Society and solitude

The paradox of active versus contemplative is present in virtually every religious and spiritual tradition, even where only laity exist, for the paradox refers to human nature and not just to social roles. The notion that a monkish or priestly office confers a status other than social is a false premise that further exacerbates the tensions in the paradox. A priest, monk, or nun has to cultivate a spiritual role; the spiritual role conferred by the office is really only a social role and depends upon the individual.

The paradox of active and contemplative is pushed to its limits when the office is an administrative one. Can one who assumes authority over people, material goods, and money still retain a contemplative life? A simple passage describing Abba Apphy in the sayings of the desert fathers dramatically highlights the paradox of not only active versus contemplative but the core paradox of social versus spiritual.

Abba Apphy had been a monk who “submitted himself to a very severe way of life.” He became bishop of Oxyrrhynchus. He wanted to continue to practice as he had when he was a monk but found that he could not. He prayed to God asking whether his new office had deprived him of grace.

Apphy was given this revelation: “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.”

Grace remained as a potentiality, a disposition or capability. But it was the product or fruit of practice. In Apphy’s case, practice was solitude but as bishop practice was social. His social function had clearly reduced his spiritual fire to embers. And, as another desert hermit Alonius has said, “If one does not say in one’s heart ‘in the world there is only myself and God,’ one will not gain peace.”

Tolstoy on Christianity

In his wonderful book The Kingdom of God is Within You, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) relates the story of the Hindu convert to Christianity, a careful student of the Gospel and the esentials of Jesus’ thought. The convert left India for Europe only to be horrified at what he discovered when he witnessed the actual life of professed Christians. Relates Tolstoy:

He could not recover from his astonishment at the complete contrast between the reality and what he had expected to find among Christian nations. … We need only look at our life from the point of view of that Indian who understood Christianity in its true significance, without any compromise or concessions, we need but look at the savage brutalities of which our life is full, to be appalled at the contradictions in the midst of which we live often without observing them.