SATURDAY READING: Desert Hermits by Sara Maitland

Desert Hermits by Sara Maitland

From A Book of Silence

 In her late forties, after a noisy upbringing as one of six children and an adulthood as a vocal feminist and mother, Sara Maitland found herself living alone in the country, and, to her surprise, falling in love with silence.

During these years in Weardale I grew deeply contented.  I lived in a place of extraordinary wild beauty.  I was fit and well.  I had all these fascinating things to think and learn about.  I was never lonely and never bored.  I had enough satisfying work to do.  I felt my prayer life and my theological understanding were developing, and moving forward in ways that seemed both natural and exciting.  I felt I was creating a way of living, freely and silently, that might be useful to a noisy world as well as to me personally.  Above all, I enjoyed the sense of exploration, and possibility.

Then I noticed something shocking.  I had come to Weardale for four conscious reasons: to study and think about silence, to find out if it was delightful to me, to deepen my prayer life and to write better.  I was indeed doing and enjoying all the first three, but I was not, in fact, writing.  Or, to be more precise, I was not writing any fiction and certainly not of the kind I wanted to write.  When I had come north it had been with a sense that the stories were not enough – I wanted to dig deeper into them, to pull more out of them.  It had not occurred to me that I would abandon them, nor they me.  The desire to write, to tell stories that pull my thoughts and emotions together, has been something that I have lived with and found integral to my sense of well-being, even of identity, for as long as I can remember.  Now quite simply stories did not spring to mind; my imagination did not take a narrative form.  I had in a peculiarly literal way “lost the plot.”  I found this disturbing.

More to the point, I could not understand what was happening.  When I set out on my journey into silence, I had a very well-embedded assumption.  I was a writer and a pray-er; through a disciplined practice of silence I would get better at both.

It is a commonplace, almost a cliché, that silence and solitude are good for the creative artist and particularly for writers: “the world is too much with us,” we need privacy and peace, and a minimum of interruption because “solitude is the school for genius.”  Equally, it is very generally held, in almost all religious traditions, that silence (in larger or smaller doses) is necessary to the aspiring soul.  This belief is not confined to monotheistic faiths and even the most communitarian traditions, like Judaism and Islam, have a silent tradition and core narratives about withdrawal into solitude and silence as a precursor to hearing “the voice of God” and being enabled to take radical action.

So it had seemed perfectly reasonable to me that I could go and lurk up on a high moor, put in the disciplined practice of concentration and meditation, and thus become both a better, more prolific imaginative writer and more safely and intensely engaged in the life of prayer.

To put it at its simplest I was not being proved wrong.

Luckily I had already become aware that there are lots of sorts of silence.  This gave me an idea that there might be something profoundly different between the silence of the hermits and the silence of creative artists.  I started to read more attentively the attempts of both groups to describe what they thought their silence was for.  What I began to see was that the two projects are, in a number of ways, inherently contradictory.  Here are two quotations from famous silence practitioners.  Both quotes are from personal letters, rather than published text, and I do not think that this is mere chance.

You said once that you would like to sit beside me while I write.  Listen, in that case I could not write at all.  For writing means revealing oneself to excess, that utmost of self-revelation and surrender. . . that is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough. (Franz Kafka, letter to Felice Bower)


We must cross the desert and spend some time in it to receive the grace of God as we should.  It is there that one empties oneself, that one drives away from oneself everything that is not God and that one empties completely the small house of one’s soul so as to leave all the room free for God alone.  It is indispensable: the soul needs the silence of it, the inward retirement, this oblivion of all created things. (Charles de Foucault, letter to Father Jerome)

The first is by Franz Kafka in a letter to his fiancée (perhaps not altogether surprisingly they were never married).  Kafka was a Czech-born Austrian of German-Jewish parents, much influenced by the pre-existentialist theology of Kierkegaard, who saw social life as a continuous assault on the individual by a pointless and irrational society.  He was hypersensitive and deeply introspective.  Here he clearly sees silence as a means to strengthen his ego, by protecting it from social pressure, with a view to establishing an authentic self or “voice” in which to write, and as a way of developing and experiencing personal fulfillment.

