Purity of Heart
by Sister Laura Swan, O.S.B.
(Order of Saint Benedict)
To be Human is to be in a Process of Spiritual Formation. Failure
to recognize the Call, Enticement and Demands of our Spiritual Formation usually leads to Anger,
Confusion, Anguish and Despair,
and continued Alienation from Self. Recognition of our varied Seasons-of-Formation helps us make
sense of where we are at and what is asked of us in this Process of our Sacred-Journey. The Process of
Purification cultivates Humility, Compassion,
Purity of Heart and Apatheia.
Apatheia refers to the quality of an Interior-Spiritual-Journey where the Inner-Struggle against
Inordinate Attachments has ceased. Grounded in profound Interior Freedom,
the Ascetic is free of the strong-pulls of Worldly Desires. Apatheia is a
Mature-Mindfulness, a Grounded-Sensitivity, and a Keen-Attention to one's Inner-World as well as to the world in which one journeyed.
Strong Emotions such as Anger, Fear
or Anxiety did not dominate or control the Ascetic's Inner-World. Strong
Emotions were disciplined to Serve the Inner-Journey rather than Disrupt it.
Apatheia is Purity of Heart. The Desert Ascetics taught
us to let-go intentionally of all that keeps us from the Single-Minded pursuit of God: Feelings and
Thoughts that bind us, Cravings and Addictions that diminish our Sense-of-Worth, and Attachments to Self-Imposed Perfectionism.
Apatheia is nourished by Simplicity grounded in abundance of the Soul.
This Simplicity is in-Balance and Harmony with the Human Community and the Created World. To cultivate Apatheia,
we must be Uncluttered in Mind and Heart, continue to be Watchful
and Vigilant about those "Seeping Boundaries" where we can be
Deceived out-of Simplicity and into Complexity under the Guise of a
Although Solitude was deeply-valued and actively-cultivated, the Desert Ascetic received all
Guests with a deep Spirit of Hospitality.
With the Guest, Christ was received. Hence, one's Fast might be
set-aside to join the Guest in a Light Meal. Silence would be broken for heart-to-heart conversation. The Guest might later be
taught to sit silently in the presence of God while enjoying one another's company.
Desert Ascetics understood that the Journey to a Deep and Mature relationship with God was
made within Oneself. The Arduous Work of stripping-away Illusions and all that keeps us from knowing
God, Gifted the Ascetic with a deep Sense-of-Understanding one's own true Humanity. A Keen Understanding of one's true Humanity -- created fully in the Image-and-Likeness
of God and yet still on the Journey towards Full-Maturity -- made Desert Ascetics deeply
Desert Ascetics faced Suffering with Determination and Courage. They understood that
Suffering was grounded in their Attachments to Attitudes, Thoughts,
Motives, Relationships and Reputation. Suffering was the Avenue towards
Freedom and Detachment, towards Maturity and
Humility. Suffering remained until
"letting go". A deep capacity for Compassion often
Their experience of Compassion brought the Ascetics to a place of Deep Understanding of the
Struggles of others, seeing Themselves in the lives of Others and removing any sense of Distance or
Distinction. Desert Ascetics vigorously rejected any Judgmental or Critical Attitude. Desert Ascetics teach us that
awareness of our own Weaknesses gives us an opportunity to deepen our
Compassion for the Weaknesses of others. As we cultivate a Tender, Vulnerable, Expansive
Heart that embraces the Humanity of all, we see with New Eyes,
the Eyes and Heart of Christ.
Prayer was a continuous way-of-life in the desert. It was intentionally cultivated until
It became Second Nature. Prayer involved the hard work of
learning a new language -- the language of Heaven. For the Ascetic,
Prayer was not merely the speaking-of-words. Prayer was the
Heart yearning for God, reaching out in Hopeful Openness to being touched by
God. Prayer was the Holy Spirit
breathing through the Inner Spirit of the Ascetic and returning to God with yearnings
The Ascetic sought to cultivate a Silent, Passionate and Burning Love for
God experienced in Deep and Nurturing Solitude. The atmosphere for Rich
Prayer was a Simple Quiet Voice, not an Inner Noisy Crowd. Physical as well as Inner-Stillness and Quiet were necessary
attitudes. The Words of Prayer were Brief and Straight-from the Heart.
