11 April 2019
One of the most revered Desert Mothers was St. Mary of Egypt. She is depicted in this painting from the 16th century.
(image: Wikimedia/by Jacopo Tintoretto/Scuola Grande di San Rocco)
For more than 90 years, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has worked to be a beacon of hope — beginning in the Near East, then spreading to Africa, Central Europe and India. Through the generosity and commitment of its donors, CNEWA has brought help and hope to countless Christians and non-Christians in the world who otherwise would have had neither hope nor future.
Ninety years is a long time and the world has changed a great deal in that time. There have been two world wars, countries and even empires have come and gone; ideologies have sprung up, flourished and been replaced by new ideologies.
And yet so often things seem depressingly the same. The poor and innocent remain victims of war and oppression. The geography and the actors may change but it seems that the script remains relatively constant: war, refugees, famine, and migration. For nearly a century, CNEWA has struggled to deal with these almost intractable issues.
Charitable organizations such as CNEWA, whose work is dependent of the generosity of donors, often speak of “donor fatigue.” Donor fatigue is a very real thing. Even the most committed and generous donors can be excused if they wonder if their generosity is making a difference. The problems of the world can be overwhelming. Do their gifts make the world a better, safer, more just place? The questions are real and they are valid.
In thinking about these questions, I found some answers in an unexpected place: the desert.
As many know, CNEWA works with the Eastern churches--both Catholic and Orthodox. These churches date back to the time of the apostles and have rich traditions which are often unknown to Christians in the West. For example, Christians in the West are familiar with monasticism but almost exclusively in its western (Benedictine) form. They are unaware of a much older monastic tradition that existed centuries before St. Benedict in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Holy people went into the desert to live a life of prayer and penance as hermits. They often attracted followers and disciples and wrote treatises on the spiritual life. A body of literature exists consisting of the writings of these “Desert Fathers.” More recently and very happily, research has uncovered a tradition of the “Desert Mothers” as well — women who lived as hermits, had disciples and left behind “sayings” and writings.
In their aphorisms and writings, the Desert Fathers and Mothers spoke extensively of the spiritual life — the things which promoted it and things which damaged it. They wrote of virtues and vices and were the predecessors of the great medieval theologians. Many of the Desert Fathers and Mothers contributed to the development of the notion of the ”seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, anger and envy.
However, these men and women also wrote about what they called acedia. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers acedia was the most frightening vice of all. Acedia was the root of all vice and the opposite of all virtues. The word acedia means “not to care.” It is the state in which nothing matters. It lacks the violence of anger, the obnoxiousness of pride and envy, the prurience of lust. Nor does it evoke the guilt those vices do. Acedia, in fact, evokes nothing but indifference.
Acedia is the deep feeling that one can no longer make a difference. There is neither joy in doing good, nor guilt at doing nothing. But as time has gone on, one almost never hears of acedia any more. It is often weakly translated as “sloth.” That is, I suspect, a loss.
Faced with a world of overwhelming—and seemingly insoluble—problems, it is understandable that we get tempted to shut down. It is human to think, “I just cannot afford to care.”
It is precisely here that CNEWA takes up the ancient challenge of those holy Desert Mothers and Fathers. CNEWA reminds us that caring, hoping and believing—sometimes against the odds—matters.
At bottom, this is our call as Christians.
Believing that we can and do make a real difference is at the center of what it means to be followers of Jesus — and, by extension, distant descendents of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.