The Desert Fathers and Mothers were hermits who lived mainly in the Egyptian desert beginning around the third century AD. The most well known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in 270–271. By the time he died in 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following his example – his biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote that "the desert had become a city. The Desert Fathers had a major influence on the development of Christianity.
The desert dwellers used the image of a muddy pond or dirty mirror to describe a mind cluttered by distraction. They believed that what we cling to says a lot about the state of our souls. Their beliefs were rooted in Jesus’ injunctions to stay focused on the one true thing – the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field.
Scrub a Dirty Corner
A Desert Elder was once asked how the soul acquires humility. He answered, "When it thinks about its own vices."
Reading: Luke 7:3-7
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
We like our house to be neat and tidy. Our dishes get washed, bills paid and filed and socks put away. Apart, that is from the back of our fridge where out of date jars may lurk for a disturbingly long time after their use by date. The back of our fridge is definitely an "out of sight, out of mind" zone.
The act of physically scrubbing out a dirty corner, especially one that is hidden, can be a helpful reminder of our preference for life on the shining surface. And the humility required to get down in the muck this way, taking on an onerous job the results of which few will ever notice, helps point us in a new direction, toward life in the light of the Spirit.
But none of this is easy. Confession is all about exposing the most hidden, shameful aspects of ones life. The desert dwellers developed a practice of confessing to a spiritual elder. Elders were people who had been transformed, who could see beyond surface appearance, and who could "read" hearts with discernment. Would-be monks were advised to "become, brother, like the camel. Bearing your imperfections, let your spiritual guide, who knows the way better than you, direct you on the path to God."
Psalm 19.12 recognises our difficulties in dealing with concealed sin, which we can easily ignore for so long we lose awareness of its presence:
"But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults."
The great blessing of genuine confession is that God, in his infinite merciful love, will forgive us and make us clean.
I’m going to try and clean some neglected corner of our home and then not to point it out.
Give me, Lord, the gift of discernment to see my hidden sin, and then the gift of forgiveness for it.