The Inner Desert

For many Benedictines the feast of St Antony is bitter-sweet. On the one hand there is the immense pull of the desert, the desire to live ‘alone with the Alone’; on the other, there is the recognition that St Benedict’s ambivalence about hermits is fully justified — especially in our own case. The eremitical vocation is rare and very far from being what many assume it is. Few can live it generously and well. The rest of us have to admit the gulf between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We are inspired by the one but wisely held in check by the reality of the other.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony can be read at many levels. One element often passed over by modern readers are the battles between Antony and the demons. Some smile over this evidence of ancient credulity; others explain it away with reference to psychology; comparatively few make the effort to understand its place in the narrative of the saint’s life or the spiritual life generally.

It is true, I think, that anyone who seriously attempts to pray will, sooner or later, encounter evil. How this manifests itself differs, but one predictable element is the way in which evil tries to draw an individual away from prayer and virtuous living and, ultimately, from God. Again and again, Athanasius insists upon Antony’s constancy and the cheerful serenity with which he met every attack upon him. He persevered in the discipline of the monastic way and eventually attained a freedom and joy that everyone remarked upon. Little by little, he was transformed by grace.

I think there is something here for all of us. There are books and blogs without number which will tell you that prayer is a great adventure and the Christian life a wonderful progression from glory to glory. That is true up to a point, but most of our lives are anything but glorious, and prayer, if we are honest, is often a hard slog. That time on our knees might be better spent doing something more obviously useful, mightn’t it? My own answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I can think of no greater tragedy than to have spent our lives avoiding God by filling our days with activity which allowed him no space.

The image of the desert is important in scripture and in the life of Antony. Most of us can resonate with the sense of bleakness and isolation it conjures up, also perhaps its beauty and variety. We know that the desert is a privileged place of meeting between God and mankind. Few of us will ever live in a real desert, but each of us has an inner desert, somewhere unknown to any but ourselves, where our deepest struggles take place. It is where we await the coming of grace, and, just like Antony, we must persevere if we are to experience grace in all its fullness. For most of us that will be the work not of a single day or year but of a lifetime. That is why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, promising to live each day as a monk or nun should live, in continual conversion to the Lord.



6 thoughts on “The Inner Desert”

  1. Having been in a desert I’m not sure that I’d ever want to live in such isolation or hardship, even if it were to bring me closer to God?

    The idea that you need to live in such places as a hermit to meet God or even to be closer to him, seems something that certain people might be called to, such as St Anthony. It seems to me that it’s more likely that we’d be better seeking and finding God ‘where we are’ within ourselves and within others.

    I like the concept of our own ‘inner desert’ where we undergo the same struggles as Anthony, but in the relative security of our own home, place of work or place of worship. I’m as sure that the Devil (or Evil) is working just as hard there to distract us from keeping Jesus Christ central to our living and doing as he would be in the desert – perhaps just harder to detect.

    And the benedictine concept that you speak of ‘a daily conversion’ seems quite apt for those of us who are in need of an idea or image to hang on to while living, praying or doing. Knowing that each day might just be the one that brings that Grace to bring us closer to God.

  2. Thank you, Sr Catherine, just what I needed to hear after a day full of diversions and crises when I longed to run away to the desert! I know I would not flourish there, being too weak an individual spiritually, and it’s good to be reminded that ‘getting away from everything’ is probably harder than staying put in the mud of where we are! Bless you for this blog x

  3. My inner desert is in those hours in the middle of the night when I would like to be asleep, but find myself very awake…
    when I can’t read a book, or turn on the radio, or listen to music, and try to just lie still because I don’t want to disturb my sleeping husband…
    I am beginning to learn to pray instead of wasting the time just fretting.

  4. Thank you sister for your words.I don’t think you need to be in the desert to feel close to God.Sometimes you can feel alone at home just like you would out there in the wast desert, but now I stop and say NO we are never alone.God quide us to be where we are, and give His strength to us to pray and talk to Him where ever we are. He give you signs and you need to stop what you are doing. Prayer and talk to Him who is always listening.More importantly say thank you to Him for good or bad things coming in to you life, never question why you prayers not been answered , live it to His will.

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