The Desert and the Struggle in a Flat Land


Originally posted in August of 2007 as part of the One-Storey Universe Series

One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

 The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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16 responses to “The Desert and the Struggle in a Flat Land”

  1. Reflection : Alone in the desert…

    I posted back in December about taking an extended backpacking trip out to Big Bend and it was a spectacular time, but it has taken me a bit longer to reflect on the spiritual side of that journey and share it with you. It is often very difficult to f…

  2. […] just found on one of my favourite blogs following quote: The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also […]

  3. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    About time that somebody defined Christianity for what it really is: constant, unremitting spiritual warfare. People who seriously think that Christianity is about “peace” are dangerous because they lure other people into the idea that it’s possible to be a Christian without doing battle; they deprive such people of the armor they need to engage this warfare. Thanks, Father.

  4. Meskerem Avatar

    This reminded me of our Priest who once told us this. He was telling his Spiritual Father in Mount Athos how he wishes to go there for his Salvation and leave the worldly life. The Father told him that to not think it is easy to live there. The devil is there and everywhere even in the Monastery. They have nothing there but still there is jealousy of one having a better robe or other little things that always distract them and that he is better off where he is and do GOD’s work.

    It is like you said Father the battle of your Spiritual life remains with our own heart. This Passage from Luke 4 1-13 has it clear that even our LORD was tested while in this world.
    When Jesus returned from the Jordan River, the power of the Holy Spirit was with him, and the Spirit led him into the desert. For forty days Jesus was tested by the devil, and during that time he went without eating. When it was all over, he was hungry.
    The devil said to Jesus, “If you are God’s Son, tell this stone to turn into bread.”
    Jesus answered, “The Scriptures say, ‘No one can live only on food.’”
    Then the devil led Jesus up to a high place and quickly showed him all the nations on earth. The devil said, “I will give all this power and glory to you. It has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. Just worship me, and you can have it all.”
    Jesus answered, “The Scriptures say: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’ ”
    Finally, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on top of the temple. The devil said, “If you are God’s Son, jump off. The Scriptures say: ‘God will tell his angels to take care of you. They will catch you in their arms, and you will not hurt your feet on the stones.’ ”
    Jesus answered, “The Scriptures also say, ‘Don’t try to test the Lord your God!’ ”
    After the devil had finished testing Jesus in every way possible, he left him for a while.

  5. Paul Maurice Martin Avatar

    Of course it’s sheer speculation, but since contemplative prayer appears to be the state in which we come closest to God, it seems plausible to me if not very likely that Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert are an allusion to his own experience in this regard.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Jesus’ life was a constant communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The very definition of sin, ultimately, is to break communion with God.

  7. blackincense Avatar

    Fr. bless,

    I just returned from Vespers and had a good confession. What you have posted here is exactly what my own priest said to me tonight.

    My heart is full of “air” and the spirits of it. What you have written strenthens my weak heart. God bless you.


  8. William Avatar

    Some lines from St. Ephrem the Syrian on Christ’s temptation in the desert and how he won the battle in simplicity and humility, setting an example for all of us:

    Blessed are you, wilderness, in which
    the conqueror of all struggled with the captor of all.
    One is Christ who deprived him of his armor and his treasure
    and snatched his captives and bound and left him.
    O his deceits were exposed and defeated!
    He put on simplicity and conquered and confused him.
    He conquered him with the armor
    forged by Moses for the simple and innocent.

    (Refrain: Glory be to your victory!)

    Blessed is the one who sees that even the Omniscient One
    conquered the crafty one by quotations (of scripture).
    He merely quoted again and again, and the evil one wailed
    to see that He took refuge in simplicity.
    For as a fish is at ease in water,
    so Satan is in the disputation of controversy.
    If there is no controversy, and if strife fails,
    he flickers and is extinguished.

    Blessed is the one who arms the tongue with Your word,
    who quotes from what is Yours to Your adversary.
    Our Lord, let us gaze upon You,
    Who from Moses quoted to the evil one in Your temptation.
    You have questioned, my Lord, and You have also been questioned
    in order to provide a type to the disputants.

    From scripture You quoted to the evil one
    to show how much strength is hidden in it.
    Our pride is not able to put on
    the armor of Your humility.

    The bitter one filled his bow and took his stand
    against Our Lord, the Sweet One.
    Seeing that He had put on a weak body, an infirm nature,
    Satan erred and was deceived about Him.
    The evil one saw His armor and trusted that it was the armor of the vanquished Adam.
    Great is his disgrace that by the very armor by which he conquered
    his pride was defeated.
    The evil one who shot a blunt arrow at You
    became the target for sharp arrows.
    You shot at him the arrow of humility
    and two others of self-possession.
    These were holy arrows, driven
    into his unclean, stopped-up ears.
    Avenged were the corruptions
    of the corruptor of the simple obedience of the household of Adam.

  9. Anna Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen.

    I notice that you refer to St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony as a novel. Are you saying, therefore, that it’s a work of fiction?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not a work of fiction – but placed in something like a novel form. St. Athanasius knew St. Anthony personally and it is on that knowledge that he wrote.

  11. Aaron Haney Avatar

    “Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable”

    Sounds like a great starting place for a marriage seminar. Giving any soon?

  12. Elaina Avatar

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  13. dinoship Avatar

    From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
    “There were three brothers, one ancient story tells us. One of them decided that his mission would be to bring people to reconciliation, the second decided he would visit the sick, while the third went to the desert to live in silence. The first, finding himself constantly between conflicting sides, did not succeed in bringing about peace and therefore was himself in distress. He came to the second and found him also in deep despondency. Together they went to the third brother and asked him whether he had achieved anything in his desert. Instead of an answer, the hermit poured some water into a chalice and invited his brothers to look at it: the water was so turbid that nothing could be seen in it. After a short time the hermit invited his guests to look again: the water settled and became transparent enough for them to see their faces reflected on its surface. The hermit then said: ʻSomeone who lives among the passions and cares of the world will always be perturbed by thoughts, while a hermit contemplates God in stillness”.

  14. Colin Kerr Avatar

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is the image of above?

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a picture of the Monastery of Mar Saba in the desert near Jerusalem.

  16. Colin Kerr Avatar

    thanks, Father. Much obliged. Peace.

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