Abba Macarius was once dismissing an assembly of his monks in their desert retreat, and he did so with the words “Flee, brethren.”
One of the seniors asked him ” Where could we flee to that is further away than the desert?” Macarius put his finger to his lips and replied “Flee also from this,” and he went to his cell and shut his door.
It is interesting to note that much of the work we have detailing the sayings of the early Desert Monastics is about them as people: people getting along with one another, or not. I chose as a title to this post a deliberate nod not only to those early pioneers but also to one of their most readable modern commentators: Rowan Williams, whose book Silence and Honey Cakes is full of great stories from the Desert Fathers and Mothers and marvellous insights into their applicability. What is Macarius asking his brothers to flee?
“Hermit” gives an oddly disconnected view of their loose communities of monasteries, solitaries, eccentrics, radicals. The early Desert Monastics practised some radical solitude, it’s true, and are wary of meetings (judgemental), interviews (occasions to be distracted by praise), liturgy and communal meals (an easy time to show one’s piety). The “silence/ that is his chosen medium/of communication” (I’m coming to R S Thomas in a minute) is their chosen way, and what we have left is fragments of maybe rare conversation. They flee, to seems to me, a sense of belonging. Maybe it is missing that very sense of belonging that makes me – religion or no – feel deracinated: in all this lockdown I want my friends back, my community of people to affirm and challenge, to affirm and challenge me, to make me feel at home. We console ourselves with “when this is all over” utopias when when we want – at least I know what I want – is a bit of my own control back. Thank heavens for the Internet? This is birthday time for many in our family: the Internet is a pale substitute.
So this year when we come to the most communal, Catholic bits of the year it is odd to see them as a time when we are alone. Alone with the TV or computer monitor, watching someone else “doing” the liturgy. Having begun my active involvement in Catholic liturgy in the last years of the old dispensation, some of this feels quite familiar: watching; listening; the “act of Spiritual Communion” (instead of queueing for frequent reception of the sacrament) – but it also presents the challenge I think Macarius is dealing with here. It’s about authenticity: now I can’t shuffle up to the front, half-attentive and half-wondering about the next piece of music; now I can’t squeeze in a pre-Easter Confession, the whole thing is laid out before me: I actually have to engage, to believe, to sort out what is sinful from what is embarrassing, to think about the circumstances and actions of the first Passiontide. At a deep level (and rather at an odd angle, to mix my images), by not being able to pick and choose, pick up “my” sacraments, I am less of a consumer and more of a participant. That is not really very comfortable a role in today’s society where “my” seems inextricably tied in to “my” choices.
And that – and the worries of my family in the present virus, and missing my friends, and feeling as if I’m not coping and all the uncomfortable truths about that – brought me to a bout of anxious sleeplessness that I would prefer not to repeat for some time. But at least even that brought me to reading and reading and reading. I finished my comfort read (mostly bath times for the past week or so) of C S Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, and over a 03.30 cuppa took down R S Thomas from the shelf. Now, much of his poetry doesn’t make for comfort reading, but does say a lot about the appalling honesty with which Thomas looks at his own spirituality. He is able, like very few other writers, to look at the aridity of his own spirituality and bring out something amazing. Perhaps apt for this time of year is to compare him to the blackthorn, whose beautiful flowers appear on the dark wood and among the sharp thorns. In his poem on Hebrews 12:29 Thomas has this marvellous few lines that go way beyond conventional Christianity and speak of how we confront our own need for authenticity:
To be brought near
stars and microbes does us no good,
chrysalises all, that pupate
idle thoughts. We have started and stared and not stared
truth out…RS Thomas, Hebrews 12:29 (Collected Poems p484)
But actually “fleeing” also means I need to set aside telling myself (and anyone that wanders onto here) how grandly heroic this all is.