Saturday, February 01, 2020

Deserts, Silence, Solitudes

It seems strange to say, but what can help modern man find the answers to his own mystery,and the mystery of him in whose image he is created, is silence and solitude - in a word, the desert. Modern man needs these things more than the hermits of old...

Deserts, silence, solitude are not necessarily places, but states of mind and heart. These deserts can be found in the midst of the city, and in the every day of our lives. We need only to look for them and realise our tremendous need for them. They will be small solitudes, little deserts, tiny pools of silence, but the experience they will bring, if we are disposed to enter them, may be as exultant and as holy as the one God himself entered. For it is God who makes solitude, deserts and silences holy.

Catherine Doherty, Poustinia
Eve Baker, too, writes:
The desert to which the solitary is called is not a place, but something that must be there below the surface of ordinary human existence. It is nowhere, a place of thirst after God…

The disciplines of solitude will be different for everyone. Maintaining an inner cell of quiet will be a greater struggle for the person with family obligations or for those whose life involves working closely with other people… It is like having a compass in one’s hand, pointing to the true north. The busyness of life will swing the needle, but it will return again to the same direction.

Prayer is not so much a matter of specific occasions, forms, words, but a constant orientation towards God which becomes habitual. This is the hidden life which goes on inside the external one which differs little from any other human life except for the hidden search for solitude, silence and simplicity...
Once again I find myself in the position of coming to realise, painfully, that for me there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker says, "Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort." External commitments, too, however tempting it may be to make a positive, practical contribution to a community that makes room for me in its heart, are actually a danger to this interiority of prayer, and to my own hidden life within it.

Doherty again:
The presence of  a person who is in love with God is enough… nothing else is needed…

When you are hanging on a cross you can't do anything, because you are crucified. That is the essence of a poustinik's contribution… The poustinik’s loneliness is of salvific and cosmic proportions… By hanging on the cross of his loneliness, his healing rays, like the rays of the sun, will penetrate the earth…

The world is cold. Someone must be on fire so that people can come and put their cold hands and feet against that fire...

The poustinik's whole reason for going into loneliness - into solitude - his whole reason for exposing himself to temptation, is always for others. It is always in identification with… Christ, with his whole life, with his crucifixion. It is then the way to our resurrection and that of others.
Pope Paul VI's 1969 Instruction on the Contemplative Life includes this passage: "To withdraw into the desert is for Christians tantamount to associating themselves more intimately with Christ's passion, and it enables them, in a very special way, to share in the paschal mystery and in the passage of Our Lord from this world to the heavenly homeland."

This is hard. For so much of the life we have grown up to expect to live is based on the approval of others, their companionship and encouragement on a path towards a shared objective, that actually to set out into this desert of the heart is in many ways as lonely and difficult as it must have been for the women and men setting out into the solitary places of Egypt and Syria back in the 3rd century AD. But like their journey, it is not done alone. Like them, we must each of us be part of a community of faith; in the deepest and trues sense, a Eucharistic community, where we may live among our sisters and brothers, supported, if not always by their absolute understanding, at least always by their love.

2 comments:

Thomas D said...

"...small solitudes, little deserts, tiny pools of silence." Catherine Doherty was (is!) so good. The soul of a poet. It's heartening to see that her name is still remembered.

And yes to the plea for a eucharistic community. It is necessary, isn't it? In my early twenties, I misread Merton badly (or read certain parts too well), and felt that escaping other people was what I needed to do! Oh, no.

Thank you so much for these salutary reminders, beautifully chosen and so truthfully articulated.

Mike Farley said...

Thank you, Thomas. It's a shame more people don't know Doherty - though I see Poustinia is in its 3rd edition, 3rd printing - and the first e-book was 2012 - so someone must still read her apart from us two.

And community - yes! I made the same mistake with Merton myself when I was too young to know better!