Archive for April, 2013

Meditations on the Sand

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2013 by citydesert

“The crowded bus, the long queue, the railway platform, the traffic jam, the neighbours’ television sets, the heavy-footed people on the floor above you, the person who still keeps getting the wrong number on your phone. These are the real conditions of your desert. Do not allow yourself to be irritated. Do not try to escape. Do not postpone your prayer. Kneel down. Enter that disturbed solitude. Let your silence be spoilt by those sounds. It is the beginning of your desert….
meditations sand
In the desert the most urgent thing is–to wait. The desert does not take kindly to those who tackle it at breakneck speed, subjecting it to their plans and deadlines. Instead, the desert welcomes those who shed their sandals of speed and walk slowly in their bare feet, letting them be caressed and burnt by the sand. If you have no ambition to conquer the desert, if you do not think you are in charge, if you can calmly wait for things to be done, then the desert will not consider you an intruder and will reveal its secrets to you.

The dialectic of searching and finding has a strange structure in the desert. The search has a surprising ending. I could not in all honesty say whether I have found what I was looking for. All I know is that I have been overtaken. Overtaken by a Voice. Surrounded by a Presence. It is difficult to define what I have found. But I know for certain that I have been seized by Someone.

The immense spaces of the desert give you at first the feeling that you are free to go where you like. But you know intuitively that someone else is going to lead you by the hand.

The desert constitutes a most paradoxical challenge. You are given a vast territory with boundless possibilities of escape. Your courage is on trial. Are you courageous enough to be captured? Are you heroic enough to offer an unconditional surrender?

Prayer, it seems to me, is an extraordinary gift of space. No one has more space at his disposal than the man who prays. But that space does not help him to flee: it makes all flight impossible. And the man of prayer knows that he has been rendered incapable of fleeing. Which, you will agree, is the happiest solution. For we never enjoy greater freedom than when we are seized by God.

Not to have an escape route. This is the quintessence of the risk we take when we pray. And how beautiful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.”
From “Meditations on the Sand” (1982) by Alessandro Pronzato, Italian Roman Catholic Priest, journalist, writer and professor.


Beyond This Final House

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2013 by citydesert

The ever-inspiring blog, Hermitary [] focuses on a poem by the also inspiring American writer, Wendell Berry.

“Berry is a farmer (and poet, teacher, essayist) — this sentiment is close to the heart of the farmer, for it affirms the permanence (to the degree that anything has) of land, of soil that returns labor with harvest, that preserves health and bounty, that stretches the spirit into nature itself. (Here land has the “permanence” that the ancient Chinese ascribed to “heaven and earth.”)

Like the farmer, too, a house well-made, overlooking fine land, nourishing to creatures, blessed with clean water, vistas to the surrounding mountains and forest, sky and stars, complements the farmer’s sense of perpetuity and identification with nature and the grand cycles of existence. In this regard one can conjure the images of villages and farms depicted in Lao-tzu (Tao te ching, 80) when he describes the inhabitants of an ideal society in conformity with the Tao:

They truly love their homes,
so they have no interest in travel.
There may be some carts or boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.

Everything is ordered and predictable, and that is what the farmer in Berry would seek in his final house.”
Wendell Berry (born August 5, 1934) is an American man of letters, academic, cultural and economic critic, and farmer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays.

Beyond this final house
I’ll make no journeys, that is
the nature of this place,
I came here old; the house contains
the shade of its walls,
a fire in winter; I know
from what direction to expect the wind;
I move in the descent
of days from what was dreamed
to what remains.
In the stillness of this single place
where I’m resigned to die
I’m not free of journeys:
one eye watches while the other sleeps
– every day is a day’s remove
from what I know.

This is truly the Hermit’s aspiration: the Hermitage is the “final place”.

Or, perhaps in the words of the great Anglo-Catholic poet, T.S. Eliot;

“With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;”

“Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which analyzes the many failures of modern, mechanized life, is one of the key texts of the environmental movement, but Berry, a political maverick, has criticized environmentalists as well as those involved with big businesses and land development. In his opinion, many environmentalists place too much emphasis on wild lands without acknowledging the importance of agriculture to our society.”

Silence and Noise

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2013 by citydesert

Probably the defining characteristic of the Desert is Silence. Not the total absence of sound, but the absence of human and artificial noise. And surely the defining characteristic of the City is not just sound, but noise, endless human and artificial noise. In the City it seems human beings cannot cope with silence; they must talk, they must make or listen to noise….

