The Desert Fathers and Mothers
Solitude and Silence
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
The desert fathers and mothers withdrew from cities to the desert to live freely, apart from the economic, cultural, and political structure (the Roman Empire) that first persecuted the church and then later gave it a privileged status—in the empire’s own search for uniformity and control. The desert fathers and mothers knew, as should we, that the empire would be an unreliable partner. They recognized that they had to find inner freedom from the system before they could return to it with true love, wisdom, and helpfulness. This is the continuing dynamic to this day, otherwise “Culture eats Christianity for breakfast” to paraphrase Peter Drucker, and our deep transformative power is largely lost.
How do we find inner freedom? Notice that whenever we suffer pain, the mind is always quick to identify with the negative aspects of things and replay them over and over again, wounding us deeply. Almost all humans have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) of the mind, which is why so many people become fearful, hate-filled, and wrapped around their negative commentaries. This pattern must be recognized early and definitively. Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you’re in your mind, you’re hardly ever at peace, and when you’re at peace, you’re never only in your mind. The Early Christian abbas (fathers) and ammas (mothers) knew this, and first insisted on finding the inner rest and quiet necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was first called the prayer of quiet and eventually was referred to as contemplation. It is the core teaching in the early Christian period and emphasized much more in the Eastern Church than in the West.
In a story from Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’” But you don’t have to have a cell, and you don’t have to run away from the responsibilities of an active life, to experience solitude and silence. Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
By solitude, the desert mystics didn’t mean mere privacy or protected space, although there is a need for that too. The desert mystics saw solitude, in Henri Nouwen’s words, as a “place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure love. Quite often this can happen right in the midst of human relationships and busy lives.
Especially when outward distractions disappear, we find that the greatest distraction from reality and from divine union is our own busy mind and selfish heart. Anthony the Great 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.”
Gateway to Silence:
Lead me into the wilderness of silence and simplicity.
 Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications: 1975), 6.
 Ibid., 19.
 Nouwen, Henri, The Way of the Heart (Harper Collins Publishers: 2009), 27.
 Owen Chadwick, ed., trans., Western Asceticism (The Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus Edition: The Westminster Press, 1958), 40.