Updated: May 3
Have you heard of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of our faith? They were Christian hermits, ascetics, monks and nuns who lived mainly in the desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. You could say they were also the experts in social distancing. They created what we now know as desert monasticism. These early monastics gave up their possessions, usually selling them to give the money to the poor, and ventured deep into the desert to seek complete solitude with God.
As we continue to move through the coronavirus crisis, we have to reckon with the fact that social distancing will be here to stay for a while. We can't get together with friends and we can't get together at church. It's been a huge test for us and has left many of us feeling isolated, frustrated, disconnected and lonely. So how can we benefit from it? Social isolation has become our contemporary spiritual desert, a setting where we can practice solitude and stillness in the presence of God.
Here are four practical tips to adapt the asceticism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers to your time in isolation.
1. Withdrawal from society
This one should be easy, considering the social distancing restrictions in place. The early Desert Fathers and Mothers created an alternative Christian society that existed away from the worldly influences of the Roman Empire. Be grateful that you have been given time at home to practice solitude and stillness without social commitments and distractions. Be careful to limit your social media and technology use (including television, streaming, video games etc) so that you don't binge content to the point of numbness. This time can be a gift if used well.
Hesychasm (from the Greek meaning "stillness, rest, quiet, silence") is a mystical tradition and movement that originated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It was a core part of their prayer life. Hesychast prayer is a meditative practice that was traditionally done in silence with eyes closed—"empty of mental pictures" and visual concepts, but with the intense consciousness of God's presence.
Try to spend a few minutes each day in meditative prayer. Close your eyes or gaze at an icon of Christ, and empty your mind of all thoughts. Focus instead on the presence of God while sitting in stillness. If you're struggling to keep your mind empty, it can help to repetitively recite the Jesus Prayer - 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner.' Learning to be attentive and still before God will do huge things for you spiritually.
3. Charity and forgiveness
While the Desert Fathers and Mothers did not live within civilisation, they did often live within their own monastic communities. Helping a brother monk or sister nun was central to their way of life. While they did not have material goods to give, they could give their time and energy to others. Hermits were frequently seen to break a long fast when hosting visitors, as hospitality and kindness were more important than keeping the ascetic practices that were so dominant in the Desert Fathers' lives.
It is likely that you are living in a household with your family or friends right now. Think of your home as a little monastic community. How can you be charitable to those in your household during this spiritual desert? It may mean picking up extra chores around the house, cooking a meal for a loved one or giving your undivided attention to the members of your household. Simple acts of love and service go a long way!
4. Recitation of scripture
Some of the desert hermits were not able to attend church because of their extreme solitude. For example, St Mary of Egypt lived 47 years of complete solitude in the desert as she pursued a life of repentance. In all that time, she only received Holy Communion once before she passed away. Other Desert Fathers and Mothers who lived in communities would come together for the frequent recitation of the scriptures - singing psalms, holding liturgies and other group services.
As social isolation continues, make an effort to tune into church services that are being streamed online. Even though we are separated by distance, prayer unites us as the body of Christ. Try to read or recite some of the psalms out loud or listen to Byzantium chanting. By doing this, we turn both our homes and our hearts into temples dedicated to Christ. Find your church online here.
Let's look at this season of solitude with gratitude. It won't last forever. We can use it to go into our own personal spiritual deserts and grow as people, become comfortable with solitude and be still before God.