It is 4:30 am and, unless you are in the car before 5:15, the chance of making your 6:45 time at the gym will be slim to none. Instead of an unhurried date with your own soul, you listen to a podcast through your car speakers while sitting in morning traffic. The gym is packed with others just like you, hoping to fool their bodies into thinking they have an active lifestyle and that the scale might just indicate as much. Hair still wet from the post-workout shower you swear and honk your way to work, barely squeezing into the last available spot at the last available pay parking lot at the last available pre-late moment before being driven into the wilderness that is your day at a desk.
9:30 pm. Children are wrestled away from pixel-glow and sound byte stew and chased to their rooms. You’d make love but the idea of finding yet more energy is repugnant to people already half asleep, already planning the next day, even before you can catch up with this one. You kiss your partner, roll the other way, and, in what seems like moments later, hear your phone alarm telling you it’s time to start all over again.
* * *
Abba Antony sat in his cell. The day was shimmering hot and the desert air was punctuated by a concoction of dust, bugs, and the generally parched life that survives among the softly breathing stones of a lazy earth. In his cell it is dark and smells putrid, like too many days without even a fresh breeze to drive out the stale desert. It is the aroma of thought.
He sits with his back against the wall on a stone shaped perfectly to his buttocks, where he spends countless hours simply being Antony. On the other wall is a small ledge built of stray stone and debris that acts as an altar. To one side are the last fragments of his meager meal, unleavened bread, now hard and brittle, like the hands that broke it.
He owns a shredded, tattered copy of the Gospels, a few small candles, an embarrassingly threadbare cloak and the deep ecstasies afforded an old mystic of silent prayer. He had not seen another soul for over two weeks, not since the last colloquy of seekers had come from the towns for spiritual counsel, a service he rendered as often as was needed.
The rest of the time, he prayed in the broad, spacious silence of the Egyptian desert.
* * *
If you are like me, your life is the former but your soul longs for the latter. And, unless your name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, you have not lived much of your life alone. Nor have you experienced much in the way of solitude. None of us have in fact.
When the sun sinks low in the evening sky is the time shadows are most insistent, pronounced, surprising. It gives the impression that the world is somehow larger than the sum of its parts. We are the solid matter behind the suggestions of our own shadows. Without our physical presence, nothing appears. Yet, conversely, without shadows we are but ghosts. There is no substance from which is cast forward any proof of our existence.
We live among ghosts and shadows. Before our structures of commerce, built of hollow bones and the featureless droning of our money-lust, lived taller souls. Antony of Egypt. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Julian of Norwich. Bernard de Clairvaux. Mechthild of Magdeburg. John of the Cross. Thomas Merton. They were those whose smallness cast forward agreatness – holy mustard seeds dwarfing the hungry world around them. And their shadows have not been silent. Nor have they been still.
If we are to become greater than our shadows would suggest, we would be wise to envelope ourselves in the calming grey shade of saints who have soaked up enough light that they shield us from God’s glory that would immolate us in our tepid, backward lives. These luminaries shine out “like shook foil” (thank you Gerard Manley Hopkins) even as Moses’ face shone after gazing into the great abyss that is the face of I Am. We, too, can do the same.
* * *
How? How do two scenarios so utterly different find commonality? How do the prismic lives of these great saints enter our own ashen experience of contemporary chaos? Is it possible for the ascetic, unitive consciousness of Antony to become our own? Can he who had no wife and children, no mortgage or debt, no rush hour anxiety or job insecurities to deal with speak into our lives? How do such ancient voices, so removed from the modern experience of shameless hurry, find their place within us?
Right, neither do I.
Instead, I offer a frightening consideration: those who long for the nourishing desert silence must be willing to live there first. For, in the desert is found the abundant life, the a priori life, of those least satisfied with anything less; with nothing more. In other words, what Antony and his ilk would tell us is that, to be as still and unshakably unified as they, we cannot simply use them as therapeutic platitudes to shield us from the worst of our game.
We change our game to find their life.
* * *
Louise and Warren used to own two cars, one each for work. They generally parked their camper truck and small boat on one side of their triple-car driveway that fronted a 3500 square foot Tudor style home in the gentrified, shiny part of town. His work with a large software company, combined with her consulting business typically brought in a healthy six figures.
