The Desert Fathers and Mothers on Solitude

To the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, solitude is not merely a physical state to be contrasted with living among people. Solitude was initially an experimental mode of living due to the harsh environment of the desert, the need for weekly liturgical attendance, and an unregulated (by church authorities) extra-monastic life. Living as hermits without true precedents was a new psychological expression requiring forethought and self-knowledge. The experiences of the hermits was a process of refining the meaning of solitude and eremiticism with trial and reflection. In this way, their experience parallels that of every solitary seeking the path that the Desert Fathers tread.

Thus, when a young brother asked him to recommend whether to live as a solitary or to stay in the monastery, Abba Joseph of Panephysis replied that whichever state brought him peace was to be preferred, and that if he could not decide even then, it should be based on whichever enabled him to make spiritual progress. This statement fits within the then yet tentative status of eremiticism, as when Athanasius, the biographer of St. Anthony, says of eremiticism that "this was not as yet usual."

Further, the desert monks realized, as Amma Syncletica puts it:

There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.

Therefore, solitude had to develop its own prescriptions and techniques every bit as relevant to the solitary as monastic rules to the coenobitic monk. This fruits of this experiment in discovering (on their own, not mandated by anyone) the secrets of successful solitude is precisely what the desert hermits sought to articulate in these early centuries of formative Christianity.

Most solitaries had spent a considerable number of years in a monastic setting, where they saw their lives as inevitably intertwined with their fellows. "Our life and our death is with our neighbor," said Anthony. "If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ." This sentiment, which summarizes the coenobitic or social mode of life, and which became the standard of Christian living in the West in contrast to the more mystically-oriented Eastern Christianity, was a natural concern even after the same brothers or sisters became desert solitaries. They understood their interrelations to be an opportunity to practice the virtues of patience, compassion, and mutual aid, but without the guardian eye of an abbot.

In the monastery, as Syncletica puts it, obedience was more important than asceticism. But once outside the monastery, the whole psychology changes. The will must be self-motivated. Emotions must be self-tempered. Every action takes on a kind of spiritual utility.

Anthony notes the change by comparing a monk and a fish: A monk loitering outside his cell or passing time with men of the world is like a fish out of water, in danger of losing inner peace and interior watchfulness. But in solitude there is a different focus, not in losing one's peace due to physical or human distractions but in getting rid of the physical and human elements altogether. Anthony summarizes it thusly: "Who wishes to dwell in the solitude of the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight."

Likewise, Poemen notes that coenobitic dilemma: "He who dwells with brethren must not be square but round, so as to turn himself towards all." But this is a great challenge to a recollected spirituality and to psychological discretion. Such constant interaction requires an exhaustive exercise of discernment, humility, and a withdrawal from controversy, while at the same time demanding an active and regular participation and cooperation that creates of the personality a necessary if muted extroversion. While it may seem difficult to think of a monastic setting as "extrovert," the subtle interrelations documented by monks like Thomas Merton certainly reveal a micro-society every bit as complex as the world.

The solitary may not have or want to marshal forth the psychological resources to function that way. Not that the would-be solitary therefore has all the requisite skills for solitude, either. For successful solitude has its skills and technique, as does a successful coenobitism. Poemen expresses it discretely: "It is not through virtue that I live in solitude, but through weakness; those who live in the midst of others are the strong ones." And Abba Lucius concludes: "If you have not first of all lived rightly with others, you will not be able to live rightly in solitude."

Those who choose solitude after a coenobitic life often harshly criticized the laxity of the monastery. Perhaps on a psychological level they are overcompensating to justify their chosen -- "eccentric" in the eyes of most -- way of life. On the larger social and historical level, however, the lives of reformers from Romuald to Francis of Assisi suggest that the critique was not merely psychological. Indeed, criticism of this sort was the impetus of the medieval reform of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders in Europe. With Thomas Merton and others in modern times it continues to present eremiticism as a subtle spirituality.

Conversely, complaints upholding the pure ancient models against the present laxity often sound generational among the Desert Fathers, as when Abba Elias tells his brothers:

In the days of our predecessors they took great care about these three virtues: poverty, obedience and fasting. But among monks nowadays avarice, self-confidence and great greed have taken charge. Choose whichever you want most.