For the Hermit, Silence is an integral element of the eremitical life….silence in the sense of neither unnecessarily making or listening to noise.
“Christianity has a deeply ambivalent relationship with silence. While one hymn exhorts the believer “Tell out my soul”, another warns “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”; Psalm 62, in the New King James Version, begins “truly my soul silently waits for God”, while Psalm 109 starts “Do not keep silent, oh God of my praise”. Jesus silences the evil spirits in Capernaum, at Mark 1:25, but remains silent himself in the face of his accusers, at Mark 14:61; in Luke’s Gospel he rebukes the Pharisees during the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem saying that were he to silence his disciples, the very stones would cry out; yet in the period beforehand he strictly admonished the disciples to keep silent about his ministry….

Diarmaid MacCulloch charts this problematic and often contradictory relationship with aplomb in Silence: A Christian History. Expanded from his Gifford lectures, it is, as one might expect of the author of A History of Christianity and Reformation, intellectually robust, and without the prevarications and self-qualifications that sometimes stymie academic prose. Indeed, MacCulloch is by turns precise, poetic and righteously indignant.”

“Diarmaid MacCulloch, acknowledged master of the big picture in Christian history, unravels a polyphony of silences from the history of Christianity and beyond. He considers the surprisingly mixed attitudes of Judaism to silence, Jewish and Christian borrowings from Greek explorations of the divine, and the silences which were a feature of Jesus’s brief ministry and witness. Besides prayer and mystical contemplation, there are shame and evasion; careless and purposeful forgetting.

Many deliberate silences are revealed: the forgetting of histories which were not useful to later Church authorities (such as the leadership roles of women among the first Christians), or the constant problems which Christianity has faced in dealing honestly with sexuality. Behind all this is the silence of God; and in a deeply personal final chapter, MacCulloch brings a message of optimism for those who still seek God beyond the clamorous noise of over-confident certainties.”

“This is a specialist book for non-specialist readers — by which I mean in part that it is made highly accessible to anyone seriously interested by excellent and lively writing rather than by any dumbing down. It may be an odd thing to say about a history of the intersection of platonic philosophy and Christian and Judaic spiritual theologies, but actually it is great fun. A good read….

But the real reason it is an odd book is because it is really two different books not quite seamlessly stuck together. The first is a history of the philosophical roots of silence within the Christian tradition and I found it wonderful. Because of its intellectual and conceptual interests we are spared another run through of sweet anecdotes about the Desert Fathers (whom I love — but there have been a lot of books recently telling us how sweet they were and this does not need rehearsing yet again). Instead, the early chapters of the book address the slow start to ‘silence’ in the Hebrew scriptures, and the crucial Hellenisation of both Judaism and early Christianity and how and why that led to a more distant and silent deity.

This is so well done, and makes really pretty obscure material entirely available and tasty for the interested lay reader. There is a fascinating passage on the somewhat obscure non-Chalcedonian churches, especially in Syria, along with an intriguing speculation (freely admitted to be speculation) as to what, if anything, they might have been learning about apophasis from the Hinduism and Buddhism, given how strong their trading connections eastward were.”

An interesting alternative to “Silence” is “Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening”
by David Hendy.
David Hendy.jpg
“…each chapter is a response to a particular sound from a particular place, so that we are asked to listen to the echoes in caves, the tenements of Edinburgh or the rumblings of a stethoscope. But the overall historical narrative is more satisfying than the individual chapters, perhaps because of the truism that sound is open to a wider variety of interpretations, so that Hendy is freer to make more convincing links.”

Dom Jacques Winandy, Pioneer of Modern Eremiticism

Posted in Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 by citydesert

Dom Jacques Winandy, a Benedictine monk from Belgium, who spent seven years on Vancouver Island in the 1960s founding a remote hermitage, died in 2002 at his home abbey in Clervaux, Luxembourg. He was 96 years old.
…..A close friend of Trappist monk Thomas Merton of Kentucky, who also sought more solitude within the monastic life, Dom Winandy was an internationally acclaimed Scripture scholar. In 1964, already well-known in Europe as the elected abbot of his community, Dom Winandy came to the small town of Headquarters, Vancouver Island, at the invitation of the Bishop of Victoria, Remi de Roo. Dora Winandy sought to establish a tiny hermitage on the banks of the Tsolum River, a few miles west of Merville. The colony of eight hermits, which he led, was mostly unknown to local residents and even to the Catholic Church in general. But it became well-known to the worldwide monastic community, offering a way of life known in the early church that had all but disappeared in the last 500 years.

