And this tenant of [St. Antony’s] was also truly wonderful, that neither the way of virtue nor the separation from the world for its sake ought to be measured in terms of time spent, but by the aspirant’s desire and purposefulness.
~ Life of Antony 7
It is easy, I think, to presume that time equals experience. However, as the old man from my previous post put it, age must give way to conduct. The same is true of time. How many composers, I wonder, were utterly humbled by Mozart, composing already at five years old? Nevertheless, St. Antony’s rule is especially helpful. Not only does he not measure the way of virtue or worldly detachment “in terms of time spent,” but he also does not mention accomplishments, either. Rather, he gives a much more comforting standard: “the aspirant’s desire and purposefulness.”
It would be nice to be able to measure spiritual success by how many prayers we say or how many days we fast or how much we give as alms. But none of this really gets at what is most important. Indeed, the condition of the heart always must be held supreme.
What is interesting to me, paradoxical even, is that often it is precisely the desire for and focus upon virtue and worldly detachment that helps us to attain it. By setting our hearts on virtue, focusing our minds on what really matters, we leave little room for passion and vice. This is not to say that discipline is irrelevant, but only that it requires the right heart with the right desires. It is necessary, but not sufficient.
“Set your mind on things above,” writes St. Paul, “not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). For Christians, the ability to do such a thing is grounded in the transformational experience of baptism. “For you died,” he goes on, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Odd as it may sound, through a physical means in which Christ himself is mysteriously present, we who are carnal are transformed; we who were dead are made alive. “I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh,” says the Lord through the prophet Ezekiel, “and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). And again St. Paul writes,
[D]o you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
New life. A new heart. More than anything, this sacramental core of Christianity, the Church through which its members are united to God in Christ (or “hidden with Christ in God,” as St. Paul put it), separates it from all other religions. We have the End, our goal and purpose, in potentia from the beginning. Like a seed planted beneath the ground, it must be watered and weeded, and when the plant grows it must get enough light. But, to quote St. Paul again, “neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Or, as they say, only God can make a tree. If a farmer tills the ground, plants the seed, waters, and weeds, nevertheless “God … gives the increase.” On the other hand, if he does not do any of those things, he ought not to expect a fruit-bearing tree. Grace is primary, but discipline is also essential.
Out of this reality, we find strength to set our “desires and purposefulness,” the true measure of our spiritual life, “upon things above.” Indeed, St. Paul speaks of it as a present, experienced reality: “do you not know…?” he asks; “you died,” he declares, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” He expects that Christians not only believe these things but live them. And he is surprised and perplexed when they manage to forget.
Like St. Antony, I hope that I might measure my discipline not on time spent, nor on any great feat of endurance, however valuable both can be, but rather on a heart that desires the things of God and a mind focused upon “the way of virtue,” so that I might thereby “walk in newness of life.” After all, I have everything I need. To quote the early Christian writer Tertullian, fructus omnis iam in semine est—“the whole fruit is already present in the seed.”