Fr. Flatley: Perennial problem meets ancient wisdom


The Desert Ammas and Abbas (Mothers and Fathers) were the precursors of what we call Monks today.

These dedicated disciples of Christ fled into the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the Third Century A.D., after Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.

They felt the Gospels were getting watered down too much, too quickly, and they sought a deeper experience.

As the Rule of St. Benedict, which governs the lives of most modern monks says in its first line, “Let them let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”

In our modern world, just as in the ancient desert, women and men are tempted toward sin. Remember, to sin is to move away from grace, and to repent is to turn back.

The ancients had a different understanding of the physical world. They believed thoughts which lead us away from grace were evil spirits lurking in the ether, tempting us toward sin. Maybe they are.

Here, their wisdom and practice can help! Their teachings include fascinating tools and strategies for how we can combat thoughts which are sinful.

These are the kind of thoughts which will take us down paths we do not want to go.

In particular, they engaged a three-fold method for turning away from sinful thoughts, and turning back to God.

The first step is to Guard Your Heart. This means to be on guard, noticing the moment you are beginning to think negative thoughts, and to be willing to drop them immediately.

With enough practice and the desire turn back to God, we can discipline our wills to do this.

Imagine having the grace to drop, or turn away from a sinful thought, the moment it arises.

The second step is to say an Active Prayer, which is to cry out a short ejaculatory plea to God, asking him to help you.

We can say this prayer over and over until it gets sewn into our hearts, and then it will say itself when we need it most.

“Lord, teach me to love others, the way that you love me.”

The third step is to Redirect our Focus our Attention.

Rather than sitting there brooding, or chewing on some dreadful cud, for hours, days or years ... we can do something positive and useful.

I think I’ll go and weed that garden bed I have been meaning to get to.

When we are angry with someone or a situation, or we are feeling challenged, we may be tempted to lash out, or to behave in ways, which we will later regret.

In the midst of such turmoil, we may find ourselves being swept away in a current of negative emotions and temptations, and thrown over an emotional waterfall into a pool of sorrow and remorse.

But this wonderful three-part practice invites the grace of God into the mix, allowing us to put the brakes on all of that.

God’s blessing provides us the time and space to act with grace, instead of reacting in a sinful way.

Once over the waterfall, you may find yourself saying, “Oops! I could have turned to this ancient wisdom and practice instead.”

Let us strive to be open God’s presence and action in the present moment, perhaps most especially in the midst of any stressful situation throughout the day.

Fr. Flatley is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.