Self-isolation – lessons from the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Self-isolation – lessons from the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Hilary Pearson writes:

Medieval hermits and anchorites (like Annora) took the inspiration for their chosen solitary vocation from people in the early days of Christianity, the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Round about the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, individuals began moving into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine to live in caves and huts.  There is no single explanation for this movement, but the desert was chosen as a place of solitude, silence and deprivation where it seemed possible to get closer to God.  The desert was also seen as a place where demons lived, where the fight against temptation was clear.  

Although the majority of people choosing this life were men, there were also women.  Their life was very simple: praying, having the minimum of possessions, keeping silent, working with their hands to support themselves by growing food and making baskets by plaiting palm leaves, giving hospitality to travellers.  Everyone had a spiritual father (Abba) or mother (Amma), who came from those who had lived this life for a long time.  Their wise words were remembered and later collected, called ‘sayings’: modern translations of these sayings have been made by Benedicta Ward SLG from Fairacres Convent.  A concise saying which is very relevant to us at present came from Abba Moses who, when asked for ‘a word’ (advice) by a young man, said “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

These Fathers and Mothers were well acquainted with human nature, and a lot of advice relates to humility and overcoming temptations. For those living in confinement with others, which tends to bring out the worst in all of us, some advice from Abba Agathon: “I have never gone to sleep with a grievance against anyone, and, as far as I could, I have never let anyone go to sleep with a grievance against me.”   They also recognised the danger of a common result of solitude, a state called accidie which shows as an inability to concentrate, lassitude, feeling unwell and a disinclination to do necessary tasks.  As this period of self-isolation goes on, we may very well suffer this state. Some of the Ammas provide practical advice to overcome accidie.  Amma Syncleta advises prayer and reading the Psalms.  Amma Thedora, after describing a monk who felt ill as soon as he thought of praying, told how he overcame this by persuading himself he was so ill he would die so had better say his last prayers, at which he was cured.

If you would like to know more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, good introductions are Silence and Honey Cakes by Rowan Williams and The Interior Mountain by Simon Peter Iredale. The translations of the sayings by Benedicta Ward are in Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.  A selection, charmingly illustrated with Japanese drawings by Yushi Mura, is Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers.