Traditional & Charismatic Prayer: Lessons from the Desert Fathers
In the build up to Pentecost a few years ago, I engaged in an ongoing dialogue about the Holy Spirit with one of my friends. While attending Steubenville University, she often prayed in tongues and even sometimes knocked people over when laying hands on them (a good thing, she assured me). More of a traditionalist myself, I have never ‘spoken in tongues’ and find this practice challenging. While I believe that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit, I struggle with the disjoint between Acts 2:1-13 and what occurs when modern Christians are ‘slain in the spirit’. Nonetheless, despite the intellectual hurdles within my own mind, I can see that her prayer life has led her to a deeper love of God. While our prayer lives are very different, we are truly brother and sister in the mystical Body of Christ.
Unfortunately, the Church often divides over preferences in worship. Rather than being viewed as descriptions, terms such as charismatic and traditional are sometimes falsely polemicized as paths to either spiritual edification or depravity. The real concern ought not to be a person’s preference in prayer, but their commitment to truth. A Catholic must always be both faithful to the magisterium and to themselves. Within the Roman Catholic Church there are many roads which lead to the new Jerusalem and, as one of my spiritual directors once told me, the greatest saints are those that are most uniquely themselves.
The desert fathers were particularly aware that each person’s path to sanctity is unique. Each sought to commit himself completely to the particular devotions and practices which God placed within his heart while non-judgmentally respecting the devotions and practices of others. Abba John was ascribed as saying “that the saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in them all.” (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers” at p. 95)
An exceptional example of different paths leading to holiness is evident in the lives of Abbas Moses and Arsenius:
A youth who wished to devote himself to the ascetic life, begged an anchorite of the desert of [Scetis] to conduct him to one of the most holy fathers that he might receive advice and instruction from him. The anchorite took him to Arsenius. He was sitting in his cell weaving a mat, and was so immersed in contemplation that he did not observe their entrance, and did not greet them or say a single syllable to them. After some time they went away as silently as they had sat there, and the anchorite took the youth to Moses. He received them so lovingly, spoke of the youth’s intention with such fatherly benevolence, and showed him such hearty sympathy, that he said to his companion after they had taken leave, “Oh, how much holier and better the former robber is than the former courtier.” This saying reached the ancient fathers, and one of them, who was extremely holy, and who had a high opinion of Arsenius, begged God to enlighten him upon the interior state of these two men.” The one, Lord, avoids for Thy Name’s sake all intercourse with men, whilst the other, for the same reason, is kind to them. Which of the two is in the right?” And he fell into ecstasy, and saw two boats floating on one stream. Arsenius sat in one, peaceful and still, and the Holy Ghost hovered above his head. Moses was in the other, and angels travelled with him and were dropping honey upon his lips. Then the father understood that both these holy men, although outwardly different, lived in perfect love, which guided all their actions and made them pleasing to God. (“The Fathers of the Desert”, free online)
Our path to sanctity is a journey of relationship. God speaks to us personally, directing each of His words to our individual lives and experiences. The messages we receive are unique, and we must respond to Jesus in a way which is distinctly our own. In our prayers, our devotions, our vocations, we must be uniquely ourselves while never straying from the narrow path which God has set before us through His Church and His promptings. As Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded, “I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”