The second quote is from Charles de Foucault to a friend.  De Foucault came from a prosperous military family, minor members of the French nobility.  He served in the army until he experienced a profound spiritual awakening.  He first joined the Trappists, but found the fairly extreme asceticism of the order inadequate to his personal creed of self-immolation.  Eventually he was dispensed from the order and became a hermit in the Sahara Desert, where he was murdered in 1916, by Tuareg nomads.  It is evident that he saw silence not as a means to shore up or strengthen the boundaries of the ego, but to dismantle them – for an extreme act of “self-emptying,” or cosmic merging.  The concept of “fulfillment” would have been repugnant to de Foucault, filled-fullness and self-emptying being rather precisely opposites.  His entire purpose seems to have been the destruction of his ego through radical self-denial.

It is interesting how much these two have in common in one sense.  They both saw silence as integral to their life’s work.  They both come from a similar historical period.  They are both using the same genre, the personal letter, to discuss the same issue.  They both use surprisingly similar imagery.  Of course, rather than comparing them in this way, I could equally contrast them by other sets of identities – by race, class, and, indeed, by emotional history: Kafka constantly dreading being overwhelmed by his father; de Foucault fatherless from a very young age.  I have quoted them because of their unusual clarity about their intentions, which exposes the radical distinction between them.  It is quite difficult to find many quotations as direct as this from those whose sense of self is simultaneously constructed and buried in silence.

However, I am certain that neither Kafka nor de Foucault is unique.  I could similarly compare and contrast Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own with Catherine of Siena’s “little secret room” or “hermitage of the heart.”  The vocabulary and imagery are markedly similar; the projects are radically opposed.  Woolf seeks solitary space in order to escape from the social pressures on women and establish a secure identity and voice; Catherine seeks the same space in order to empty herself of ego and merge her identity with, lose her sense of self in, her God.

So a new and, I have to say, painful question developed for me, coiled within the pleasure and excitement of my growing silent life.  Is it possible to have both – to be the person who prays, who seeks union with the divine and to be the person who writes, and in particular writes prose narratives?  I was very much aware that I have always believed that silence, and particularly silence in “nature,” was supposed to stimulate both artistic creativity and religious spirituality.  That was not what I was experiencing.

Increasingly, I felt that there were, or seemed to be, two different sorts of silence, which required very different techniques.  In prayer one is trying to empty oneself of ego; pour oneself out, become permeable, translucent, empty, open to the transcendent; whereas in the act of making art one needs the silence to focus all one’s capacity, to shore up or strengthen the ego.  I began to understand more seriously what George Steiner had meant when he described artists as “rival creators.”  I had always thought that this was rubbish – and that God wanted us, rather, to be co-creators.  I was learning, with different degrees of acceptance, frustration, willingness, and resistance, that I could not be silent and at the same time be creating new words and new worlds.  Silence has no narrative.  Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.

I began to feel that this meant, or might mean, that I had to make radical choices about who I chose to be.  Could I be happy to give up writing?  Could I be contented with a more active and businesslike kind of religious practice?  The answer to both questions, most of the time, was “no.”

I had a problem.

So I decided to try to dig down to the roots of these two very different silences and try to understand them better.  Because I had found the atmosphere of specific places so helpful in my earlier searches I decided I would make two more journeys: one to the desert, which the Christian hermits of the third to sixth centuries had used to explore radical silence as a means of getting closer to their God; the other to the mountains, which had proved so important to the writers of the Romantic Movement whose ideas have so deeply informed contemporary understanding about what it means to be a creative artist.

I went to the Sinai Desert first, because that is the older of the two strands.

Geographically, Sinai is a part of the vast belt of desert that runs from the Atlantic across the top of Africa (the Sahara) into Saudi Arabia and, curling northwards, along the eastern side of Jordan into Syria and Iraq.  The part of this chain of deserts that lies between the Nile and the Euphrates is the wellspring of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the monotheisms of the “Children of the Book,” which are sometimes called the “Abrahamic faiths.”  In this shared story, Abraham and Sarah came out of Ur of the Chaldees, an ancient city on the Euphrates about 150 miles south of modern Baghdad, trekked along the northern edge of the desert to Haran (in Syria), then south through what is now Israel, into the Negev in the northwest of the Sinai peninsula and down into Egypt, and finally back through northern Sinai to the land of the Canaanites, now Israel and Palestine.  Somewhere in this vast, bleak journey the idea of a God who was almighty but nameless, who could not be bribed, who was not tied to any place or temple, who could be met directly and personally, who would speak to his people, began to take root.

