1,500-year-old advice

There’s something about the people who’ll go all-in, right?

If a person discovers running, they get the shoes, the tight pants, the water bottle belt, the GPS watch. New vegetarians get all the cookbooks from the library. New homeschoolers follow every homeschooling blog; join every email list. New parents find there aren’t enough magazines, books, clothes, minivans, and snacks in pouches to help “navigate” this new life with a new baby.

After a while, though, most of the novelty wears off: when someone calls me “Mom” who isn’t my child, I weep a little: I want to be called Erin. I quickly grow tired of talking about homeschooling “extras.” I suspect vegetarians find themselves eating spaghetti on Thursday nights just like the rest of us. Half-marathoners eventually find themselves walking a 3-miler on a fair-weather Saturday (trust me).

So what I love about the monks is their attention.

I think that’s why people — maybe moms more, because theirs are the voices I notice in this conversation now in books and articles — are drawn to monastics, who find meaning in, well, everything — however mundane. When moms need someone to tell them they’re doing holy work when it feels like nothing; when they need meaning in a sink of soapy water, or a pot of spaghetti, the monastics answer. “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” That’s 1,500-year-old advice for moms, really. The Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were all-in forever, and I can’t even bring myself to cheerfully prepare dinner seven nights a week. Every time I haul out the spaghetti pot, I lament a little because didn’t I just feed these people three hours ago? What do they want from me?

I am the worst monk.

“It was said about Arsenius that whenever he was doing manual work he kept a cloth at his chest because of the tears that streamed from his eyes.”

“The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks”

I feel that way rocking Louisa before bed sometimes: I see her eyelashes and her chubby cheeks, and I notice her toes poke at the end of her footed pajamas, and I know: I know it’s all so full of meaning, and I miss most of it because I’m thinking I need to mail the rent check, or about scheduling Sunday school volunteers. Be Still is not my natural language.

Yes, I could use a reminder that there’s so much in my mundane that’s holy.

A friend of mine lent me a copy of this book of anecdotes and wisdom from the men and women who quit the city for a cell in the desert, to devote their whole lives to prayer and solitude. I’d always assumed they were older, because, well, I’ve heard them called old wise men and women. But, no, they were often young when they began, and of course grew into it over a lifetime. Yes, that — that it’s a lifetime of growing.

And, of course, their words in this collection has just enough humanity and just enough divinity to make the reader feel compelled or convicted; but I cannot dismiss it all. I can’t, because though I won’t be leaving my three kids, my shelves of books, my health insurance, and my rental house to live in a desert, I often find myself wandering in one anyway, and their practice of staying put — Being still, really still — is rich with meaning for me, a lowly mom.

Where I stray from the monks is in the removal of myself from the world. I don’t feel called to do that (more than a homeschooling mom can say that). Our call said Michigan, not the desert; our call includes more than prayer in silence — it’s praying in silence while making dinner (again). But their stringent examples also remind me what a temptation it is to live here in this culture while also believing This place is not my Rest.

I don’t think I can do this alone — and I’m not, thank God. I interpret this with other people. Alone, I want too much, and culture says “You deserve it.” Alone, I wonder about our savings account, and whether it’s wise to have it when sparrows don’t. Alone, I wonder about those teeth growing in crooked in my first-grader’s mouth; the kids’ empty, ugly, beige bedroom walls. Alone, I wonder about Christmas lists for the girls, and how I’d like a wool pea coat when I have a coat in the closet.

A brother asked a hermit, “Would you like me to keep two shillings for myself, in case I fall ill?” The hermit, seeing that in his heart he wanted to keep them, said, “Yes.” The brother went into his cell, but he was worried, asking himself, “Did he tell me the truth or not?” He got up and went back to the hermit, bowed down and asked him, “For the Lord’s sake tell me the truth, for I am worrying about these two shillings.” The hermit said to him, “I told you to keep them because I saw you intended to do so anyway. But it is not good to have more than the body needs. If you keep the two shillings, you will put your hope in them. If by chance they are lost, then God will no longer be interested in your needs. Let us cast all our care upon the Lord, for He cares for us.”

“The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks”

While I can dismiss the hyperbole of some of their asceticism for our 21st century application, I can’t dismiss their message: being still starts inside.

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