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Wrestling with Our Demons in Our Solitude

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Desert Fathers and Mothers

Wrestling with Our Demons in Our Solitude
Thursday, May 7, 2015

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. 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 Anthony or a Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was more likely to be carried out feet first than to be restored unchanged to the life one had left.” [1]

In the tradition of Moses and Jesus, the Christians who wandered into the desert entered a wild, fierce, unknown place where they would encounter both “demons” and “angels” (Mark 1:13)—their own shadowy selves which contained both good and evil, both gold and lead. In Belden Lane’s words, “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.”[2]

A story from the desert fathers illustrates that even in the desert there is no escaping your 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.”[3]

Belden Lane writes: “The desert monks were hardly naïve despisers of culture. What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.”[4] Ironically, in the fleeing they ran smack dab into the very thing they sought to avoid. As Pogo said in his comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”!

Gateway to Silence:
Lead me into the wilderness of silence and simplicity.

[1] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998), 165.
[2] Ibid., 168.
[3] Owen Chadwick, ed., trans., Western Asceticism (The Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus Edition: The Westminster Press, 1958), 92.
[4] Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 166.

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