Abba Antony said: “Fish die if they are long out of water. So monks who dally long outside their cell or with men of the world, lose their will to solitude. As a fish can only live in the sea, so we must run back to our cells. Perhaps, if we dallied outside, we might lose our inner guard.”
Abba Antony offers a wonderful analogy for those of us whose lives sometimes seem so full. Just as “[f]ish die if they are long out of water,” so “monks who dally long outside their cell or with men of the world, lose their will to solitude.” Now of course, as “men [and women] of the world,” we cannot and should not avoid human contact, but neither should we neglect solitude. The difference is one of degree, not of kind. None of us live in a monk’s cell, but all of us require an “inner guard” to keep our hearts from falling to temptation.
The very next saying expands upon this last point as well:
He also said: “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles—those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight—the battle of the heart.”
No wonder Christ teaches, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6). When we embrace solitude and shut out the world, when we pray in secret, then our Father in heaven, who is hidden, mysterious, and in so many ways unknown to us, reveals himself to us in ‘the battle of the heart.”
As the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah to his people Israel:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden riches of secret places,
That you may know that I, the Lord,
Who call you by your name,
Am the God of Israel.
Though “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), yet to us who live in the world and by its light, his light is blinding, and in that way a frightening darkness. I am reminded of Moses on Mt. Sinai: “the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). God, who is light and “a consuming fire,” yet abides in a darkness, where the ephemeral and counterfeit lights of this world cannot shine.
And when, in solitude, we enter into “the thick darkness where God [is]” through prayer, then “the treasures of darkness” and “hidden riches of secret places” shine brightly to the eyes of our souls. This is the reward of our Father, “who sees in secret.”
The illumination of our souls that can only come through entering the thick darkness of the divine becomes an open reward in that it carries on far beyond the time we spend in solitude. To bask in the glow of the glory of God reminds us of and imprints upon our hearts the very presence of God, who being immaterial is both everywhere and nowhere, for “place” as we understand it is bound to materiality. But God is more like the omnipresent laws of logic that order the universe, necessary for its existence yet not themselves materially bound. Indeed, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is referred to as the Logos to indicate precisely this idea.
This imprint of God upon our hearts is necessary for a lasting “inner guard.” And, truth be told, the imprint lasts like writing in the sand on the seashore. Eventually the tide comes in, and if no one rewrites the inscription, it disappears. So too we must daily return to God in solitude—if only for ten minutes if that is all we have.
Such a continual turning to God is the very meaning of the Hebrew word shuv, which is translated “to repent.” If we genuinely wish to heed the command of Christ to “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), then such solitude is absolutely necessary, just like water for fish. Without it, we too risk our very lives, for “fish can only live in the sea.”