In a silence starved world, we have to work hard for isolation for the sake of our souls and sanity. But in 2020, isolation is coming for us.
Earlier today, I received a phone call from the health department. It was the contract tracers. I had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. This means a 14-day “self-isolation” period. No restaurants. No grocery stores. No friends. No fun. The only place a leper like me is welcomed is Netflix.
In times of forced self-isolation especially, it can be helpful to look, of all places, to the desert. There we will find the folks who made self-isolation cool.
Saint Anthony was good at social distancing. In the year 285, the thirty-four year old child of wealthy parents sold all he had and gave it to the poor. He moved to a small hut in the African desert and remained in that very hut for twenty years. It was the original “bubble.” He was sustained by Christians from a nearby village, who passed him food through a small hole in the hut.
Meanwhile, many came to be spiritually sustained by him. In addition to the local Christians, pilgrims traveled to hear from him as word spread about the spiritual wisdom and guidance of Anthony. Somehow attracted by his lifestyle, many followed him in his asceticism and set up their own huts nearby.
In 305, twenty years after entering it, Anthony emerged from the hut. Finding himself surrounded by fellow hermits, Anthony formed a spiritual community right there in the desert. Anthony was, in effect, the pastor of this little congregation of hermits.
St. Anthony was, however, only the beginning. St. Pachomius took a more communal route, founding a kind of proto-monastery. He constructed a “rule” which included regulated practices for monastic living in a community. This became a template for later monastic communities, such as that of St. Benedict. St. Macarius was more like an individual spiritual advisor. Called a “mystical theologian,” he composed homilies about the contemplative Christian life which remain influential today. Like St. Anthony, St. Syncletica of Alexandria, despite her wealthy upbringing, gave away her material possessions and fled to the desert. There she received a reputation as a spiritual leader, and other women gravitated to her hermetic lifestyle.
Collectively, these (and others) are known as the “desert fathers and mothers.” They are so-called because their isolation usually included a retreat to the place where people were not—the desert. In addition to their incredible influence on monastic life, they remain held in high esteem as spiritual advisors and directors.
While the results of their isolation was often (ironically) the formation of communities, these communities were forged from a desire for isolation. This is not, however, isolation for isolation’s sake.
The name “monastic” or “monasticism” comes from the Greek word “monachos,” which means alone or solitary or one. Originally, this described the self-isolation of the ascetics, but it quickly took on another meaning: one with a single gaze or desire. More specifically, one who was singularly focused on God.
This characterizes well what the desert fathers and mothers were doing. Moving to the desert, or self-isolating, wasn’t out of a desire to escape from people, but rather to get to a place to block out distractions. They wanted to be in deeper communion with God.
Because of this desire for deeper communion with God, it should not surprise us that the desert fathers and mothers are good spiritual guides. But in this time of self-isolation they can also be good examples for how to do self-isolation well.
The reality is most of us won’t live in the desert nor will we live monastic lifestyles. And that’s okay. Community is a good thing and is worth pursuing. But sometimes we’re thrust into a place of self-isolation, and that’s okay, too. Right now, going to work, seeing friends, or even going to Church are not options for me. I occasionally even need the locals to bring things to my little hut and pass it through the hole in the wall.
Yet, this self-isolation need not be in vain.
We can, of course, fill self-isolation with noise, but the desert fathers and mothers offer us a different way. They show us a way of being alone with a purpose: directing our gaze towards God.
Want to read more about the monastics?
- The Life of Saint Anthony, by Saint Athanasius (Read for FREE)
- The Desert Fathers, Waddell (ed.) (Amazon)
- Macarius the Spiritbearer (Amazon)