Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus: “Can a man live every day as though it were the first day of his religious life?” Abba Silvanus answered: “If a man is a labourer, he can live every day, nay every hour, as though it were the first day or hour of his religious life.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.29
Everyone knows the cliche, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I’m not sure how old it is, but I think that there are a few desert fathers who would caution us not to roll our eyes at it. Importantly, though, rather than using it to try to offer seemingly baseless hope, Abba Silvanus offers a challenging qualifier: “If a man is a labourer….” Indeed, the very fact that Abba Moses questions the possibility of actualizing such an idea indicates that the desert fathers took it on a much deeper level.
First of all, for them it is not merely the “first day of the rest of your life” but “the first day of [your] religious life.” This likely carried the connotation of monastic life, but for our purposes it can be taken more generally as “your habit of spiritual discipline.” In fact, just like Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty, I suspect that they would be quick to point out that the modern cliche is only true on every day except for one—the day you die:
When archbishop Theophilus of holy memory was dying, he said: “Abba Arsenius, you are a man blessed of God, because you have always kept this moment before your eyes. (3.5)
In attempt to synthesize these two sayings, we might say that the first step to living each day (even every hour) as the first of your “religious life” is to quit worrying so much about “the rest of your life.” Perhaps this is not quite what Abbas Moses and Silvanus meant, but it certainly would require that “a man [or woman] be a labourer.” Living in reality is hard work. I say this because death is one of the only future events we can ever be confident of, barring the return of Jesus Christ, “who will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.” This latter event is (or ought to be) far more terrifying still. Not only are our worldly lives going to come to an end (to be, thank God, resurrected at a later date), but everyone must give an account for every wasted moment, for every breath that we breathed not remembering that it could be our last.
Isn’t it bizarre that we are so prone to forget this undeniable fact of reality, death? If this is not evidence of the dominance of the fear of death over our lives (apart from Christ), it is, at the very least, blatantly irrational and epidemically widespread. Oddly, in failing to remember our certain ends, we fail to truly make new beginnings. But if we keep that day ever on our minds and live in that reality, or more accurately, if we simply live in reality, every day, every hour, we are reoriented toward what truly matters, what remains unshaken though all else may pass away: virtue and veritas, the kingdom of heaven and the source of true peace and joy.