We should keep in mind that there were Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. It is unfortunate that the human society being how it is did not preserve more sayings from these women of desert. So let us treasure the ones we have.
Amma Theodora, the Desert Mother we will hear from today, lived a life of privilege at first. She was a member of the ancient world’s 1% being married to a tribune of the Roman Empire. Such a position provided her wealth, comfort, and power; the very things most humans throughout different times and cultures have striven for. Most would say she had it made. Yet, as her fleeing to the Egyptian desert showed, those things were not enough to satisfy what she truly yearned for. She made a conscious decision to live up to her name, Theodora, by no longer being a taker but becoming a giver. Thus by walking away from wealth and privilege she became ‘God’s gift’ not just to the monks and bishops who consulted her for advice and wisdom, but to us as well. Let us hear what she has to say to us this day.
[Amma Theodora] also said, “It is good to live in peace, for the wise practice of perpetual prayer. It is truly a great thing for a virgin or a monk to live in peace, especially for the younger ones. However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.From The Saying of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG
From my own experience I can say what Theodora says about prayer is true. You know it is good for you. It brings you closer to God who is Love. Yet, once you start to quiet yourself for prayer, all the other things you could be doing; watching television, finishing an assignment for work, even cleaning, come beckoning. You grow confused and end up worrying and not praying.
Theodora probably came to this wisdom through first observing her own difficulties and those of others around her. She notes first accidie, that primal enemy of all those intent on a devout life. The contemporary poet and spiritual writer, Kathleen Norris, writes about her struggles with it in her book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. The troubles that Theodora lists next are often members of accidie‘s gang of demons; faintheartedness, evil thoughts, and feelings of weakness and illness. Accidie has a way of reverting ourselves back to children who are sickened at the thought of having to complete homework on a sunny day. Think Ferris Bueller.
How does one confront such an enemy? In the words of the founder of my monastic congregation, Boniface Wimmer, “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward!” Accidie is addressed through, as Theodora notes, vigilance. We first need to become aware that whenever we begin an activity that will demand of us our attention, and prayer is one such activity, accidie will occur. When we are ready for it then we can say to ourselves, “So there you are, you demon, I see you and you will not win the day over me.”
Next we need to persevere. We are engaged in a struggle that will continue until your mind and soul have gained the strength to concentrate for an extended period of time. Some days will not go well for us, that should be accepted and expected. But, by sticking to it, we will experience days that will provide us with the hope to continue. The point is to keep at it, especially if you do not feel like it. Remember, our feelings are fickle friends.
Finally, we need to remember that we cannot do it on our own, that we are in need of God’s grace to succeed at prayer or any other activity. Will power is good, but never sufficient. Look for God’s grace to manifest itself throughout your day. It will be in the things that happen, the things you read, and in the people you meet. Take it in and trust in it. That will bring the peace needed to confront the accidie and push past it.
To learn more of the Desert Mothers I suggest the following: Desert Daughters, Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition by Rachel Wheeler; and Praying with the Desert Mothers by Mary Forman, OSB.