The early Celtic Christians were very fond of the wisdom of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. They integrated the lifestyle, teachings, and imagery of these Egyptian ascetics into their own way of life. Perhaps it was the common indigenous mindset shared by both these groups who had not been as thoroughly influenced by the Roman empire as others which attracted the Celts to their ways.
The wisdom of the desert came to the Celtic people primarily through the teachings of John Cassian. Cassian had lived in the desert with the abbas and recorded their teachings in two volumes titled Institutes and Conferences. Cassian’s teaching and way of life is perhaps the foundation of all western monasticism. Benedict, for instance, in his rule, said that what he taught was a simplified version of what Cassian taught and that an experienced monk following his rule should turn to Cassian to learn the full truth of the monastic life.
So, Cassian’s influence was not only on the Celts, but his influence on the Celts was profound nonetheless. This is partially because Celtic Christianity was primarily a monastic Christianity rather than one based on bishops and their respective diocese. Either way, the teachings of the desert and of Cassian in particular were of great importance. In this article I want to look very briefly at the concept of contraries which became the foundation of the work of the anamcaras.
The idea of contraries is that each vice which affects a person’s soul can be corrected by a corresponding virtue. For instance, shame is something which is a detriment to the soul but humility is its contrary and is a beautiful thing. In another article, How Our Hearts Are Works of Art, I discuss the way that courage is the contrary of anger. In the desert system there are eight vices which flow one to another and which Cassian describes in much more detail than we can go into here. The vices, in their correct order, are:
- Gluttony (insatiable desire for food and drink – what we might call addiction today)
- Fornication (sexual immorality and obsession)
- Avarice (greed specifically for money and material wealth)
- Anger (violence, accusation, and dissatisfaction)
- Sadness (a sense of loss and meaninglessness – what we might call depression today)
- Acedia (apathy and boredom about life which can lead to restlessness and anxiety)
- Vainglory (the need for praise and recognition)
- Pride (stubbornness and a sense of superiority, an inability to admit you’re wrong)
Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert point out in their book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective that this ancient Christian system of understanding vices and virtues, which was passed from Evagrius to Cassian, has a great deal in common with the modern enneagram. While there are also some important differences I do believe that the enneagram serves the same purpose and can be used to the same effect. Click HERE for a great series of free talks on the enneagram from Richard Rohr.
It is wise advice for anyone who wishes to go deeply into the work of contemplation to first undergo a process of self examination. By identifying the vices which we struggle with and remedying them with their contrary virtues, we create within ourselves a sacred space in which to encounter God. Without doing this work first we easily deceive ourselves into thinking that we are virtuous when really we are living unconsciously from our hidden traumas, triggers, and baggage.
The Irish anamcaras knew this truth well and applied it to their practice of spiritual direction for both monks and common people. It is the basis for the Irish penitentials which applied to all members of society. The way these penitentials worked was based on the essential Celtic teaching that humans are good by nature but suffer from the illness of sin and vice. Various spiritual practices were applied to each vice to heal the person of the illness which caused the crime. It was a system of restorative justice rather than punishment.
Columbanus, one of the great anamcaras, taught this medical approach to spiritual direction. The idea being that an anamcara was a kind of spiritual doctor helping to restore the health of the soul. Just as doctors do not prescribe the same medicine for every illness, so should spiritual directors not prescribe the same practices for every person. A wise anamcara will be able to see the unique combination of vice which each person experiences and prescribe for them practices which instill the contrary virtues. Here’s a little quote from Columbanus about that:
“For the doctors of the body also compound their medicines in diverse kinds…So also should spiritual doctors treat with diverse kinds of cures the wounds of souls.”
The anamcaras helped heal common people and even acted in a quasi-legal manner to restore health to communities, as well as individuals, affected by vices and the outward consequences which flowed from them like violence, theft, and other crimes. But this system was also used in the monastic rules and their way of life for those who had taken upon themselves a greater commitment to living the gospel. Here is a quote from the rule of Comghall which very clearly shows this:
“Eight shameful vices can destroy the soul of any person, but I know of eight virtues that can destroy these vices. Here is a virtue that brings with it much comfort, namely that you exercise patience over every desire of your heart.”
Patience was one of the most important virtues to the Irish monks. It was believed that patience and perseverance, when paired with love and humility, were the signs of true holiness. All the virtues, however, must be present in our hearts if we are to truly be free of the illness of sin. The reason this virtue is named in particular is because it is the contrary of the first three vices: gluttony, fornication, and avarice. These vices are about desires which become distorted and thus dangerous. Through practices like fasting one is able to develop patience for these desires and then to express them in a healthy way.
I would like to share with you a little nugget of wisdom from Cassian’s Institutes about how we can learn from the honey bee how to best acquire virtue. The idea behind this teaching is that as we live in spiritual community (whether your community is in a monastery, a local church, or online) the wise spiritual seeker learns different virtues from different people.
The Blessed St Antony (a Desert Father who Cassian quotes) taught that when one is seeking to live a holy life in community they must not try to learn all the virtues from one single person. Each of us has a different flower of virtue which blossoms from our soul. He also taught that each of us is like a bee who is storing up spiritual honey in the honeycomb which is our heart. Therefore, we should learn from the bee who does not collect her nectar from only one flower but rather bounces around the garden taking a little bit from each blossom and collecting a beautiful honeycomb full of sweetness and sustenance. Here’s a quote:
“The monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it more intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate.”
I love the image of a spiritual community as a flower garden and I love the image of our virtues being beautiful and nourishing blossoms which others can learn from and be supported by. I also love the humility that comes with realising that not every virtue is perfected in every person. In this way we can forgive those who struggle with addiction while still learning from their ability to share and be generous. Or we can forgive someone for always wanting to be in the spotlight while also learning from their great ability to make others feel loved and appreciated.
If we are only willing to learn from people who perfectly embody every virtue then we are likely to not be able to find any person to learn from at all. We may also start to assume that a person is perfect simply because we see one of their virtues flowering beautifully in the sunlight and be blindsided when we are confronted by the vices they have yet to overcome.
So be like a bee, dear sisters and brothers, and store up in your heart a wealth of sweetness and sustenance gathered lovingly from those around you. And if you find yourself struggling with one particular vice, look for someone who embodies its contrary. Overcome your own addictions by spending time with someone who has good self control. Overcome your anger by spending time with someone who is forgiving. Overcome your sadness by spending time with someone who is full of hope. And perhaps one day someone will come to you looking for wisdom which you can share.
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