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.

 

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A Solitary Life

Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a solitary life. Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a lonely life. What is the difference between being alone, being solitary and being lonely?

I’d say that being alone is principally a physical fact. There are no other people around. One can feel alone in the midst of a crowd, of course, but doesn’t that just mean that there aren’t any other people whom one knows or can relate to in a personal way? It is as if they weren’t there.

To be lonely is more of a metaphysical or emotional fact. Whether there are people around or not makes no difference. If there are others around, one knows that one’s own being there doesn’t matter to them. It is as if one weren’t there oneself. One is isolated: a little island in the sea of indifferent humanity.

To be solitary is something different again. For me the word is full of religious overtones because, in the Catholic tradition, to be solitary, alone with the Alone, is a privilege and a joy. It is not necessarily an absolute solitude, however. There is a solitary side to community life, for example, that few will speak about; but that intensely private life of prayer and sacrifice is an essential part of what it means to be monastic, and I am well aware that it is not confined to monks and nuns. The Church has her hermits, but she also has her ‘solitaries in the world’ whose lives light up the darkness that envelops us. Today would be a good day for giving thanks for these anonymous men and women of God whose lives of quiet holiness, outside the formal structures of religion, are such a blessing to us all.

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The Hermit Vocation

Those of you who know and love Athanasius’s Life of St Anthony, whose feastday this is, have probably spent a moment or two wondering about the hermit vocation. Athanasius’s text is much more multi-faceted than at first appears, but his enthusiasm for Anthony is infectious. St Benedict was well aware of its seductiveness. His ambivalence about the eremitical life is a staple of novitiate conferences, for authority is always nervous about those who wish to be alone with God before they have learned how to be alone with God among other people. The only real hermits I have known (i.e. recognized as such by the Church) have been wonderful community people, who brought — or bring — to their solitude a great love of humanity.

That, of course, is the point. A hermit who hates people or wants to get away from them because he dislikes the messiness of ordinary life is a contradiction in terms. We cannot love God unless we also love those created in his image and likeness.

Even after a lifetime in the monastery, there is in most Benedictines a slight regret that we are not called to be hermits. We must go on as coenobites, because we need other people to keep us on the right track; but we honour and value those who ‘sally forth, fighting-fit, from the battle-rank of the community’ to the solitary combat of the desert, knowing that their prayer and sacrifice help uphold the world.

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Good Monk, Bad Monk

Who, apart from Benedictines, is interested in what St Benedict has to say in the first chapter of his Rule about the different kinds of monks? True, it may provide a little ammunition for those who want to criticize an individual, or even a whole community, but rarely is it seen for what it is, an introduction to monastic living with all its pitfalls. In sketching the characters of good and bad monks, Benedict is setting before us a thumbnail of the whole monastic enterprise.

Yesterday he stressed what to look for in the good monk: obedience to rule and abbot, and a life lived in community or, if truly experienced in the ways of the Spirit, a hermit life, but one still grounded in that obedience to rule and abbot. In other words, the good monk is always under obedience — to a rule that is imperfect, to an individual who is flawed, but both seen by the monk as vehicles of grace. Contrast that with what we read today about the sarabaites and gyrovagues. They are not necessarily bad men, as we might understand the term, but they are choosey about their allegiance, assuming that they know best, keen to try their own experiments in monastic living without first submitting to years of regular discipline. They are fundamentally unstable, always pushing on to find the perfect community, the perfect way of life, and in danger of settling for what is merely comfortable or convenient.

I think RB 1 has something to say to all of us who are sincere in our search for God. I am glad that I had many years as a nun in a big community with a long tradition behind it before I came here. I think it has given our community a certain sureness of touch, a fundamentally humble, questing approach, enabling us to be orthodox in faith and practice but also innovative. That is not, however, something we can take for granted. What Benedict does not say in this chapter is at least as important as what he does. The obedience to rule and abbot that he singles out as the monk’s safeguard is something he will elaborate upon at some length. Ultimately, the monk is responsible for setting a guard about his heart and mind. He wakes every morning to hear the voice of the Lord commanding him and lives by faith, following the guidance of the gospel, but that is a choice he must make anew every morning. Mercifully, we have a vow of conversion to help us.

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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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