Desert Fathers: On Solitude

  • The text: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
  • The translator: Benedicta Ward
  • Notes: Because this book records an oral tradition, it doesn’t have an ‘author’ per se. It’s a collection of sayings that were handed down within these communities, starting around the fourth century.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using a Penguin Classics version, but if you google around you’ll be able to find some of the sayings online.

What do you think of monks? Hermits, living out in the desert (or wherever) in a life of solitude, focusing on prayer and simple living. In our current climate, it almost feels self-indulgent. We have this sense of obligation to our fellow human beings, a sense in which everyone must be Useful. If you’re going to go off and withdraw from the world, how does that help lift people out of poverty? How does that help The World? So it’s something I was keen to find out more about. It’s a bit of a foreign idea, and we like those. In this first article, then, I just want to run through some of the way they talk about solitude. I won’t really offer any criticisms of the idea – I just want to spend a bit of time figuring out what they’re up to. With that in mind, here are some of the sayings of the desert fathers.

“Antony said, ‘Fish die if they stay on dry land, and in the same way monks who stay outside their cell or remain with secular people fall away from their vow of quiet. As a fish must return to the sea, so must we to our cell, in case by staying outside, we forget to watch inside.'”

“In Scetis a brother went to Moses to ask for advice. He said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'”

“It was said of Hor and Theodore that they were once putting a goatskin over a cell; and they said to each other, ‘If God visits us now, what shall we do?’ Much upset, they left the place in a hurry and went back to their own cells.”

That last one made me chuckle. It seemed so silly – if God turns up and you’re busy putting a new cell together, you say Hi God, I’m putting a new cell together, come watch. But let’s be generous about it. We might disagree with them, but let’s at least try and appreciate why they had this attitude. They obviously got something out of being in their cells, and that something didn’t seem available in other environments. Here’s a question – when monks go off into their cells, it’s clearly rejecting the world in some sense. But do they think they’re too good for the world, or is it an admission of failure? You might think that the monks went out into the desert because they were looking for something better than what the world had to offer. They’re moving away from the physical world and towards the spiritual. That’s not quite the case though – in one of the sayings, a monk turns up and sees all the others working in the field, and he’s like “Labour not for the meat which perish” – he’s being smug about how spiritual he is, how above the physical world. So the monks show him to his cell, and then don’t call him for dinner, and when he’s like yo where’s my dinner they’re like oh you’re so spiritual we assumed you didn’t need it lol. They bag this guy for acting like he’s too good for the world. Similarly, in another saying, a hermit comes to visit Poemen, one of the monks. “The hermit began to talk about Holy Scripture, and about the things spiritual and heavenly. But Poemen turned his face away, and answered nothing.” When one of the other monks asked Poemen why he would not respond, he said “He’s from above, and speaks of the things of heaven. I’m from below, and speak of the things of earth. If he’d spoken with me about the soul’s passions, I would willingly have answered him. But if he speaks of the things of the spirit, I know nothing about them.”

So that can’t be why these guys were out in the desert. They definitely don’t think they’re too good for the world. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. The more you read from the desert fathers, the more they talk about the ways in which they don’t feel equipped to deal with reality. They talk about their weaknesses, their temptations, all the ways in which they’re not up to dealing with the world. There’s almost a sense of fear about it. When Antony says that being with secular people will make a monk fall away from their vow of quiet – I mean, the vow is a crutch, right. It’s not elevating the monks above normal people, it’s a support structure to stop them falling behind. It’s not that God can’t be found beyond the cell, it’s that the monks can’t trust themselves to focus in the outside world. In one of the sayings, a monk pours water into a vessel, stirs it all up, and then waits for it to become still. “So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd,” he says, “because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.” Isolation doesn’t make them better than other people – it just gives them the space they need to identify and deal with their own nature as human beings. It’s almost like a variant on sensory overload. They just need a bit of space.

I dunno, there are probably some other reasons why they were out in the desert. This is just one that makes sense. We understand the language of stepping back from a world that’s too busy. We understand how that can drive people to find a certain sort of solitude. Sometimes you feel chewed up and spit out, and you just need a break to center yourself again. That’s the downside of that Usefulness culture – if you’re not performing well enough, whether that’s earning enough or doing enough charity work or general Good for the Planet, then you’re not worth having around. People burn themselves out trying to justify their existence to the world. That’s not to say that the monks would have had the same motivation as us – the whole Usefulness thing is very Protestant, it’s very capitalism, it’s not very fourth century. But it’s interesting to find that emotional lever where we can relate to them. They aren’t all transcend-the-world spiritualists like we might have imagined. They just need a bit of peace and quiet.

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