St Antony and the Eremitical Vocation

St Antony’s feast-day baulks larger in the monastic calendar than it does in most others because we look upon him as a monastic prototype. His life-story is fascinating and complex — an instance of multi-layered hagiography, to be approached with an eye for detail and an ear for what is unspoken — but it is as a hermit that he is chiefly remembered: a man who went into the desert to be alone with God.

This is a day when we pray for all hermits and thank God for their strange and beautiful vocation. A strange vocation I call it, because it is very rare and very unsettling (or should be) to those who have not received an eremitical call; beautiful, because to live with and for God alone is a gift to be marvelled at.

Benedict was not very keen on hermits, despite, or perhaps because of, his own experience. I have known two genuine hermits with some degree of familiarity: one was a nun, the other is a priest. Both loved people and got on easily with them. Their vocation was not a turning away from others but an engagement with them at a far, far deeper level than any ordinary activity could have made them. I’d dare to say their prayer was, and is, one of the pillars upholding the world.

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A Thought for Friday

I shall be spending much of today in London at various meetings. It will be all roar and rush and I’ll probably feel like the proverbial fish out of water. (The habit tends to attract some very odd types — the only people who don’t come anywhere near are usually wearing clerical collars!)

Is it possible to maintain an inner silence, a spirit of recollection, in such circumstances? My answer would be ‘yes’. Have all those years spent learning the discipline of silence perhaps begun to bear fruit? I now know that it is not exterior noise but the endless babble of interior thoughts and feelings that causes all the trouble. Cultivating interior silence isn’t easy, but I think it is necessary for both psychological and spiritual health.

This week scripture has been urging us to go out into the desert to seek Jesus. Today, however, romantic visions of a vast and starry sky, rock, sand and a luminous silence must give way to the reality of the modern desert, the urban landscape of concrete and steel, full of clamour and bustle. Is it possible to seek and find God here, among the fast-food outlets and the diesel fumes? Francis Thompson is not much read nowadays, but I cannot help recalling the concluding lines of his ‘Kingdom of God’:
. . . lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Today, wherever we are, is full of hope.

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