My latest Seasons of the Soul column at Patheos:
Amma Syncletica said, “In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (and it is said: “Our God is a consuming fire” Heb. 12.24): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.” (Syncletica 1)
-excerpted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translation by Benedicta Ward
Often we set out on the contemplative path with great hopes for inner peace. But we soon discover that quieting ourselves down to really listen to the voices within can be overwhelming or unnerving. We may begin to think that we are better off humming along life's surface, or that we have "monkey-mind" and sitting in silence just seems to make things worse. We feel frustrated, dismayed perhaps. We start to lose focus in our practice.
Certainly those who practice contemplative ways of living over time experience a greater sense of equanimity. However, the pathway to the heart of deep peace is through challenging terrain – our own inner worlds. In the silence we are invited to become intimate with all of our shortcomings, all of our judgments about self and others, all of the desires we have for things or comforts which seem to lead away from God.
Amma Syncletica counsels courage and hard work in this "battle." I have trouble with the metaphor of "battle" for the spiritual life which the desert elders often use. I resist that kind of violent imagery. And yet, in Benedictine scholar and monk Michael Casey's book on humility, he writes that “a much more creative way of dealing with difficult texts is to take our negative reaction as an indication that there may be an issue beneath the surface with which we must deal." When I experience resistance to what I am reading, I need to pay attention to what is being stirred within me.