Chapter 18: The Examples of the Holy Fathers
“Study the worthy examples of the holy Fathers, those illustrious models of true perfection and devotion, and you will conclude that you are doing very little or almost nothing.”
Townes Van Zandt and Them Crooked Vultures play through my friends’ speakers in a colorful apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco, where I relax on the floor after a week of little and irregular sleep. My body and brain are not as tired as they are confused. Because my head seems to be in the best place for writing research papers around 3 am, I forced myself to stay up pretty late (or early) this last week. Now I’m tired all day and awake all night. Rufus Wainwright is now singing Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece. I will be house sitting (or apartment sitting) in the city for a few weeks while my friend spends his holidays in Idaho in order to enjoy their famous potatoes. I’m about a block away from Grace Cathedral, where my car got towed a few days ago (see Advent with A Kempis XI). Now Nick Cave is singing about San Francisco in “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!”
When I reflect on the ascetic practices of the holy Fathers, my self-discipline certainly pales in comparison, even though I feel like I really buffeted my body these last few days. Yet instead of making me feel like my efforts are pathetic attempts to be an ascetic, I feel inspired by the “worthy examples of the holy Fathers.” When I stay up until 4:30 am reading and writing about Julian of Norwich and the Gospel of John, I feel like I’m taking part in a great tradition of Christian self-discipline. The holy Fathers definitely enjoyed sleep, but they enjoyed prayer and study and communion with God even more. So sometimes sleep (and food) would have to take a back seat.
Antony communed with God and battled demons in the dry heat of the Egyptian desert. Julian locked herself in a cell for the rest of her life in order to devote herself more fully to prayer. Ignatius wandered around as a beggar, fasting all day and praying all night. And one of my favorite ascetic saints, Simeon Stylites, spent 37 years, living on top of a pillar! These saints are just scratching the surface of Christian ascetic practice and of course, other faith traditions boast their extreme ascetics as well.
Self-mutilation and flagellation for the sake of Christ are fortunately no longer in vogue, at least in the West. However, we can still see these extremists as sources of hope and encouragement as we sacrifice some of our basic bodily needs and desires for something we consider higher. When I get bored or lonely or both in my room, I think of Antony, Julian, Iggy and Simeon and how they intentionally entered into situations that were lonely and boring in order to confront their demons and encounter their God. I also think of Zen monks who spend hours upon hours, meditating on koans. And I think of the Camaldolese hermits of Big Sur who wake up every morning at 5:30 am to begin their day of prayer with vigils. The asceticism that I have chosen at this season in my life is that of a student. Although it can be overwhelming, depressing, lonely and boring at times, I really do love it. Like Antony, I wrestle with demons of boredom and distraction. Like Julian, I relegate myself to my room to write for hours on end. Like Iggy, I pull all-nighters and often feel like a beggar due to my negative income as a student. Like the Zen monks, I have the opportunity to spend days and weeks and months meditating on the koans I encounter in the Gospels: Why did Jesus weep in response to Mary’s tears? Why did Jesus get angry before raising Lazarus? What did Jesus mean when he said half the things he said?
I don’t feel called to be a monk (at least not yet), but as a student I feel like I’m part of a similar tradition, a tradition of the holy Fathers, whose “true perfection and devotion” compel me to greater discipline and self-sacrifice. Now, in the spirit of Simeon Stylites, I will climb to the top of this building and make the roof my home for the next 37 years.