A Solitary Life

Jan 13, 2020

The feast of Abba Anthony is celebrated on January 17.

The history of religion is a veritable who’s who of people who are apparently dedicated to “getting away from it all.” Monks of every ilk—swamis and spiritual gurus, nuns and Sufis, rabbis and hermits—all spend time “away” in silence or in physical retreat from the ordinary routines of the world around them. But they never stay there. Why? These are the people who really can “just quit and get away from it all.” So why don’t they?

The honest answer is a simple one: for the Christian, life is made for the living of it, not for hiding from it. It is a life spent “following the Jesus” who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem, healing lepers, giving sight to the blind, raising people from the dead, contesting with the leaders of both the temple and the empire. To be a hermit is fine, the Benedictine is taught, but not forever, and not only. The solitary life, Benedict says, is only for those who have already been trained, “by the long probation of life in a monastery,” to control themselves in the hurly-burly of society that the rest of us are trying to avoid.

A story is told of Abbot Anthony the Great himself, the first famous hermit of Western monasticism, who had spent his entire life as either hermit or community abbot, which teaches us a great deal about the spiritual as well as the human dimensions of the spiritual life:

Once upon a time, Abba Anthony went to visit Abba Amoun in Mount Nitria. When they met, Abba Amoun said, “By your prayers, the number of the brethren increases. Now some of them want to build more cells where they may live in peace. How far away from here do you think we should build those cells?”

Abba Anthony said, “Well, first, let us eat. Then, let us go for a walk in the desert and explore the country.” So they went into the desert and they walked until sunset. Then Abba Anthony said, “Let us pray and plant the cross here so that those who wish to do so may build here. Then when those who remain there want to visit those who have come here, they can take a little food at the ninth hour and then come. If they do this, they will be able to keep in touch with each other without distraction of mind.”

The story brings a smile to the face of any honest monastic. Here we have two abbots, renowned for their sanctity, clothed in mystique, known for their asceticism, quibbling about where to put a monastery full of hermits. Answer: as far as possible from any other living human beings, of course. Except that they don’t. They put it in a place where the monastics—hermits, remember—would be able to visit one another daily if they wanted. But why? And what does their decision about the proximity of one monastery to another have to say to the rest of humankind about life and holiness, growth and human development?

Indeed, the story is a telling one. The real spiritual lesson in the story is that we need one another—all of us. Whatever we lack, the others supply. Whatever they are looking for is more than likely, at least in part, in us. But we are not meant, in most cases, to lead separated lives. We need, as these two third-century abbots did, the possibility of morning breaks together.

Why don’t we just leave where we are, quit what we’re doing and “get away from it all”? Because we can’t. Because it simply isn’t possible. We need to reflect with others on the questions that plague us. We seek to discern with others who may be more wise than ourselves. We crave to know the opinions of those less involved than ourselves in the issues that face us. We need to give our own gifts of self, as well, so that we ourselves do not become the shrine of the very small god at which we adore. “Getting away from it all” is a myth. The purpose of life is to go where we need to go in order to get more of what our souls must have, in order to pour ourselves out again.

—from Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, by Joan Chittister (Eerdmans)

Welcome to the Wisdom of the World

Welcome to the Wisdom of the World

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