Thursday, April 18, 2013

Solitary Combat of the Desert

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

There was a brother who lived in the desert of the Thebaid and the thought crossed his mind, “Why do you live here in this useless way? Get up and go to the monastery and there you will make progress.” So he went and found Abba Paphnutius and told him about this thought. The old man said to him, “Go and stay in your cell; make only one prayer in the morning and one in the evening and one at night. When you are hungry, eat, when you are thirsty, drink; when you are tired, sleep. But stay in the cell and take no notice of this thought.” The brother went and found Abba John and told him what Abba Paphnutius had sad and Abba John said, “Don’t pray at all, just stay in the cell.” So the brother went and found Abba Arsenius and told him all about it and the old man said to him “Do as the others have told you. I have nothing to say but that,” and he went away satisfied.

I have thoughts like that, too. They say, “What are you doing? Look at yourself! Standing here chanting in the middle of the night, all alone! What is the point of this?!”

The odd thing is that the voice in my head is so convincing. I have never abandoned my prayer because of it, but it certainly does sow the seeds of doubt – at least for a while! I suppose one is more susceptible to such things in the middle of the night when the thought of sleep is so tempting.

A monk once told me that St. Benedict really taught that the solitary life should be the goal of the monastic. The community life was a stepping stone for those who were not strong enough to engage in the solitary combat of the desert. I don’t have a reference to offer for that; I just took this monk, my spiritual director, at his word.

Solitary combat is difficult. I’m not sure I am successful at it. Back then, the anchorites didn’t have cell phone and the internet, and they couldn’t send a quick text message to their spiritual directors to ask for a little assistance.  

And of course, one does not have to go physically “into the desert” to experience the solitary combat. In the end, we’re all engaged in it because we are individual persons. Physical isolation just makes it a little more intense, I guess. Of course we can ask others to keep us in prayer. And more importantly, we can do as the Hermitess Photini did, and when the demons are closing in we can run to Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!

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