We live in a world in which “service” means only one thing: doing something. And, indeed, the need for action is an essential message of the Gospels. Feeling compassion for the hungry is good, but it does not provide them with food.

And yet the Hermits, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, claim to serve the world while they lived, essentially, in solitude and external inaction.

It cannot be argued that the world does not require those who serve by doing, those who feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, who visit those in prison or who are ill and alone, or those who actively advocate for the despised and rejected. There are so many opportunities for the Christian to serve, and so the apparent passivity of the Hermit seems both a failure to obey the commandments of the Gospel and a retreat from the responsibility all Christians have in the world.

This is, in a real sense, the contradiction, the aberration, the paradox of the life of the Hermit. In its most traditional form – for example, the Mother or Father alone in a cave in the remote desert – it involves doing nothing, and serving no-one. This is one of the reasons why the eremitical life cannot ever be normative in Christianity.

But the Hermit would – and Hermits do – claim to serve in ways unseen, unknown and unrecognized. Many Hermits, of course, have served and do serve by providing guidance, counsel, spiritual direction (allowing for the fact that I loathe the term “spiritual direction”! I prefer “spiritual guidance”, although “spiritual direction” is the currently popular term), a “listening ear”, wise (we hope) advice, or even simply a supportive presence to sit silently with those who seek comfort. The reason we know what we know about the Desert Fathers and Mothers is precisely that: people sought them out, and heard and recorded their words, often in response to the often repeated request: “Abba, give me a word”.

Because the Hermit had (should still have) no status, position, authority, power or role in the institutional Church, and would usually be unknown by and not know those who sought her or his advice, such advice was free from any of the often complex subtexts, hidden agendas, personal preferences and prejudices, or politics that almost always intrude into conversations, especially those within institutions, and most especially within the institutional Church. The Hermit spoke freely and frankly, from the heart, always open to the guidance of the Spirit, and without (as it is often phrased) fear or favour.

But the Hermit is not essentially a counsellor. Serving as a counsellor may arise out of the life of the Hermit and in response to the needs of others, but it is not the essential role of the Hermit.

The Hermit essentially serves in two ways: by prayer and as a symbol. I will write about the symbolic aspect of the Hermit’s life in a later posting, but it relates to “being” rather than “doing”. For many people in the past, and even now, the very existence of men and women who give up their lives to live as Hermits serves as an example, a reminder of the essential nature of the Christian spiritual life.

Traditionally, Hermits served by prayer. Prayer is, and always has been, a complex, usually confused, and largely unformed concept in Christianity. It often consists of little more than trite platitudes, like the seemingly endless statements that are made or posted following any tragedy: “Our prayers are with you.” Just what that means, or could mean, is entirely unclear. Often prayer represents little more than quasi-magical mantras recited in the apparent hope of gaining benefit or avoiding harm: “Please, God, find me a parking space”. Those asking me to pray that, for example, they will achieve high marks in an examination are often shocked (even scandalized) when I decline to do so.

Such prayers are often viewed as some sort of quantitative form of magic: the more prayers from more people, the greater probability of the prayers being granted! Such pseudo-magical approaches are often seen on Facebook: “Get as many people as you can to pray for…..” Why? Is the outcome of any prayer determined statistically? Can we pester God into action? Will he “yield” to a thousand prayers from five hundred people, but not to one prayer from an individual?

Prayer in the Orthodox Tradition is, at least in genuine Tradition and (true) theology, not like that at all. The great “Jesus Prayer” does not come with a “wish list” attached, and those who wrongly believe that reciting it obsessively – the numbers factor again – will gain some benefit are sadly deluded. True prayer is not an attempt at magical technique; it is not prescriptive (“Please God, let me buy the house at under $500,000”); it is not a form of negotiation (“Dear God, if You….then I will….”). It is, indeed, mysterious and, in many ways, inexplicable. It is not a formula with a statistically measurable outcome. It is not some sort of science experiment.

Prayer is an effort at opening the soul to God as a means of self-transformation (note: not self-improvement or personal advantage!) and therefore the transformation of the world.

“Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?”

Abba Joseph’s question is, in a rational sense, not so much meaningless as madness. As are the words of Teilhard de Chardin in the same context:

“Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves and gravity, we shall harness for God energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world we will have discovered fire.”

But Abba Joseph and Teilhard de Chardin both express the essence of true prayer. It is the reason why, to the world, the Hermit’s life of prayer accomplishes nothing, serves no-one, and is a waste of time and energy.

For readings on prayer, see:


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