Orthodox America

  Life In the Wilderness

     We are a society "on the go". How often do we hear, "My life is so hectic," or "Weve got a million things to do today." Indeed, many of us are fairly spinning with busy schedules which have us juggling jobs, parental responsibilities, business trips, shopping, PTA and parish council meetings, chauffeuring children to and from various activities... The very atmosphere around us is "busy" with sight s and sounds: blinking billboards, ringing telephones, traffic noises, city lights, the visible and acoustical chatter of television...

     There is nothing wrong with being busy; idleness, after all, "teacheth much evil" (Ecclus. 30:27). The problem is that unless we are careful, we shall find that much of our "busyness" is tied to a world whose values have little in common with our Orthodox Christianity, and often serves to distract us from "the one thing needful., We have but to recall the parable of the sower (cf. Mark 4:3-20) which warns that even after the word of God has taken root an the heart, the tares of the world are apt to choke it and prevent any spiritual fruit from developing.

    The greater our participation in worldly life, the more we become filled with its thoughts and impressions, and the more difficult it becomes to detach ourselves from its influence, to escape its incessant demands upon our attention, and silence our minds that we might hear the still, small voice of God.

They that live in the wilderness have an unquenchable longing for God, as they are far from the tumult of life. (Sunday Antiphons, Tone 1)

     The world has always been at enmity with God (cf. James 4:4) and deliberately obstructs those traveling the path of salvation. it is, therefore, with good reason that St. John Climacus identifies "renunciation of the world" as the first step on the ladder of perfection. And from ancient times, those seeking to "be perfect'' (cf. Matt. 5:48), those longing for a more perfect union with God, fled the "busyness" of the world, with all its distractions and contrary wisdom, and went into the desert.

     It was not long before some of these like-minded individuals came together, forming communities of monastics, i.e., those who aspired to be alone in their hearts with God. The monasteries acted as spiritual fortresses, whose walls represented protective barriers against worldly influences, which were feared more than any desert marauders. These communities fostered an atmosphere of spiritual concentration conducive to the development of unceasing prayer. They promoted that stillness which, the Holy Fathers teach, is the basis of the soul's purification (St. Peter Damascene).

     Monastic s, then, are those who leave the world in order to gain Christ's Kingdom, which is "not of this world" (John 18:36). They are those who, like Lazarus' sister Mary, choose "that good part," i.e., to have the mind wholly occupied by Christ.

    Of course, one is not to assume that all those living in a monastery have attained unceasing prayer and contemplation of God. Monasteries, although removed from many external temptations of the world, witness the same struggle with the passions common to man's fallen nature. Indeed, in monasteries this struggle is magnified, for intensified opposition to the powers of darkness provokes a more violent retaliation. Nevertheless, the concentration of ascetic labors, the diligence in unseen warfare, the devotion to prayer, the cutting off of self-will--and all other activity to which monks apply themselves for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom, all of this serves to draw down an abundance of God's grace. And within the monastery walls, there is created an atmosphere of otherworldliness, of silence before God, which offers healing and refreshment to world-weary souls.

     The ancient desert monasteries of Egypt and Palestine inspired similar communities wherever Christianity was established: Ireland, Gaul, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia... In Russia, her vast forests and wilderness expanses served as "deserts" (in Russian --poustinya) where those zealous after God retreated from the world. There the monastic tradition soon became firmly rooted and spread rapidly. Its influence was deeply felt among the general population, as prince and peasant alike flocked to the monasteries as pilgrims or settled nearby, to absorb the grace-filled atmosphere, to renew within themselves a singleness of purpose, to sharpen their spiritual focus, to receive counsel, to partake in the life of prayer, to still their souls... In coming to a monastery, they left the world and drew closer to Paradise. 

    "Withdrawal from the world provides refuge in Christ. By world I mean love for things of the senses and for the flesh. He who alienates himself from all this, because he has understood the truth, becomes absorbed by Christ for the sake of love for Him; when, through this love, a man has become estranged from all worldly things, he has bought this one precious pearl--Christ." Theoleptus, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, c. 1325.

    Not everyone is called to be a monastic or to live in a monastery. (In any case, as Elder Macarius of Optina points out: A life lived in the world can be as good, in the eyes of God, as one spent in a monastery.") But as followers of Christ who are all called to separate themselves from the world--we have much to gain from a, study of monastic life.

    It is based, as we have seen, on detachment from the world and a retreat into the "desert". How can we accomplish this? By simplifying our lives as much as possible, by making them less cluttered with extraneous thoughts and things, by minimizing superfluous activity--unnecessary trips to the store, for example --and all that hinders rather than promotes our spiritual progress. This will enable us gradually to develop within our hearts our own "poustinya", our own wilderness-refuge where we can retreat from the tumult of the world and allow God to lead us beside the still waters and restore our souls.

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