Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Discipline of Indifference

the desert outside my retreat house
-living at the edge-

Living in the desert, every day I think about the 4th-century early Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers.  They are my spiritual ancestors. They are my teachers and my guides. 

These early Christian monastics had moved out into the desert in order to live at the margins of society and at the periphery of the institutional church, and their life "at the edge" helped them to practice the "discipline of indifference."  In fact, the practice of "indifference" was a source of great freedom for them, allowing them to be totally committed to living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. 

Now, at first,  the idea of someone living a life of "indifference" sounds rather contrary to the teachings of Jesus. After all, Jesus cared deeply about others; he loved others without restraint. He took on their burdens, participated in their sufferings, healed them of their infirmities - this doesn't seem very "indifferent." 

But for desert monastics, when they practiced indifference, it didn't mean that they withdrew into themselves and lived at "arms length" from others.  Rather, they practiced indifference by paying attention to what was important and being unfazed by and indifferent to what was unimportant. 

Living "at the edge" of the established institutional church,  they were indifferent to all the trappings of the institution - no lavish buildings, no involved rituals, no levels of hierarchy among them establishing who was more important than the other. None of them were bishops and most were not ordained.  None of that really mattered; they were indifferent to it all.

Living at the edge of the dominant culture of the day, they likewise were indifferent to the dominant social values of wealth, power and prestige. They lived together in mountain caves and their lives were simple.  They worked hard, prayed hard, and devoted themselves to building up the common good. 

They paid attention to the gospel and believed in the dignity and worth of every human being, and so they were indifferent to the glib praise heaped on them by others.  People from the cities and churches  would often come among them for spiritual advice. They were considered to be holy men and women. But when visitors would come among them, they refused to be held in high esteem, and shunned being thought of as better or holier than others because of their committed life to the Gospel of Christ.

There is a humorous story about Abba Moses (a well-known and deeply respected leader of one of the desert communities):

A magistrate from the city came into the desert looking for Abba Moses, asking the first person he met where he could find this deeply devout human being. The man told him, "Don't waste your time, Abba Moses is a heretic and a fraud. He's not any of the things people say that he is." The magistrate marched back into the city eager to despoil the reputation of the alleged holy man.

Someone asked him if by any chance the person he spoke with in the desert happened to be a tall black man. "Well, yes he was," answered the magistrate, who was then told, "that was Abba Moses you were speaking with. You met the saint at his best." 

As I live into my later years, I wish that what I know now could have been known to me in the earlier part of my life. I wish I could have understood something about paying attention to what is important and being indifferent to what really doesn't matter.

In my younger days, had I been able to be "indifferent," I would have suffered much less. 

But that was then, and this is now.  I live in the desert. I'm living "at the edge, and doing my best to practice the "discipline of indifference."   It truly is a freeing experience.

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