Self-isolating in the desert, the desert fathers and mothers were determined to obey Jesus’s command to the rich young man to sell all he had and come follow him.
We may kick against the restrictions that have been laid on us by the government, but the early Christian hermits believed that God was to be found in solitude. That is why the Ethiopian monk Moses (who, incidentally, had been a slave and a robber before finding his vocation) told one of his disciples to “go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
The desert fathers’ aim, as a learned monk called Evagrius taught, was to “cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind being dispersed and your stillness lost.”
How relevant this advice still seems today, when the desire for many things has become the basis on which our economy is built and when our minds are dispersed by a thousand and one distractions every day.
The desert fathers lived according to a different standard, believing that “to accept poverty freely is the monk’s treasure.”
That free choice really matters. Being locked down will not automatically make us holier. A change of location may help us free ourselves from worldly attachments but sanctity is only truly obtained through a thoroughgoing conversion of the heart.
The abbess Matrona expressed this idea particularly well when she pointed out that “many solitaries living in the desert have been lost because they lived like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live a solitary life than to live in solitude and be longing all the time for company.”
The hermits’ extreme asceticism can seem daunting and even offputting to us today, but we shouldn’t forget that most of them were very ordinary laymen and women afflicted by very familiar problems.
We are told in the 6th century Verba Seniorum that even the great St Anthony “was troubled by boredom and irritation” while living in the desert, for example. They certainly did not believe that we come to close to God by screwing our- selves up to superhuman feats of spiritual endurance. They knew that keeping company with God is the greatest pleasure we can have, not a trial to be endured.
That, ultimately, is their greatest lesson for us during these strange days.