When I first returned to Australia after being ordained – perhaps unusually, by an Orthodox Metropolitan in a Roman Catholic Church in Edinburgh, Scotland – a friend, with whom I had long been involved in a variety of social justice causes, expressed cynicism and not a little sadness at my new status. So, she said, you’ve decided to flee the city for the desert? It is almost inevitable that Orthodoxy will be seen as a museum, albeit offering an attractive and colourful display, of Christianity frozen in some far distant time and place, perhaps in the romanticized desert monasticism drawing equally on the style of Disneyworld and Cecil B. De Mille. Of course, it is seen to have little relevance in the modern city.
As one eminent Orthodox theologian reminds us:
The desert is a profound myth. It is a powerful symbol. These fourth-century elders are reminders of fundamental truths about our world and ourselves, which we tend to forget and which they translate for all generations throughout the ages. They should be considered as being prophets of another reality – in many ways, the only reality – rather than strange representatives of a remote past or inaccessible examples of former times.
Nonetheless, no one can lead us into the desert. Each one of us must find our own way. Each must look for the places where they are tempted, where we are lonely, thirsty for meaning and hungry for depth. Each of us will discover the areas that need to be purified, where we can encounter God and where God speaks to us. The desert is only one expression or translation of the truth, like art, music and beauty. Each of us must discover the ways of appropriating and appreciating this truth. We may question the truth conveyed by these desert elders, though we can never deny it.
John Chryssavgis In the Heart of the Desert. The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers 2003:109
For the Church in the modern world there is a new, and perhaps more intimidating desert: the urban wilderness which is the modern city. This view is reflected in the writings of one modern religious community, founded in 1968, which works in the desert of contemporary Rome: the Community of St Egidio. The Community declares its mission in these words:
The large modern city poses new and grave problems both for societal life and for the Church. Its huge dimensions, its structural unfriendliness, its sprawling peripheral areas (both in the urban and in the human sense), make the city into a difficult place to live, with little sense of community, where the individual, even in the midst of a crowd, is isolated and unable to become part of a shared human life. Poverty and dramatic events form part of the day-to-day experience of each one of us. Our own community, with the sensitivity born of the reading of Scripture, is aware that the city is like a desert, despite its multitude of inhabitants. The monastic fathers abandoned the city in order to serve the Lord with complete freedom. For Antony, the retreat into the desert was the beginning of the formation of a community of monks which surrounded his experience of searching for God. Benedict, too – according to St Gregory – left the city and retired to the solitude of the countryside to establish a monastic family. Today the place of testing for whoever would find God would seem no longer to be outside the city, but in the immense desert of human loneliness. This is the true desert of the search for God, where the disciple, like his Master, must fight against the triple temptation with the aid of the Word of God, just like our Lord did in the desert, when faced with the temptations of the Devil.
The Community of St Egidio “Orientations for Our Common Life”, quoted in Jeanne Hinton Communities. Stories of Christian Communities in Europe, Eagle, Guildford, Surrey:1993:153-4
Some are called to the physical desert or to the life of physical solitude. Most of us are not. We are called to live and work and undertake our spiritual journey in the midst of multitudes of buildings and vast crowds of people. In this city-desert we are rarely alone or in peaceful solitude.
This is not to de-value the life and spiritual work of those who are called to physical isolation, whether in the desert or in monasteries or lavras or sketes, as monks or nuns. It is, rather, to recognize that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are called to live in towns and cities, in lives of business and busyness, where solitude is the exception rather than the rule, and where primary responsibility may, in practice, be to the needs of others and not to their own spiritual needs.
Does this mean we are denied the spirituality of the desert? Not at all. It means that we must discover new and innovative ways of discovering desert spirituality in the midst of the city.
In the USA there has been an increasing interest in the eremitic or semi-eremitic life amongst those who live and work in cities. Some have formally committed themselves to the life of the hermit according to the traditions of their churches.
Roman Catholic Canon Law (Canon 603) makes provision for those who wish to be consecrated to this state without living within one of the cenobitic or eremitical religious orders:
§2 A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels” (i.e. chastity, religious poverty and obedience), “confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.
The Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the USA have been inspired by the number of those seeking to follow the eremitical tradition in their church to develop guidelines for hermits.
In the Orthodox tradition things are less formal: there has been a long-standing tradition of the poustinik, the hermit living and working in the community. This was popularised in the West by Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man (1975) by Catherine Doherty, a Russian Catholic and social activist. The book has gone through several editions and more than a dozen translations out of English.
The New York Magazine (January 13 2008) published a feature headed “A Hermit of the Heart”, focussing on one novice Episcopalian hermit living in New York, but exploring the wider interest in urban eremitical life, and concluding: “There may in fact be no better way to understand the spiritual work of a contemplative than in the tension between the crowded city and the contemplative’s inner life.”
Some living in the city-desert may seek the approval, support and guidance of their church; others may not. Such was the approach of the Desert Fathers and Mothers; some were blessed and approved, some simply adopted the lives to which they were called without asking for permission, and in some cases against the wishes of their Bishops.
For some, this will not involve fleeing the city for the desert, but living in the desert that is the city.