…..At Vatican II (1962-65), monks worldwide were discovering their historical roots, studying the life of St. Anthony (AD 250-350) in the deserts of the Middle East. Many 20th-century monks felt a call to return to this third century AD eremitic life with its simplicity and monastic integrity, and to enter into pure and constant prayer. Dom Winandy provided the opportunity for aspiring monks to live the hermit life. Merton said in 1968: “When you undertook this project of offering to people a hermit group with a minimum of structure, it was even before the council, even before Bishop de Roo made an intervention in the council, speaking of the need to recognize the hermit life in the church and to permit some monks to fulfill solitary vocations. Your work was epoch-making and it had a decisive effect on the rest of us.”

Dom Jacques Winandy was born in Liege, Belgium, in the early 20th century and became a Benedictine monk Clervaux Abbey in Luxemburg. He did not really want to become a monk at Clervaux. His family had other wishes for him. His father in particular wanted him to live in a monastery closer to the house, like many parents would. When World War II started, the monks of Clervaux lived in exile in religious houses in Belgium. Winandy was excepted as a Carthusian during this time; however, he was elected as abbot of Clervaux immediately after the war, a role he reluctantly accepted. He served as abbot until 1957. He spent time as a hermit before, after a year in Rome, being sent to the Benedictine abbey in Martinique. There he met Br. (now Fr.) Lionel Pare. Pare shared Winandy’s interest in the eremitical life. They obtained permission to start of group of hermits, living individually but under the direction of an elder in 1964. They found an amenable bishop, Bishop Remi De Roo and the space for solitude on the Tsolum River in British Columbia, Canada, near Merville. Winandy remained in a hermitage in British Columbia until 1972, when he returned to a hermitage in Belgium, not far from Clervaux Abbey. He spent the next twenty-five years of his life there before his last six months at Clervaux while infirm. Winandy’s eremitical life had a profound impact on a revival of the vocation of the hermit in the Catholic Church.

The First Monks Living Solitary Lives

Posted in Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 by citydesert

A brief “National Geographic” video made at Mar Saba Monastery on the origins of Monasticism.


Hermitage of the Annunciation

Posted in Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 by citydesert

The Hermitage of the Annunciation (Orthodox Church of America) is located in Nova Scotia, Canada.
hermitage canada
“Our hermitage is a small monastery of monks gathered together for a simple life of prayer and work in silence and solitude. Our rule is based on inner quietude and solitude, seeking to celebrate unceasing prayer in the heart by assiduous reading and study of the Holy Fathers and Scriptures (lectio divina), Psalmody, and the Jesus prayer.
Some of the daily services are celebrated in common in the church, others are recited in the cell. In the holy ground of our desert that is the monastery we wage a difficult warfare against the passions, seeking the likeness of Christ.
Our life offers a balance between solitude and community life. The birth of our hermitage is very closely linked to a few spiritual fathers which are our constant guides in the ascetic life: Abba Barsanuphius, the ascetic fathers of Gaza, and St Paissius Velichkovsky.
The whole life of the monk is confessing that God is greater than all. Like the Most-holy Theotokos sitting at the feet of the Lord, the monk learns how to guard his mind, his heart and his imagination in silence and peace to listen to God. His prayer, fed by the Word of God and Holy Communion, identifies itself with Christ’s Prayer to His Father.”

Voluntary Solitude

Posted in Uncategorized on April 8, 2013 by citydesert

The very nature of the eremitical life involves voluntary solitude. There are many people who live in relative, or even absolute, solitude, but not from choice. The Hermit deliberately and intentionally chooses the solitary life. There is a long tradition of viewing voluntary solitude as somehow pathological – suggestive, perhaps, of agoraphobia or some other social phobia or of clinical depression. Indeed, there are some recent research papers specifically considering what might be called “hermit pathology”: for example, Boyd I, Rubin G, Wessely S. “Taking refuge from modernity: 21st century hermits” J R Soc Med. 2012 Dec;105(12):523-9. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.2012.120060.

But is the intentional desire for solitude pathological? Amongst the currents of thought (indirectly and probably unconsciously) deriving from the eremitical tradition is that which reconsiders the value of solitude, and the nature of intentional solitude.

