Abba Antony said:
Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.
He said also:
He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication. –The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony the Great, sayings 10-11 (The Greek Alphabetical Collection), trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 3
Before I really get moving with this post, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not staying alone even if I am staying home. My household includes at present four adults and two preschoolers. I eat three meals a day with other people, besides bathing two of them (the kids, of course), dressing them, playing with them, reading with them, praying with them. COVID-19 has not increased my solitude; if anything, it has decreased it because my evenings find themselves populated by online gatherings or phone calls to keep in touch.
But I do know others who are alone — single people with no roommates, the widowed. While I think the wisdom of the Desert about staying put is timely for all of us, it to those who find themselves physically extraordinarily alone I particularly pass these thoughts along.
The Desert Fathers have a lot to say about staying in the cell — the first saying of Antony the Great above is perhaps the most famous. The second reminds us that when we are alone, we still bring ourselves with us. John Cassian observes that if you suffer from anger, solitude will not cure it, for alone in the Desert your own angry self comes along. The only place to cure anger is the company others who make you angry.
Evagrius also recommends the solitude of one’s cell:
The one who guards against these arrows [of the logismos of fornication] does not frequent public festivals, nor will be go around agape on feast days, for it is better to stay at home, passing time at one’s prayers, than to become an accomplice in the work of one’s enemies by thinking that one is reverently observing the feast days. –On the Eight Thoughts 2.7
The evil thought that is most likely to drive a monk from his or her cell is akedia, listlessness, despondency, dejection. Boredom, perhaps? Called “the noonday demon”, misrepresented in English as “sloth”. The restlessness associated with akedia is doubtless relevant to all those in these strange times who want to go out, see people, walk around, shake hands with a neighbour.
In On the Eight Thoughts, 6, Evagrius writes of akedia:
5. The spirit of acedia drives the monk out of his cell, but the monk who possesses perseverance will ever cultivate stillness.
6. A person afflicted with acedia proposes visiting the sick, but is fulfilling his own purpose.
7. A monk given to acedia is quick to undertake a service, but considers his own satisfaction to be a precept.
8. A light breeze bends a feeble plant; a fantasy about a trip away drags off the person overcome with acedia.
9. The force of the wind does not shake a well-rooted tree; acedia does not bend the soul that is firmly established.
10. A wandering monk is like a dry twig in the desert; he is still for a little while and then is carried off unwillingly.
-Trans. R. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 84
The Desert tradition believes that staying put alone in the cell is good for you. Their main goal is, of course, hesychia, as I discussed yesterday. Hesychia — inner calm, stillness, quietude. Maybe our goal should be, too. So maybe corona quarantine will be good for us.
If you’re wondering what the Desert tradition expects of you trapped alone all day, the answer is: Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Eat one meal around 3 PM. Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Weave a rush mat.
This is essentially the lifestyle of Evagrius as described by his disciple Palladius in the Lausiac History. He probably also read other spiritual works — Gregory of Nyssa who was his spiritual father or Origen, for example — and he spent time writing down the fruit of his prayer and meditation.
Maybe now is the time to get down with the daily office …