Occasionally we hear something attributed to "the desert fathers." I didn't quite know who these
desert fathers were so I looked it up and perhaps you'd like to know what I found. At the time when St. Pachomius (292-346) and St. Anthony (ca. 251-356; he is thought to have lived 105 years) lived, there were thousands of monks in Egypt and Palestine whose names we do not know because this information was never recorded. But we do have certain writings, proverbial tales and stories from that time. These sayings were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth and at some point they were committed to paper.
A number of people, fairly recently, have translated these writings into English. The desert fathers and mothers were sometimes somewhat radical but a great deal of
wisdom has come from them. I found some of these proverbial writings quoted in a book I read while I was in the monastery, "Essential Monastic Wisdom" by Hugh Feiss, O.S.B., 1999, Harper
SanFrancisco. I would like to quote just one of these: "If you are at your manual labor in your room and it comes time to pray, do not say: 'I will use up my supply of branches or finish weaving the
little basket, and then I will rise,' but
rise immediately and render to God the prayer that is owed him. Otherwise, little by little you come to neglect your prayer and your duty habitually, and your soul will become a wasteland devoid of every spiritual and bodily work. For right at the beginning your will is apparent." (ibid, p. 40)
This situation happens all the time in a monastery. A monk is working and then it is time to pray. Looks like these desert fathers foresaw that situation. There is a
real possibility of work extending into prayertime in religious life. It's not a healthy habit. What would your employer have to say when you extended your lunch
period habitually into his
work hours? What would your spouse say when there is never any food on the table when he/she returns from work? What would God say if I'm constantly late for prayer? Consistent lateness isn't good in any phase of society whether it be in the office, at home or at a prayer service. Habitually coming late for Sunday (and even, weekday) Holy Mass is not so good either. What are you telling Jesus? Are you telling Him that "doing your thing" (whatever that may be) is more important? If you have invited business consultants or very good friends you don't see often, for dinner, you'd be sure
to be on time. But Jesus is the ultimate Guest—so before your spiritual life is negatively affected you should strive to be in Church on time. There is no question that if you come late once in a great while it would be OK but I know people who arrive just before the Gospel is read every time, and sometimes during the homily. Then there are also people who try to leave immediately after Holy Communion. They claim that they need to go to beat the traffic out of the Church parking lot. But why? Is anything we do more important than time with Jesus? Seems to me the desert fathers knew
what they were talking about.
I was reminded of this just the other day. I was watching a movie on television. As movies go, these days, it was a pretty bad movie, but it passed the time. I knew I had not prayed Evening Prayer yet, and soon I would be half asleep... but I said, well, the movie is almost over, I’ll just see it to the end. That’s not a healthy practice for a Franciscan or anyone who loves Jesus. I did fall asleep (with the TV on) and woke up around 3AM, and then I was, of course, too tired for Evening Prayer. So I skipped it.
Let’s try to put Jesus first, as the Desert Fathers did.
Fred S. Schaeffer, OFS
February 18, 2014
(First written in May 2006, Canticle; re-edited 2014)