I'm reading a book I've had for a while; in fact, I had forgotten I had it until I saw it featured on a blog called City Desert (where many interesting things about hermits are posted!). The book is Blessed Athanasia and The Desert Ideal. It’s actually two books, and The Desert Ideal is the first section. I was not sure whether I had read any of it before, even though I’ve had it for some time (ah, that is the way I am with books! I buy them, and then they remain unopened because I get distracted by a different book!). I think I may have read the part about Blessed Athanasia before.
But now I'm reading the first part, The Desert Ideal, and finding it particularly meaningful. The other night I was reading a section that made me see the utter necessity of hermits.
The author, using quotes from Russian Orthodox saints (it’s a Russian Orthodox book and author) and his own commentary points out that the “desert ideal” is not really about going out to the desert to pray for others, although that is certainly a part of it; it’s about going to the desert to purify oneself of one’s own sins, to reach ever upwards toward God, to strive to unite with the spirit of God and eschew the spirit of man. The author says, “The great desert saints fled to the wilderness to repent over their sins, not to do the world a favor.” I like that quote.
Being alone – truly alone – makes one realize one’s vulnerability and weakness, and the hermit comes to realize his utter dependence on the Almighty. “There are no neighbors there, no policemen or doctors, no security. If he falls ill or is injured, there is no one to help him. The monk must throw himself unreservedly on God’s care, not in a spirit of testing or pride…but with profound self-distrust, and surrender to God’s will.” That is not any easy task!
When an individual grows in holiness and becomes closer to God, the whole Body of Christ benefits, even if we can’t see a tangible good. I think of it as the hermit being like the fingertips of a hand reaching out for God; the closer those fingertips come to God, the closer the Body is to grasping His truth. I was thinking about this, too, in the sense of a rock climber (a pastime in which I have never engaged, and have no desire to!). The rock climber has to find little ledges and clefts in the rock, and I imagine he has to have strong fingers and toes to grasp at these handholds and footholds, and support the rest of his body as he climbs. The hermit is like those fingers and toes clinging to the chinks in the vast face of God, ever seeking the next niche in which to extend his hand and climb higher.
So, we need hermits. They are raising up the Body of Christ to the Mind of God.
In the book, the author talks about the fact that in modern times, people discount the notion of the “old school” hermits who actually lived in isolation in a real desert (or forest, in the case of Russian hermits). They say the vocation is irrelevant, or that it is impossible to live that way nowadays. He discounts this idea, however. And to my mind, the eremitic vocation is perhaps even more necessary now. No wonder Satan wants to eradicate it, and cover it up in various ways! No wonder one hermit of my acquaintance has been told by his bishop not to wear his monastic habit in public, but to be seen in “everyday” circumstances only in standard clerical blacks and collar! If we saw hermits coming into town occasionally to procure necessities of life – if they were clearly identifiable by their monastic garb – we might have an upsurge in monastic vocations. Satan would not like that, would he?
So, even though I am not consecrated, and may never be, I think I still must continue to live out the eremitic vocation as best I can, juggling it with my lay vocation. Someday, I hope I can live in greater isolation, but right now I am content to continue the juxtaposition of one vocation against the other. Perhaps it is not the “desert ideal”, but it is the “ideal” that God has for me right now.\
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.