In about 385 A.D. a young monastic, St John Cassian, travelled with a friend from a monastery in Bethlehem into the Egyptian deserts. He was intending to visit the Desert Fathers and learn from them about the spiritual life. The conversations he recorded with these spiritual giants have been preserved to us and we can read them in English. (The Conferences. John Cassian). In one of these conversations he asked Abba Moses what the aim of the spiritual life should be. This Abba Moses had been a bandit, and was suspected of murder. There could hardly be anyone with a worst background, and yet he became not only a monk, but a great leader of many disciples. He experienced himself the transformation which comes about in those who seek God with all their heart.
What is important for us, in this early stage of our thinking about Discipleship, is that he told young John Cassian and his friend Germanus, that what was essential was to have a mark, a target. He used the example of someone firing arrows. How could you know if you were any good if you did not have a target or some way to measure your achievement. Imagine firing an arrow in the dark. You would perhaps know that at least the arrow had left the bow. But perhaps it was just a few metres away, lying on the floor? Maybe you had put a lot of effort in, but it was a long way to the left or the right of where you had intended. Without a target it would be impossible to know how you were doing, and whether or not you were improving.
We could apply the same idea to learning a musical instrument such as the piano. I could decide that I didn’t need a teacher, and that I would just sit at the keyboard and music would come out. How would I know? How could I measure myself against the performance of the best? Or even worse, what if I just listened to other people playing the piano, and watched a few videos of their hands moving over the keys. What if I never actually out myself to the test? How could I know if had any musical ability? Or if my teacher asked me to practice but I avoided ever seeing her, and assumed that my own opinion about how I was doing was enoug? How could I know if I had learned the lessons correctly.
This is directly applicable to the way of Discipleship. It would be easy to imagine that reading a few books, perhaps praying a little more than we used to, meant that we were making great progress. But in fact it is possible to do both of these, and many other things, and not to have made any progress at all. We need some measure, some target, to help us see that what we are doing is working.
Now we could try to come up with a measure or target of our own. Are we doing more spiritual things? That is a useful thing to keep track of, but it is not the same as making progress in becoming spiritual, in becoming a Disciple. The Pharisees in the time of Jesus did a great many religious things, even spiritual things, but they were far from God. We could ask ourselves, am I having more feelings towards God, and more experiences of something else? That is also a useful thing to keep track of perhaps. But there are lots of reasons why we have feelings that are unrelated to the spiritual life, and there are times in the spiritual life in which we are making progress but have no wonderful feelings.
In fact Abba Moses tells us that the target we are to be aiming at. This is what he says,
This then should be our main effort: and this steadfast purpose of heart we should constantly aspire after; namely that the soul may ever unite itself to God and to heavenly things. Whatever is foreign to this, however great it may be, should be given the second place, or even treated as of no consequence, or perhaps even as harmful… Whatever then can help to guide us to this goal of purity of heart, we must follow with all our might, but whatever hinders us from it, we must shun as a dangerous and hurtful thing.
This is the target we need to be aiming for, right from the beginning of our journey. There are many things we need to do in the path of Discipleship, but the measure of our progress is not in how many things we do, but in the degree to which we have gained purity of heart. This purity of heart has two aspects. In the first place it does mean that we are to increasingly overcome the power of sin in our lives. We are two wrestle with sinful habits, with self-indulgence and self-satisfaction in the strength that God gives us. But it also means that we are to find in an increasing measure that we are putting God first, and are learning to remove those things in our lives which are obstacles to our knowing him.
There is certainly a need for effort and activity, and this will be described and encouraged throughout this course. But the meaure of our progress is always to be found in what difference it makes to our life, our thoughts and attitudes, our desires and ambitions, and whether we are learning to put God first in everything.