“According to the anthropologist Robert Sussman, humans evolved not as hunters – as we like to imagine – but as prey, easy meat for wild dogs, ¬crocodiles and hyenas. We became “social animals”, as biologists describe us, not to catch dinner, but to avoid ¬becoming it – out of fear, in other words. Perhaps that fear still marks us, and perhaps that’s why we still feel uneasy when there’s no one around to watch our backs….

Are people uncomfortable with solitude because they so rarely experience it, or do they so rarely experience it ¬because they are uncomfortable with it? What is clear is that most of us persist in equating aloneness with loneliness, and company with companionship, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary. “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” is how Henry David Thoreau put it after two years as the sole inhabitant of a house he had built in the Massachusetts woods. You’re never more alone than when you’re in a crowd. A cliché, perhaps, but most of us recognise the truth in it….

Like many loners, I don’t have that many friends, but the ones I do have, I value. I talk with them, eat with them, drink with them – all those things normal people do. Still, whenever I return home, it’s with relief that I shut the door on the world. It’s a fantastic place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

“The joys of solitude”
Phil Daoust “The Guardian”, Tuesday 2 February 2010

“The Buddha. Rene Descartes. Emily Dickinson. Greta Garbo. Bobby Fischer. J. D. Salinger: Loners, all—along with as many as 25 percent of the world’s population. Loners keep to themselves, and like it that way. Yet in the press, in films, in folklore, and nearly everywhere one looks, loners are tagged as losers and psychopaths, perverts and pity cases, ogres and mad bombers, elitists and wicked witches. Too often, loners buy into those messages and strive to change, making themselves miserable in the process by hiding their true nature—and hiding from it. Loners as a group deserve to be reassessed—to claim their rightful place, rather than be perceived as damaged goods that need to be “fixed.” In Party of One Anneli Rufus — a prize-winning, critically acclaimed writer with talent to burn — has crafted a morally urgent, historically compelling tour de force—a long-overdue argument in defense of the loner, then and now. Marshalling a polymath’s easy erudition to make her case, assembling evidence from every conceivable arena of culture as well as interviews with experts and loners worldwide and her own acutely calibrated analysis, Rufus rebuts the prevailing notion that aloneness is indistinguishable from loneliness, the fallacy that all of those who are alone don’t want to be, and wouldn’t be, if only they knew how.”

“Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto” by Anneli Rufus (2003)

““Solitude” was seminal in challenging the established belief that “interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness.” Indeed, most self-help literature still places relationships at the center of human existence. Lucid and lyrical, Storr’s book cites numerous examples of brilliant scholars and artists — from Beethoven and Kant to Anne Sexton and Beatrix Potter — to demonstrate that solitude ranks alongside relationships in its impact on an individual’s well-being and productivity, as well as on society’s progress and health. But solitary activity is essential not only for geniuses, says Storr; the average person, too, is enriched by spending time alone. For fifteen years, readers have found inspiration and renewal in Storr’s erudite, compassionate vision of human experience.”

“Solitude: A Return to the Self” by Anthony Storr (1988, 2005)

For six years, Lionel Fisher lived by himself on a remote Pacific Northwest beach, where he had ample time to reflect on how to use solitude to become a happier, more fulfilled person. In a writing style at once eloquent and down to earth, Fisher interweaves his own experiences with other people’s real-life stories to affirm the life-changing benefits of being alone.

“Celebrating Time Alone: Stories Of Splendid Solitude” by Lionel Fisher (2001)

The cause of all human trouble is our inability to sit quietly in our rooms alone, wrote the essayist Montaigne. A small number around the country who have chosen to live as hermits do just that, 24/7.

Hermits are those who choose to live alone in silence for religious reasons. They dwell on the fringes of the church, but contemporary hermits might live right in your neighborhood.
Catholic solitaries are one of two expressions of the religious life: the cenobitic — the monk or friar — and the eremitic. That eremetic life has a long tradition in the church, beginning with the desert saints of the second and third centuries. At one time, the Requiem Mass for the dead was said at the profession ceremony, then the hermit departed into the wilderness to live on bread, water or goat’s milk, never to be seen again.

Hermits still exist today and have adapted to new circumstances.

“Sacristans of Emptiness”
National Catholic Reporter | 2/26/2004 | Rich Heffern