And the critique often involved specific actions, as when Theodore of Pherme criticized monks who, in his presence, drank wine in respectful silence but drank freely nevertheless. "The monks have lost their manners and do not say 'pardon'."

Thus a clear motive for many who were to pursue solitude was the insufficiency of not only the world but of those they encountered in the monastery -- and, by extension, in the Church at large. Coupling this negative experience with the positive benefits of solitude, the individual was led to the only possible state of life and the need to prepare for it. As the Japanese Zen monk-hermit Ryokan said, "It is not that I dislike people, it is just that I am so tired of them."

The criticisms by the solitaries appear harsh in terms of morals and behavior of others, but they were not hateful or misanthropic. Indeed, disengagement meant removing the conflict with the world and thereby the spirit of contention that marks all who would want other people to change.

An essential point emphasized by the desert hermits is that social life interferes with spiritual goals. Abba Apphy led an austere life as a monk but could not practice in the same way after becoming a bishop. Was it a withdrawal of God's grace? he wondered. But in prayer he heard the answer: "No, but when you were in solitude and there was no one else it was God who was your helper. Now that you are in the world, it is man."

Solitude did not, however, guarantee peace or spiritual progress, opening instead a new, higher but rigorous plane. The aforementioned Theodore of Pherme was once consulted by a hermit brother who was troubled in his solitude. Theodore advised him to try returning to coenobitic life for the sake of humility and obedience. But the brother returned and confessed that he was no more at peace with others as when alone. A conversation ensured, with Theodore asking the young brother:

"If you are not at peace whether alone or with others, why have you become a monk? Is it not to suffer trials? Tell me how many years you have worn the habit."
He replied, "For eight years."
Then the old man said to him, "I have worn the habit seventy years and on no day have I found peace. Do you expect to obtain peace in eight years?"

The anecdote concludes by saying that the young brother went away encouraged.

The same struggle beset the famous Macarius the Great, who in conversation with Theopemptus, said:

"See how many years I have lived as an ascetic, and am praised by all, and though I am old, the spirit of fornication troubles me." Theopemptus said, "Believe me, abba, it is the same with me."

These anecdotes are no mere tales to assuage the conscience of a young hermit. The term fornication eventually came to define a specific carnal behavior but in the context of the desert hermits it refers generally to acts of the flesh, hence the opposite of the asceticism referred to by Macarius. While solitude did not eliminate temptation, it eliminated a panoply of easy provocations, leaving to one's own self the uncontrolled thoughts, the constant vigilance against laxity, the bouts of discouragement, the lack of confidence in the path -- the last what Buddhism calls "lack of faith."

Poemen recommends flight from sensuous things. The instruments of asceticism are poverty, hardship, austerity and fasting, he tells us -- "the instruments of the solitary life." But sensuousness in the broad spiritual sense here described is provoked by human beings and their presence, and their "baggage." Solitude, especially for the novice hermit, must be thorough-going.

Several anecdotes tell of desert fathers who eluded well-meaning visitors -- Moses, Longinus, Arsenius -- by deliberately diverting their visitors about the whereabouts or identity of the hermits they sought. Arsenius explained the paramount need for solitude with a real-world analogy: A maiden hidden in her father's house has many suitors, but once she is married and about in the world she is no longer the object of desire, only, perhaps, of gossip. Likewise, the soul when hidden retains its attractiveness, but once it goes out into the world it is common and like every other soul.

Ultimately, as Abba Moses says, the solitary must die to his neighbor and to the things of this world, must die to everything before leaving the body. This is the attitude of the Hindu sadhu and the special emphasis of the Buddhist teacher Buddhaghosa. Only in this way does the solitary neither injure another nor find another a provocation to what the hermits call fornication. In solitude is spiritual integrity. The solitary must see other people with what Abba Peter described as "the frame of mind as when you have met a stranger on the first day that you met them, so as to not become too familiar with them." For familiarity with others is like "a strong burning wind. Each time it arises everything flies swept before it, and it destroys the fruit of the trees."

The psychology of the Desert Fathers and Mothers remains fresh and clear even today, and remarkably relevant regardless of one's religious or spiritual disposition. The solitude these hermits envision, the safeguards they plan, the pitfalls they foresee, are universal. No one aspiring to solitude can ignore the insights of the desert hermits.


Quotations from Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987) and The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell (New York: Vintage, 1998; Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1957).