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Friday, February 3, 2012

"Useful Servanthood"

TITLE: Useful Servanthood: A Study of Spiritual Formation in the Writings of Abba Ammonas (Cistercian Studies - Cistercian Publications)
AUTHOR: Bernadette McNary-Zak
PUBLISHER: Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011, (174 pages).

This book makes available to the modern readers in the 21st Century, the wisdom and spiritual discernment teachings from a 4th century desert father called Abba Ammonas. It is a study of spiritual formation based on the Greek writings by this prominent desert monk at that time. Ammonas is a disciple and a successor to the famed Abba Antony, the founder of desert monasticism.

Every monastic practice is a form of Christian discipleship. The monks learn wisdom through ascetic and strict disciplines. At the same time, they impart their wisdom, teachings, and counsel to others who seek them out. Their form of discipleship is a unique blend of theory and practice, of listening, of discernment, of experience in the real world of the desert. In the desert, it is a mix of fleeing from the world, and entering into temptation. If the world is seen as full of external devilish forces, the desert brings out the multitude of inner demons.

Part One of this book touches on the historical and theological perspectives of Abba Ammonas, setting the contexts to understand why the desert fathers did what they did. Chapters 3-5 represent the core of the book's spiritual formation. It begins with a earnest desire to pursue after God, even if it means a personal price to pay. Each successful phase will lead to spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual formation is union with God.

Chapter 4 deals with the important aspect of spiritual discernment. A journey is fraught with dangers and temptations. Spiritual discernment is like a regular compass check on our inner and outer orientations. Love compels them to press on in their pilgrimage to God.

Chapter 5 talks about spiritual discernment as a community. Many people misunderstand the desert monks as being individualistic seekers of perfection. On the contrary, they are very much a part of the vibrant community.

Part Two is the complete translation of the entire Greek corpus of Abba Ammonas. For students of monastic spirituality, this part alone is worth the price of the book. I like this particular quote.

"If you love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might remain in fear, fear will beget weeping, weeping joy, and joy will beget strength, and through this strength the soul will bear fruit in all things. And if God sees that this fruit of the soul is so ripe, He will receive it as a sweet smell, and in everything He, along with His angels, will rejoice with the soul, and will give it a guard to keep it in all its ways so that he may guide it into a place of rest, and Satan may not overpower it." (Abba Ammonas in Bernadette McNary-Zak's Useful Servanthood, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011, 118)

It is a reminder that Christian spirituality is not simply a place of bliss, but it is very much a world of spiritual warfare.

My Comments

The title is interesting. In order for servanthood to be effective, and be 'useful,' one needs to make sure that one is guided by spiritual discernment, moving from imperfection to perfection, journeying toward union with God. Every step of the way, one needs to acknowledge that by ourselves, we can do nothing. Only God can help lead us to Him. It is so basic that modern readers often either miss it or take it for granted. Give this book a chance. Give ourselves a chance. Give God the chance.


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