Category: Solitude


[Abba Antony] said: “From our neighbour are life and death. If we do good to our neighbour, we do good to God: if we cause our neighbour to stumble, we sin against Christ.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 17.2

Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius: “Why do you run away from us?” The old man said: “God knows I love you. But I cannot be with God and with men. The countless hosts of angels have but a single will, while men have many wills. So I cannot let God go, and come and be with men.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 17.5

I’ve mentioned before how the sayings of the desert fathers are practical wisdom. As such, they can appear contradictory. Practical wisdom is situational, prudential. Sometimes Abba Antony is right, sometimes Abba Arsenius. It depends on the person and the context when the wisdom of one applies compared to another. Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

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.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.1

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. Continue reading

Roots of Salvation

When Abba Arsenius was still at the palace, he prayed the Lord saying: “Lord, show me the way to salvation.” And a voice came to him: “Arsenius, run from men and you shall be saved.” He went to become a monk, and again prayed in the same words. And he heard a voice saying: “Arsenius, be solitary: be silent: be at rest. These are the roots of a life without sin.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.3

Abba Arsenius may not have been the Roman Emperor, but he worked “at the palace” and likely enjoyed a very high quality of life for his time. Yet he finds that material comforts are not enough, and he prays, “Lord, show me the way to salvation.” The answer: “run from men and you shall be saved,” for him this meant becoming a monk, a hermit even. However, solitude, silence, and rest are not the exclusive property of hermits, even if they have much more abundant supply. A “life without sin” may be hard to come by in the world, but its roots can still grow in that soil. Continue reading

The Sabbath in a Cup

There were three friends, earnest men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men engaged in controversy, as it is written: “Blessed are the peace-makers.” The second chose to visit the sick. Third chose to be quiet in solitude.

Then the first, struggling with quarrelling opponents, found that he could not heal everyone. And worn out, he came to the second who was ministering to the sick, and found him flagging in spirit, and unable to fulfil his purpose. And the two agreed, and went away to see the third who had become a hermit, and told him their troubles. And they asked him to tell them what progress he had made. And he was silent for a little, and poured water into a cup. And he said: “Look at the water.” And it was cloudy. And after a little he said again: “Now look, see how clear the water has become.” And when they leant over the water, they saw their faces as in a glass. And then he said to them: “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil. But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.16

There are many internal disagreements over the Christian understanding of the Sabbath, the holy day of rest on the seventh day (Saturday). Furthermore, Jewish people tend to have a very strict tradition, but Christians have many practices and sometimes do not seem to celebrate it at all, instead focusing on Sunday (sometimes nearly as strictly as the Jews). In my own tradition, the Orthodox Church, there is a very helpful explanation, I think, rooted in ancient Christian tradition. Continue reading

Serenity: Mother of Chastity

An old man said: “Chastity is born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.25

Unchastity, and the lust from which it is born, is a problem that we do well to revisit often with an ear to the wisdom of the fathers. How many relationships, marriages, ministries, careers, and so on have been ruined by a person’s own lust? This unnamed old man offers an interesting insight to contemplate. If chastity is “born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation,” then logically unchastity thrives where there is no serenity, no silence, and no secret meditation. Continue reading

It is through the Holy Spirit that there will be a universal resurrection. I do not mean the resurrection of the bodies at the end (Heb. 9:26), for then the angel will blow the trumpet and the dead bodies will rise (1 Cor. 15:52), but I mean the spiritual regeneration and resurrection of the dead souls that takes place in a spiritual manner every day. This [resurrection] He gives who has died once [for all] and risen (Rom. 6:9f.), and through all and for all those who live in a worthy manner He causes the souls to rise who have died with Him in will and faith and raises them up. This He grants through His all-holy Spirit as He even now bestows on them from henceforth the kingdom of heaven.

~ St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Example and Spirit of Symeon the Pious

Christ is risen! For Orthodox Christians like myself, Pascha (Easter) is more than just a day, it is also a forty day season. For the first week (this past one) we don’t even fast at all! Having just finished with this Renewal Week (or Bright Week), I have been reflecting on a common motif of the Christian spiritual life and how perfectly it describes Christian asceticism: dying and rising with Christ. Continue reading

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Proof of [St. Antony’s] virtue and that his soul was loved by God is found in the fact that he is famous everywhere and is marveled at by everyone, and is dearly missed by people who never saw him. Neither from writings, nor from pagan wisdom, nor from some craft was Antony acclaimed, but on account of religion alone. That this was something given by God no one would deny. For how is it that he was heard of, though concealed and sitting in a mountain, in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa, unless if it was the God who everywhere makes his men known who also promised this to Antony in the beginning? For even though they themselves act in secret, and may want to be forgotten, nevertheless the Lord shows them like lamps to everyone, so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.

