Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
June 23, 2022
Every time I hear the Psalmist express his discovery of being possessed by a “new song of joy”, I feel again like the clay in the potter’s hands, being still remoulded, yearning that the Potter would eventually be satisfied with the re-shaping of my life. I thought I was ready for glory when I came here to this small private nursing hospital and hospice seven months ago. My children were clearly sceptical that I was ready for glory. Now I know they were right!. My favourite prophet as a teenager was the tender-hearted Jeremiah, who visited his own ‘potter’s shed’ to see God shaping and re-shaping his life through many afflictions, past, present, and future. I now see, that as long as we are self-made products, we are not nearly ready to enter glory. We need to be ‘de-selfed’ by being re-shaped again “in the image and likeness of Christ”, by asceticism. My favourite exemplar is St. Anthony (c. 296-373), father of the Coptic Church in Egypt. Born into a wealthy family, he gave away all his riches, to the poor and the hungry. He traveled around within sight of Mount Sinai, where Moses had heard God give him the ten commandments, and now where Anthony was seeking to be saturated by the Holy Scriptures, able to memorize all the Psalter. His dwelling place was a cave, overlooking the south-west corner of the Red Sea. Before Anthony could settle down to his new cave home, he had to clear his dwelling place that was full of snakes, that metaphorized all the temptations that can possess us, once we start to live the ascetic life, endeavouring to become aesthetic, “beautiful in the grace of God". Then, for Anthony, the rage of Satan began, sending an army of devils, to attack him in every possible way. Like Adam and Eve, placed in a garden of paradise, Anthony, thought his cave would also be paradisal, only to find an army of devils, sorely wounding him. His only defence was to recite the words of the Psalmist, which he repeats some six times over, especially when attacked by demons (Ps. 27:3; Ps. 118:7), and being faced by the apparition of Satan (Ps. 27: 3; Ps. 68: 1-3). Then wondrously, by reciting such Psalms, the demons and the Devil too, fled totally defeated. It was through this great adversity, that Anthony was given such vigilance that God would reveal to him in dreams. On one occasion, two travellers in the desert came to see him, one already dead from lack of water, the other dying, without water. So he sent an assistant with water, to save his life. Hospitality became Anthony’s alter ego. So why then did he live a solitary life? His response was: ”Because, as fish need water, monks need solitude to absorb love, as the apostle Paul does, in the epistle to the Romans, ch. 8". Like the apostle Luke, Anthony was a physician of the emotions, all needing to be healed. Out of this solitary hardship, Anthony became world-famous. As Augustine of Hippo, remarked in his ‘Confessions’, ch. 8: “These, i.e. 'Desert Fathers' ”have none of our [Classical] history, and yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven”. The Emperor Constantine and his son, often wrote to Anthony, seeking his wise counsel, but like the apostle Paul, St. Anthony could reply: “not I, but the grace of God within me”. No wonder, Athanasius, the reporter on Anthony’s life and sayings, could stand up to an army of Arians in Cairo, as St Anthony had stood up to Satan and his devils.
So many hymns we could use to communicate the asceticism of St. Anthony, but one of my favourites is Charles Wesley’s dedication to the Lord: “ O thou who camest from above the pure celestial fire to impart, Kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart! There let it for thy glory burn with inextinguishable blaze, and trembling to its source return, in humble prayer and fervent praise. Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire to work, and speak, and think for Thee; Still let me guard the holy fire , and still stir up thy gift in me; Ready for all Thy perfect will, my acts of faith and love repeat, till death Thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete. My prayer for each of us is simple…
“Lord, help us to live like the life of Anthony, clothed like a child, learning to live the gospel story, and warmed by the ardour of the psalms of David, to beautify your name. Amen