Listen to this story:
Love, generosity, power, and freedom are all excellent words to describe the life and witness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers — especially freedom. Indeed, their inner freedom is so profound that it is at times shocking. But it is foundational to their way of life. We won’t understand them — or the life that we also have been called to — until we come to grips with that freedom and its source.
Here’s a humorous story that illustrates their freedom well:
It was said of Abba Agathon that he spent a long time building a cell with his disciples. When it was finished, they came to live there. Seeing something during the first week which seemed to him harmful, he said to his disciples, “Get up, let us leave this place.”
But they replied, “If you had already decided to move, why have we taken so much trouble building the cell? People will say, ‘Look at them, moving again; what unstable people!’” He saw they were held back by timidity and so he said to them, “If some are scandalized, others, on the contrary, will be edified and say, ‘How blessed are they who go away for God’s sake, having no other care.’ However, let him who wants to come, come; as for me, I am going.” Then they prostrated themselves to the ground and besought him to allow them to go with him.1
Agathon was one of the luminaries of the desert — colorful, magnetic, and often surprising. This story captures his essence. Put yourself in the scenario: You’ve spent a year or so building your dream house, only to abandon it upon the first sight of something displeasing or harmful. You’d either be mad (which is what Agathon’s disciples worried people would say: “Look at them . . . what unstable people!”), or you’d be that free. Agathon insists that it is not instability but depth of perception and spiritual freedom that are driving his decision. Because he is not a slave to anything — not to his possessions, not to a place, not to his reputation, not to what anyone would think of him — Agathon is free to respond immediately to the voice of the Spirit in his inner being. He is so free even from the need to have disciples that he places no pressure on them to follow him — he simply makes up his mind to obey God, and then he obeys. If they come, they come. If they don’t, they don’t. And he blesses them either way. (More leaders need to learn from his example.)
What is more, Agathon is so free that the entire experience doesn’t even seem dramatic to him. He doesn’t labor or agonize over the decision, as many of us would (I know I would). Faced with a sense that I was supposed to give my house away in an act of sacrificial obedience, I would surely travail over it in fasting and prayer, seeking counsel with friends and spiritual advisors for days and weeks and maybe months, just to be sure: Are you really calling me to this, Lord? (There is a place for this, by the way.)
Not Agathon. He simply sees the good to be done, the obedience to be offered, no matter the cost, and he does it. Just like that.
The freedom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers goes all the way down to their depths and runs straight across the recorded tradition of their lives and sayings. It defines their whole manner of life. What a way to live. Entirely free from all the passions of the body, sustained on the hope of good things to come, firm in the strength of faith. Can you imagine what it would be like to live with that kind of inner liberty?
It was what they fought and labored for. They were free from possessions. Free from the need to judge others. Free from the need to speak their minds. Free from the desire for power. Free from the desire to be honored by others. Free from their own reputations.
Their flexibility in adapting themselves to the will of God, however it presented itself, is astonishing. So while they sought solitude, they received visitors in submission to the will of God as though they were receiving Christ. And while they were diligent in ordering their lives around rhythms of prayer and fasting, when those rhythms were interrupted by the demands of community life, they willingly entered those demands. And while they never, ever, actively sought positions of leadership, whenever it became clear that they were being genuinely called upon to lead others (through many objections, normally), they forsook their solitude and entered the call of God in obedience to Christ. That free.
What makes it possible for us?
Would you like to read more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers? Start reading Streams In the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers & Mothers.
Andrew Arndt is the lead pastor of New Life East, one of seven congregations of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Prior to joining New Life’s team, he served as the lead pastor of Bloom Church, a network of house churches in Denver. He is the host of the Essential Church podcast, a weekly conversation designed to strengthen the thinking of church and ministry leaders. Andrew received his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is currently working on his DMin with Western Theological Seminary. He has written for Missio Alliance, Patheos, The Other Journal, and Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Streams in the Wasteland and All Flame. Andrew lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Mandi, and their four kids.
Taken from Streams In the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers & Mothers by Andrew Arndt © 2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.