Of all the sayings of the desert fathers, the one that is most often repeated, and most bears repeating, is the advice to "remain in your cell, for the cell will teach you all things."
Among all the traditional eremitic practices, the discipline of just staying put, of not rushing here and there to do good, to answer everyone's cry for help, is the hardest to understand -- even for those of us who feel called to solitude. To deliberately cut oneself off from human commerce, to retire away or entirely apart (ana-chorein) from others, not only seems anti-social or even anti-Christian, but even against human nature itself.
No doubt this counter-cultural stance appears even more radical in this age of mobility and repeated calls to activism in the Church, but has it ever been really easier for those who felt the call? Is this not why so many fled to the desert or to hard-to- reach (and hard-to-leave) islands, with some even going so far as to chain themselves to pillars or wall themselves into their cells? Was it because such people were born misanthropes? Or could it be that it is not the archetypical introvert who needs to go to such lengths, but instead the more "normal" extrovert who without such discipline is unable to live the contemplative life?
If this is so, it is because here we're not simply talking about distractions, the thousand and one little things with which we can always keep our minds occupied, but much more than that. It is to the extent that we crave companionship, and the degree to which we are able to resist it, that our fidelity to the call to solitude first of all manifests itself. Maybe this is why, above all else, at least for some of us -- if I may be forgiven a play on words -- an "anchorite" needs above all, to stay "anchored".
Published in Raven's Bread
Return to Index of Articles