One of my Lenten disciplines this year was to re-read The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a work — at times beautiful, at times stultifyingly dull, but always challenging — that records the traditions of the desert monasticism that flourished from the fourth through seventh centuries in Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine. These were people who essentially devoted their lives to living out the Gospel in a particularly Lenten way.
One of the sayings that stuck out to me in this re-reading of the Desert Fathers records the following interaction:
One day someone asked Abba Silvanus, ‘How have you lived, father, in order to become so wise?’ He replied, ‘I have never let a thought that would bring the anger of God upon me enter my heart.’ (Silvanus 6).
The sense of this seems to be that for Abba Silvanus, the key to wisdom is to prevent thoughts that would separate us from God — thoughts that to some degree are inevitable — from settling in us. To flip the analogy of the Parable of the Sower, when it comes to these types of thoughts, we want our hearts to be hard surfaces they can bounce off of and not the warm, receptive soil where they can settle in and grow.
I couldn’t help but think of this when I read today’s Gospel reading, the portion of John’s Gospel in which Judas leaves dinner to go and betray Jesus. The text includes the following detail: “After he [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do’ “ (13.27). The language around ‘Satan’ is interesting here. Satan, or ‘the devil’, in the Gospels is a personification of deception and temptation. (Indeed, ‘Satan’ means ‘adversary’ in Hebrew; and the Greek word diabolos, from which we get ‘devil’, means ‘slanderer’, ‘sower of confusion,’ or ‘twister of the truth’). Earlier in this chapter, John says that ” ‘the devil’ had already put it into the heart of Judas” to betray Jesus (13.2). And now, the devil himself ‘enters into him’. Judas has made himself a welcome home for lies and deception, and now they have made a home in him.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. Thoughts of all kinds are going to pop in and out of our heads. This is just part of having a human mind. (If you don’t believe me, just spend five minutes observing your thoughts — It’s wild.) But as Abba Silvanus reminds us, we can be intentional about which ones we allow to take root in our hearts, so we don’t end up like Judas, betraying our Lord, our God, our values for the sake of a few more dollars in the bank, or whatever other shiny thing or experience catches our attention at any given moment.
To me at least this is a helpful reminder to examine what’s taking root in my heart and to do some weeding if need be.