Now, Louise hosts whomever comes to the door of their communal home, bracing their days with warm fire and hot soup, a blanket and conversation. It is Warren’s turn to act as community vicar and offer morning prayers. Filling the simple living room, looking not unlike the common area of a large hermitage, were a host of icons, a candled prayer station, four kneelers, and a prominent Communion table that doubled as a dinner board.
They invested all they had in this new little community. Once they sought to find a faith sufficient to uphold their life. Now, they seek a life sufficient to indemnify their deepening faith. They live their lives hidden in the safety of holy shadows, cast long and still by those whose silent voices speak the loudest.
“I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me. All who walk in the way of perfection shall be my friends.” – Psalm 101:6
Four years ago, my friend Tim recommended that I read The Philokalia. “They know what they’re talking about,” he said, referring to the Christian monks whose writings were compiled in this volume. They knew what they were talking about. Considering that Tim was pursuing a doctorate in patristics, I trusted that he knew what he was talking about, so I ordered the book. My life has never been the same since.Read More Post a comment (0)
All Hallow’s Eve traditionally was to All Saints’ Day (November 1st) what Christmas Eve is to Christmas Day. There isn’t time to go into the history of the Church holiday called “All Saints’ Day” but do an Internet search sometime if you didn’t realize Hallowe’en was originally a Christian festival. Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the church door on October 31st knowing there would be crowds of worshipers coming through those doors the next day.Read More Post a comment (1)
“Shalom Chaverim…`Til we meet again…” Tears slid down my face as I sang the familiar Jewish folk tune and watched transfixed as my mom’s irregular, rasping breaths slowed, slowed, then stopped.
After my sister and I made the first round of phone calls notifying people of my mom’s passing, I stepped outside into the thick Florida air for a few moments alone. It hit me for the first time: my mother was in the Lord’s presence. For almost all of her sixty-eight years, she’d been a tough-minded secular Jew, and had always prided herself on her ability to hold a grudge.Read More Post a comment (2)
This is one of my favorite seasons. The slanting golden sunlight, cerulean skies, whiter than white clouds drifting along, multi-colored leafs gently wafting to the forest floor, and the bustling harvest in the fields as combines make their way reaping the fruit of the earth.Read More Post a comment (1)
When I first read Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ by Jeanne Guyon, I wondered, How did this woman acquire such a deep knowledge of God? I loved her ideas about praying Scripture and “beholding the Lord.” I wanted to be her! She knew the contours of the spiritual life and knew how to interact with God. So when a publisher asked if I’d be willing to condense and update her autobiography, I jumped at the chance.Read More Post a comment (0)
There is only one Saint that has deeply impacted my life, and he continues to impact my life on a daily basis. He died on the day I was born, July 31, although 399 years separated the two events. The two books I have written were birthed by the thoughts and insights that flowed from his quill as he jotted down notes from one of the two books he was reading, Life of Christ, as he recovered from having his leg shattered by a cannonball.Read More Post a comment (6)
In conversations with friends over the years, inevitably it comes up that each of us tends to have a “favorite” book of the Bible. Mine is the Book of Philippians. I am not sure when this attachment started, but I can think of several possibilities. The first Christian decal I placed in my car as a new 16-year old believer was Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. I also had a youth group leader who challenged us as a group of boisterous, gossipy girls to change the way we acted through that lyrical passage from chapter 4, verse 8, where Paul encourages the Philippians to think upon “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right…” rather than the horrible things we were saying to and about each other.Read More Post a comment (0)
In 2005, 40 days before Holy Week, I “spent time” with Julian of Norwich by means of the book I Promise You a Crown edited by David Hazard. Julian was an anchoress who lived in England during the Black Plague years (1300’s). An anchoress or anchorite was one who lived in a monastic cell in a cathedral setting with one window open to the world outside. Julian spent most of her time in solitary prayer and mediation but it was likely that on one day of the week she opened her window to the world and spoke with those who needed her counsel. I picture her like the Peanuts comic strip character Lucy, standing behind her “counter.” But this lady also wrote books about her personal, mystical, near death experiences with God. I was intrigued by her life and her writings, particularly her meditation on a hazelnut!Read More Post a comment (5)
I checked in at an eight-day silent retreat with resistance resonating in my soul. What will this experience be like? Have I discerned God’s leading in coming to this place?I pulled my suitcase down a long hall, noticing that each room was named after a great saint of the faith. I reached the room that would offer me refuge in the days to come. It was the Teresa of Avila room.Read More Post a comment (0)