Scripture – Matthew 4
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry afterward. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth.’” 5 Then the devil took him into the holy city. He set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again, it is written, ‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to an exceedingly high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said to him, “I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and served him. 12 Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, towards the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 the people who sat in darkness saw a great light; to those who sat in the region and shadow of death, to them light has dawned.” 17 From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” 18 Walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers: Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” 20 They immediately left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them. 22 They immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness amongst the people. 24 The report about him went out into all Syria. They brought to him all who were sick, afflicted with various diseases and torments, possessed with demons, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them. 25 Great multitudes from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan followed him.
From the Fathers
Hilary of Poitiers (310-376 A.D.)
He had enticed Adam and by deceiving him led him to death. But it was fitting, because of his wickedness and evil deed, that he be defeated by that same humanity in whose death and misfortunes he gloried. It was the devil who envied God’s gifts to humanity before the temptation of Adam, who was now unable to understand God’s being present in a human being. The Lord was therefore tempted immediately after being baptized. His temptation indicates how sinister are the devil’s attempts especially against those who have been sanctified, for he eagerly desires victory over the saints.
Jesus did not hunger for human food but for human salvation. It was after forty days and not during forty days that he hungered. Moses and Elijah were not hungry during the same period of fasting. Therefore, when the Lord hungered, the work of abstinence did not creep up on him. His strength was not depleted by his forty days of fasting. He did not abandon his nature as a man. The devil was not to be defeated by God but by the flesh, which he surely would not have dared to tempt, except in those things which he recognized were proper human needs because of the pangs of hunger.
[The Fathers of the Church often point out that just as it was a man, Adam, who had been deceived by Satan, so it was necessary and proper that a man should restore mankind. But there was no-one who was able to both live a perfect and sinless life, and have such a quality of being human that his life could bring about change and restoration for all. It was because of this that God the Word himself was sent by the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit to truly become man and deal once and for all with the problem that Adam had created. He became truly man, while remaining God, and it was as a real man that he faced temptation by Satan. Where Adam had failed, he was victorious on our behalf, giving us the opportunity to overcome temptation in union with him.]
The last phrase of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer says, hallowed by your name. We pray, Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Just as with the previous phrase, there are two aspects to this idea. In the first place we are saying something about God himself. He is holy. But the holiness of God is not the same as the holiness of man.
The holiness of God cannot be increased by our prayers. He is altogether perfect in every virtue, and entirely pure and unconfused in all his actions. He is completely himself in every aspect of his being. He cannot become more holy because he is already everything that he can be. To be holy means, in a human sense, to be set apart for God, to be consecrated to God, to belong to God. Everything about God is already God, and he cannot be more himself in any way than he already is. So we are making a statement about God when we pray, hallowed be your name. We are saying what he, our heavenly Father, is already like.
This means that in the most important sense we are praying that God will give us what we need to become like him. It means that we are praying that we will have an increased sense of what God is like, and that we will consecrate ourselves more and more to seeking and experiencing his life. We mean to pray, hallowed be your name in us! Whatever we may think of ourselves, and however much we are struggling with weakness and faults of many kinds, we need to have an increased sense of both the absolute otherness and purity of God, and the undeserved desire of God that we become like him, as far as this is possible for created beings.
When we pray this phrase we should not have in mind some theoretical holiness. It is in the ordinary activity of our heart and mind that we are to become holy so that the name of God is hallowed. This much begin today with a careful reflection on our thoughts, words and behaviour so that step by step we challenge all that clouds our heart and prevents the light and love transforming us.
1. Continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer with attention and warmth in the morning and evening. Perhaps it seems this is not very much, but we begin with building small habits that establish a structure in our life.
2. Read the Gospel again, prayerfully and carefully. Write down what comes to mind and comes alive by the grace of God when you read.
3. Do not forget to pray for those on your list of intercessions. This is an important aspect of the Orthodox life and begins to teach us that the path of Discipleship is not only for ourselves but requires service of others.
4. Reflect on your daily behaviour. What is one thing that does not lead to hallowing of the name of God? What change can you make to your life so that you remove this obstacle to Discipleship? Try to act on this now, asking God’s help. We will be reflecting later on whether this was an easy process.