Friday, November 18, 2011

Useful Servanthood: A Study of Spiritual Formation in the Writings of Abba Ammonas

By Bernadette McNary-Zak, 169 pages, litpress.or

Useful Servanthood is part of an eccentric series of books from Kalamazoo-based Cistercian Publications of works about or by the Desert Fathers of Egypt. If you think medieval theologians and saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux or King Saint Louis of France led interesting or ascetic lives, wait till you read this series.

Abba Ammonas, a follower of St. Anthony, seems like he's following another religion because of the sharply different society and "worldview" that he had from ours. The author introduces the reader to ancient Christian Egypt, its Christian society and practice of discipleship.

The search for holiness formed the entire focus of these monks' lives. Though they lived alone in their cells far removed from other monks in the same community, they nevertheless fashioned a strong network of fatherly spiritual counselors and their disciples. This chiefly occurred through the exchange of letters as well as travel. Even old monks would travel to visit some of their charges.

Readers get a sense of the lively Christian spirituality these people followed. The spiritual elders were respected because they had developed "discernment," the ability to understand what God wanted for a certain person.

Theology for these people was not the academic and therapeutic religion that Christianity has now become. These ancient Christians based their lives on a close relationship with God the Father. They had a deep sense of their own sin and consequent guilt before the Father, and of their need for Jesus Christ. They could discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and warn others of the wiles of Satan. The formation of a prayerful monastic community was the aim of both monastic leaders and followers.

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