Quarantines and social distancing have been around for a long time. And perhaps no group has perfected the practice better than the anchorites, or solitary monks. Now, they didn’t refer to it the same way, preferring words like “silence and solitude,” but the concept is similar.
Anchorites were rooted in the ancient deserts of Egypt, which gave rise to the contemplative tradition. A major obsession of the movement was devoted to collecting wisdom about the solitary life. Granted, perhaps because they spent so much time in isolation, they were prone to some bizarre behavior, like flagellating themselves or living on top of stone pillars for much of their lives. But they also learned a few things about the practice that can be quite helpful.
Silence and solitude are gifts, not punishments.
“Solitary confinement” conjures images of a hardened criminal forced to live in a cramped cell with no contact with other human beings, except for maybe a mean guard, if prison movies are to be believed. But anchorites actually sought such places (sans the mean guard). They travelled long distances looking for forgotten places in the wilderness. In fact, remember the island where Luke Skywalker was filmed spending the final years of his grumpy life? It’s called Skellig Michael, and it’s actually a remote location where monks once lived, hunkered in beehive-shaped huts made of stone. One might ask, “Why?” And the answer is complicated, but on one level they understood solitude as a precious gift with benefits.
“Their work was to live in stillness and know themselves thoroughly, … They did not talk, not because they hated conversation, but because they wanted to listen intently to the voice of God in silence;” (Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers).[i]
We live in a society that tends to view isolation in a negative way. But the contemplatives teach us that it’s something we should seek on a regular basis as a necessary part of a healthy emotional and spiritual life. For it is here where we connect with ourselves and the divine.
Silence and solitude are opportunities to build inner strength and confidence
Make no mistake, spending extended time in silence and solitude is hard work. We crave distraction and contact and input. That’s not to say that these are bad things. But if we are not careful, they can become obstacles in reaching our full potential as individuals, something the contemplatives call the “true self.”
Saint Anthony lived in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century and was renowned for his bouts with demons. When you read his stories, they seem bizarre and fantastical. But if you study them carefully, you can discover profound insights into the human psyche.
One bit of wisdom I find particularly helpful is Anthony’s observation about fear. He believed demons conjure illusions in our mind of our worst nightmares to manipulate us.[ii] In other words, as we sit in silence, we can expect our anxieties to be magnified. Our first response is to want to go play Animal Crossing or check Facebook. But this will only prolong the inevitable. Silence gives us a great opportunity to take a hard look at our fear and see it for what it really is—an illusion. That’s not to say that our fears aren’t based on something real. Dying of the coronavirus is real. And being anxious about that is OK. But we don’t have to let it get the best of us. Our fear of dying can ruin the life we have been given if we are not careful.
So silence and solitude give us an opportunity to explore our fears, put them in perspective, and get a handle on them. It’s hard work, and sometimes it takes the help of a professional counselor to accomplish. But we can become stronger and more confident in the process.
Silence and Solitude are ways to live in the present.
One of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus is an inability to plan for the future. But the contemplatives have long understood that the future has never been a sure thing. One of them was a 14th-century monk and author of a seminal work known as the Cloud of Unknowing. It’s important to note, too, that this monk lived in England during a time when life was not good. His nation was in the middle of a bitter campaign against France known as the Hundred Years’ War. And plagues swept through the region in giant waves, completely decimating entire towns.
And yet, he had the presence of mind to guide his young novitiates through the disease, violence, and chaos of his age with wisdom like this, “Time is made for us; we’re not made for time.” He explains, “God, the giver of time, never gives us two moments simultaneously; instead, he gives them to us one after another. We never get the future. We only get the present moment.”[iii]
Silence and solitude force us to be still long enough to recognize all the beauty right before our eyes. Go ahead, stop reading this for a moment and take a long, deep breath. Look around. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Realize that this is all you really have. The past is gone, you cannot relive it. The future is not here and never will be. All you have is this moment.
And my guess is that this moment—just this moment—is good.
[i] Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, London: Penguin Classics, 2003, xviii.
[ii] Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, edited by Robert C. Gregg, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980, 53.
[iii] Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2009, 15.