Archive for October, 2009

The Desert Is Where You Are

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2009 by citydesert

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.

Spirituality as an Olympic Sport

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2009 by citydesert

I often travel by bus into the heart of the city. A frequent fellow-passenger is a young woman who sits quietly reading throughout the forty minute journey. She always reads from what appears to be the same small black book. When I first found myself seated beside her I could not help (discretely, I hope!) looking to see what kept her attention so quietly focussed. It was a small Horologion (or Breviary). She employed her travelling time to unobtrusively read the Hours each day, sitting quietly in her own desert while in the midst of the city.

There are those for whom the spiritual life appears to be an Olympic sport. More prayer is better prayer, more fasting is better fasting, more ostentatious “holiness” is obviously holier. Quiet, unobtrusive asceticism, a true “interior life”, attracts no attention and wins no praise.

A young man came to speak to me about a sense of dissatisfaction with his spiritual life – he seemed to be experiencing what the Fathers called spiritual langour or aridity. This is described by Fr Matta El-Maskeen in Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way thus:

Spiritual languor…. affects the will. Here, the attack is aimed even at our attempt to pray and to persevere in prayer. A man may stand to pray, but he finds neither words to say nor power to carry on. He may sit down to read, but the book in his hands turns, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, “into lead.” It may remain open for a whole day, while the mind fails to grasp a single line. The mind is distracted, unable to concentrate on or follow the meaning of the words passing before it. The will, which controls all activity, is impotent.

Although the desire to pray is present, the power and will to do so are absent. In the end, even the desire to pray may fade. Man becomes unable and unwilling to pray, adding to his suffering and sorrow. His problems seem entirely insolvable.

The young man who spoke to me was confused and depressed. He kept a careful and detailed record of what he called his “spiritual activities” and showed me the notebook in which he recorded everything on a daily basis: how many prostrations, how many hours of prayer, how many hours of fasting, how many Psalms recited….and so on. He could not understand, he said, that the more he did the less spiritually inspired he felt.

He seemed to assume that he was in some sort of “spiritual Oympics”. He had adopted what might be called the “spiritual accounting” approach. And it had drained the life, the light and the love from his spiritual life.

As one Orthodox website phrases it, rather confrontingly:

To perform 100 prostrations profits nothing; to finger prayer-ropes 40 times a day profits nothing; to light a box of candles from Bethlehem profits nothing; to ignite charcoals and douse them with frankincense from Ethiopia profits nothing; to read the Philokalia and memorize quotations profits nothing; to erect an expansive prayer-corner with hand-painted icons from Mt Athos profits nothing; to listen to liturgical music from Balamand or Decani profits nothing; to wear shirts with modern Orthodox-like logos and quips from the Desert Elders profits nothing; to dye Paschal eggs profits nothing; to follow the world tour of the Kursk-Root icon of the Mother of God of the Sign profits nothing; to decorate one’s own MySpace or Twitter or Facebook pages with Orthodox crosses and images and shiny flash profits nothing; to bury the dead facing East profits nothing; to kiss a priest’s hand or to genuflect before a bishop profits nothing. These are an iota of the theologoumena reducing our communities into braindead androids, communities falling away from Tradition, communities not knowing true communion in the Church, communities plagued by Pharisaic Delusonal Disorder. We’ve chosen to obsess on the iconography and forgot the True Icon. We’ve become enchanted by sentimental piety, with romanticized rituals, and abandoned the one thing needful: the heart.

Is the recitation of a hundred Psalms better than the recitation of one? Is fasting for two days more spiritual than fasting for one? Is complete exhaustion after ten hours of Church services a sign of anything really spiritual?

The Fathers and Mothers of the Desert were like true athletes in training: they sought by careful, incremental and planned discipline to prepare themselves for the their true work. But it was not a competition.

The desert was not a gigantic gymnasium where athletes vied with one another in endurance tests. When one of the fathers went in disguise to a monastery during Lent, he outdid all the monks in asceticism. His name was Macarius the Egyptian and he was very tough. At the end of a week, the abba led him outside and said, “You have taught us all a lesson, Father, but now please would you mind going away, lest my sons become discouraged and despair. We have been edified enough.”

Benedicta Ward The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection 1975:xxv.

If spiritual discipline cannot be developed to mesh into the demands of a “normal” life it is of little value. Unfortunately, there is a tendency (especially in what might be described as “monk-heavy” churches) to act as if “real spirituality” requires lay men and women to act as if they were monks and nuns while fulfilling the demands of work and family. There is a tendency to assume that the religious life (i.e. being a monk or a nun – the unfortunate assumption being that they alone live a “religious” life) is a superior spiritual state. Works like the “Synaxarion” include very few examples of holy men and women whose sanctity was manifested in what might be described as ordinary life in the world.

We need to re-discover the spirituality of that life in the city – or we risk a form of anti-Incarnational Manichaeism and Donatism. We must undertake a re-discovery of what might be called the “sanctity of the ordinary”, a spiritual discipline of daily life.

Quietly and unobtrusively on a bus or train, sitting in a garden, walking along a busy street……we can reflect and praise and pray. Even in situations – like walking –  in which we cannot read from a book, we can still engage in silent prayer and reflection. And modern technology can provide other opportunities: I have recorded the Hours on my i-pod equivalent and can listen them anywhere.

If we are in spiritual competition with others, or even with some supposed ideal, we have lost the race. If we need to keep accounts, we are heading for spiritual bankruptcy.

It is the gentle and gradual transformation of the heart that the Fathers sought: less frenetic external activity, more internal growth.