in order not to be corrupted by the ways of the world. (By "world" I don't mean the world as created by God, but in the sense that the devil is called "The Prince of this world.")

How can we do this? I suggest first of all getting rid of television, or at least putting severe restrictions on its use--our rule is no TV except weekends and when working out, but I hope to strengthen those restrictions as my children get older. I don't want other people shouting bad things at them for hours a day.

The internet as well needs to be restricted, especially for men. You may not know that "adult" websites are the biggest moneymakers in cyberspace. They don't do this without customers. I hope that you, dear reader, don't know the depths of shameful stuff available on the web, but I assure you that it is there. The Christian needs to take stock of himself and decide whether the internet is safe for his soul. If you are married, you may wish to invest in a parental control program (so far I recommend Cybersitter) and give the password to your wife. If you live alone, or neither you nor your spouse is trustworthy in this matter, you might need to get rid of internet access altogether, and simply use library computers.

Finally (at least for today) you must discipline your body, since it is damaged, as everything is, by the Fall. Let me give you an all-purpose answer to spiritual problems, with thanks to Disputations:

Look at what St. Hilarion has to say. He was a young man who went into the desert to pursue a monastic vocation. As with most teenage males, he soon began to experience the usual teenage male problems. He gives very good common-sense advice: This little Christian novice was compelled to think about things which he had never thought about before, and a whole parade of ideas flooded through his mind about things of which he had had no experience. He got angry with himself and beat his breast with his fists as if he could drive his thoughts away by physical blows.

"You little donkey!" he said to himself, "I'll see to it that you don't trample me underfoot. I'll not give you any barley. Nothing but chaff! I will tame you by means of hunger and thirst, I will weigh you down with heavy burdens, I will subject you to both cold and heat! So you will end up thinking of nothing but food instead of such shameful things!"

Far better to fast and pray, and be thinking of food, rather than to allow one's libido to roam free. If going away from your next meal a little hungry could save your soul, would you do it?

Postscript: One caution about the desert fathers: they do engage in quite severe fasting and mortification. You may think either that 1) they are crazy, or 2) I'd be crazy to try this. In answer to (1): whenever you think the ancients were crazy, repeat this fact to yourself: "we sane Americans kill 4000 of our own babies every day." Once you have some perspective, go back and reconsider the ancients. In answer to (2): such mortifications ought to be undertaken only under the direction of a wise spiritual director. Find someone who is faithful, intelligent, and trustworthy, and do whatever he or she tells you to do.

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