Action and Contemplation: Part Three
The World Carried Inside
Thursday, January 23, 2020
When so much of our world is focused on making us feel like human “doings” instead of human beings, moving into solitude and silence is both a gift and a burden. Once we have overcome the external pressure to perform, we are left with our own interiority. The trouble—and the opportunity—in solitude is that there is no one around to blame for our moods and our difficulties. We are stuck with ourselves. The desert abbas and ammas faced the same dilemma.
In the tradition of Moses and Jesus, the Christians who entered into the desert found a wild, fierce, unknown place where they encountered both “demons” and “angels” (Mark 1:13)—their own shadowy selves which contained both good and evil, gold and lead. My friend, wilderness theologian, and mystic Belden Lane helps clear away any romanticism we might associate with desert spirituality:
The desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an [Abba] Anthony or Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was as likely to be carried out feet first as to be restored unchanged to the life one had left. . . . Amma Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive herself by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart. 
A story from the Desert Fathers illustrates that even in the desert there is no escaping our own habitual responses:
A brother was restless in the community and often moved to anger. So he said: “I will go and live somewhere by myself. And since I shall be able to talk or listen to no one, I shall be tranquil, and my passionate anger will cease.” He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. It happened suddenly to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fell. And this happened a third time. And in a rage he snatched up the jug and broke it. Returning to his right mind, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said: “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.” And he rose up, and went back. 
I have experienced similar frustration more times than I care to count. It seems that wherever we go, there we are, warts and all. The gift and grace of contemplation is in receiving God’s gaze. Love sees our nakedness, accepts us unconditionally, and empowers us to change.
 Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998), 165, 168.
 Western Asceticism, ed., trans. Owen Chadwick (The Westminster Press: 1958), 92.
 Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 166.