~ St. Athanasius, Life of Antony, 93

In a time before Facebook, according to St. Athanasius, St. Antony (also “Anthony”) was “famous everywhere and [was] marveled at by everyone,” even “in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa.” He wasn’t tweeting instagrams of the bread and salt he ate once a day (if that) either. No, people knew about this man who lived “concealed and sitting in a mountain” because “his soul was loved by God” and “on account of religion alone.” St. Athanasius is furthermore convinced that this is a sign of God’s grace, “so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.” Continue reading

The Way of Contradiction

When a certain brother in Scete was going to the harvest, he went to Abba Moses, the Black, and said unto him, “Father, tell me what I shall do; shall I go to the harvest?” and Abba Moses said unto him, “If I tell thee, wilt thou be persuaded to do as I say?” And the brother said unto him, “Yea, I will hearken unto thee.” The old man said unto him, “If thou wilt be persuaded by me, rise up, go, and release thyself from going to the harvest, and come unto me, and I will tell thee what thou shalt do.” The brother therefore departed and obtained his release from his companions, as the old man had told him, and then he came to him. And the old man said unto him, “Go into thy cell and keep Pentecost, and thou shalt eat dry bread and salt once a day [only], and after thou hast done this I will tell thee something else to do later on”; and he went and did as the old man had told him, and then came to him again.

Now when the old man saw that he was one who worked with his hands, he shewed him the proper way to live in his cell; and the brother went to his cell, and fell on his face upon the ground, and for three whole days and nights he wept before God. And after these things, when his thoughts were saying unto him, “Thou art now an exalted person, and thou hast become a great man,” he used to contradict them, and set before his eyes his former shortcomings, [and say], “Thus were all thine offences.” And again, when they used to say to him, “Thou hast performed many things negligently,” he would say, “Nevertheless I do small services for God, and He sheweth His mercy upon me.” And when by such means as these the spirits had been overcome, they appeared unto him in the form of corporeal creatures, and said unto him, “We have been vanquished by thee”; and he said unto them, “Why?” and they said to him, “If we humble thee, we are raised up by thee to an exalted position, and if we exalt thee we are accounted by thee for humility.”

~ Paradise of the Fathers 1.18

There is a lot going on in this story, but I will skip to the end. After keeping Pentecost, fasting in solitude for some period of time, being instructed by Abba Moses regarding how to work in his cell, and weeping before God for three days and nights, the brother in this story engages in a particularly enlightening practice of watchfulness. Continue reading

What Makes a Monk?

Abba Macarius said to Abba Zacharias: “Tell me, what makes a monk?” He said: “Is it not wrong that you should be asking me?” And Abba Macarius said to him: “I am sure I ought to ask of you, my son, Zacharias. I have one who urges me on to ask you.” Zacharias said to him: “As far as I can tell, Father, I think that whoever controls and forces himself to be content with necessities and nothing more, that man is a monk.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 1.6

The word monk (Gk. monachos) means solitary. One might think that the answer to Abba Macarius’s question would be quite simple then: a monk is anyone who willingly lives alone, presumably for spiritual discipline. Furthermore, one would presume that Abba Macarius, whose name is Greek (meaning “blessed” or “happy”) and who presumably spoke Greek, knew precisely what this Greek word meant. But it was not and is not a simple question. As happens in all languages, the semantic range of words broadens, narrows, and shifts. The same was true for the word “monk” at the time. What can we learn from this saying, and how is it relevant for those who live in the world and are by no means monks, in the traditional sense, today? Continue reading

The Spirit of the Desert

Said the Abbess Matrona: “Many people living secluded lives on the mountain have perished by living like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live a solitary life than to live a solitary life but all the time be longing for company.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 2.14

If I am not mistaken, I adapted this saying for my tagline: “Living in the world. Longing for the desert.” I am married to a wonderful woman, and we have a wonderful son who is the cutest baby (possibly cutest creature) that the world has ever seen. I am very blessed and would not really prefer to be in the desert as a hermit. It is the spirit of the desert that I want. I want the stillness, the discipline, the peace that comes from an inner flight away from “the world”—all that is transient—and to a place free from those things, a place of clearer spiritual vision: the desert. Continue reading