Praying the Psalms, Intercession, Contemplation and Silent Awareness of
God's Presence were all expressions of Prayer in the Desert and Monastery.
The Psalms were recited throughout the day. Ascetics strove to Pray into the night
as well. Reading the Sacred Word was a bodily experience. Ascetics did not simply
"Recite" the Psalms. In their pondering of the Word, they allowed it to permeate
their Inner Being in order to Pray from-their-gut. Desert Ascetics were grounded in
Sacred Scripture. They rejected a Rigid Approach to understanding Scripture, knowing there were Multiple Senses of any text.
Seeking to Interiorize the Word and make It a part of their
very being, Ascetics often began their Desert-Journey in Deep-Inner-Struggle to Reflect-upon, Understand and Become-one with the
Word. Reverenced as a Source-of-Life, the Word was seen as having
a capacity to awaken Deep-Sensitivity and to transmit Life-Energy. Meaning was found when Word and
Life corresponded. Wrestling with God's Word cultivated in the Ascetic a way of Understanding
and Reflecting on the World. The Word shaped how they saw and interpreted their culture. The
Word was their source for Discerning God's call of the
Desert Ascetics warned their followers that as they began their Discipline of Prayer, they
would be attacked by Acedia. This is a sense of Boredom or
Dejection that comes without-cause as a Temptation in
Prayer. Acedia Deters from the Inner-Journey and Discourages the
Inner-Struggle towards Freedom. Followers were invited to be Tenacious in
Prayer and to Trust the original desire for God. The
Boredom then would pass.
Silence helps us begin the Pilgrimage within and better Discern the Sacred. Silence
helps us to cultivate and deepen our passionate Love for God
because it provides the Atmosphere of true and authentic communication with God. Silence
teaches us to speak Simply, Directly, Compassionately and Honestly. Sitting in Silence with the Silence of
God is the deepest, most intense form of Prayer.
Entering into Silence is not easy. To risk encountering our fullest and truest self, and to meet
God as God is requires Courage and the Freedom to risk. Silence
invites us to meet and discover our truest selves -- with Masks, Illusions and Public Personae removed. Self-Image is stripped and
realigned: we begin to put on the Mind of Christ. Silence, therefore, invites us to change,
to grow towards the Fullness of Life. Silence cultivates a healthy detachment from Reputation, Thwarted Desires and Plans,
and anything that keep us Distracted from God.
The Ascetic strove to sit quietly and attune her attention fully to the Silence, allowing Silence to speak its
Wisdom. As the Psalmist tells us: " . . . but I have stilled and
quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me" (Psalm 131:2).
And how we struggle to sit-still today!
For the Desert Dweller, "silence itself was layered, having depth and texture, and that to learn
to be attentive to the varied qualities of the layers was to begin to discern the presence of the Spirit of God".
Silence is essentially Listening. Desert Ascetics were "practiced in peeling back the layers
of silence, pierced to the core the hearts of fellow seekers and laid bare for them the voice of the living God"
Desert Ascetics cultivated a Listening Heart. The desert way was a life engaged in intense Listening. Listening for the
Beloved's Voice cultivated a Wise and Compassionate Heart, able
to yield to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Listening for the ebbs and flows of the
Spirit was fundamental to a Life of Discernment. A still, focused attention was needed for Fruitful
Discernment. True Discernment does not presuppose how the Spirit is to move, nor what
God is to say. In this Life of Cultivated Listening, Ascetics were open to the unexpected.
They were willing to risk being surprised.
Desert Ascetics were deeply aware that their cultural background, education and life experiences framed and influenced Listening.
Some were concerned that prior education and privilege would hamper their Inner Journey. We live with this same challenge today due to
the bombardment of all our Senses from the Media; we are a Society driven by the Information Age.
Desert Ascetics steeped their Minds in Scripture and other Sacred Writings in
order to cultivate a Mind and Heart able to listen for
God's Voice. Growth in Self-Awareness clarified the Lens that Filtered and Colored their Listening.
The Clearness of a Prism was the goal.