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.