Generations later, so the story runs, the young Moses, fleeing justice (perhaps the very first nationalist to begin as a terrorist and end as a patriarch) after murdering an Egyptian overseer, encountered God in a burning bush as the foot of Mount Sinai.  Inspired by this vision, he led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and into this desert for forty years until they finally arrived in the “promised land,” which was also the land of their ancestors.  In the desert the Hebrew migrants experienced a harsh purification, a total dependence on their God and above all a direct and abiding encounter with the divine.  On the summit of Mount Sinai God gave Moses the tablets of the law.  So crucial was this understanding of the desert as the place where God could be found that Jesus and Muhammad, seeking, centuries later, to move the religious tradition forward, both withdrew into the desert to prepare themselves for their missions.

Everyone who has written about the desert, from the hermits themselves right through to modern tourists, speaks about the density of desert silence.  Gertrude Bell, the British traveler who was to become such an important figure in the political development of the Middle East after the 1914-1918 war, wrote to her father during her first desert journey.

Shall I tell you my first impression – the silence.  It is like the silence of mountain tops, but more intense, for there you know the sound of the wind and far away water and falling ice and stone; there is a sort of echo of sound there, you know it father, but here nothing. . . silence and solitude fall around you like an impenetrable veil. (Janet Wallach, Desert Queen)

It was this silence that I wanted to taste.  I joined a desert retreat organized by Wind, Sand, and Stars, “which offers an opportunity to spend a week in one area, meditating in the space, silence, and beauty of this ancient place.

Getting into the desert was an unusually fretful and noisy experience.  I flew to Sharm el Sheik, the tourist resort on the south coast of the Sinai peninsula.  All the irritation with flying that I had developed over the previous years was given appalling confirmation – an overfull plane of happy families en route to a beach holiday; the particularly stressful noise of human voices speaking at high volume in a language I could not understand; an intense cacophony of officious incompetence at the airport.  The flight was late, too late for us to proceed to the proposed campsite for the first night.  There was a din of meeting too many new people in the dark and not knowing quite who anyone was; a restless night, a hectic dawn reorganization; a long drive in a crammed jeep over bumpy roads.

And then we were in the desert.

The jeep engine was turned off and we transferred to camels.  Once I got used to it, I found the gait of my camel oddly soporific, slightly like being in a small boat on a calm sea, a steady rocking sensation.  A camel does not need much steering or much attention there under the bright sun.  The sky was white, too dazzling to look at, and gradually the silence of the desert took hold and overwhelmed me.  I sat on the camel swaying passively with it, losing any sense of time and distance.

Sinai is not a sand dune desert – it is a rocky, mountainous desert.  I have never been anywhere so beautiful and so harsh.  Our campsite was called the White Wadi: a flat semicircle of very white sand, sprinkled with smaller black stones and protected on three sides by sharp irregular escarpments.  The cliff-like formations jutted out into the wadi, and down them flowed steep streams of sand that moved and flowed like water when I tried to walk up them; from a distance these falls of sand looked like glaciers.

A very long time ago the whole area was under the sea, a warm, shallow ocean.  The rocks are sandstone laid down in narrow layers of sediment.  The same slow inexorable movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates which pushed up the Alps lifted the Sinai peninsula out of the water like a monster lumbering out of the depths, shaking the water off its rough coat.  Once the sea had gone and the rocks dried out, the wind wrought the sandstone, eroded it into grotesque beautiful forms, stained in places with vivid iron drippings; in the dead beasts, the escarpments their ancient bones.  The same wind ground it down into sand, the finest, whitest sand I have ever seen.  There are other rocks too – baked basalt, far more resilient and left behind as black patches in the white.

This part of Sinai had a harsh, even cruel, beauty, “a dry weary land without water.”  At first sight it seemed completely barren, even dead – but each morning in the smooth sand there would be tiny footprints running often right up to my sleeping bag: scorpion tracks; they were there though I never saw one.  Here for a week I sat each day perched up on the escarpment, in a cleft in a rock, almost a cave, for protection from the sun, looking out over the desert camp, and thinking about silence and prayer.  Below me was a long view of the flat desert floor, and the sharp cliffs of rock seemed to rise directly from the sand and ascend vertically.  Above me was the blue sky.  Once, late in the morning, I saw a single bedu, in long dark clothes and a black head covering, appear at the furthest limits of my view, probably over three miles away and walking steadily towards me across the sand.  Eventually the cliff that dropped below me hid him.  He had the quality of a dream and may indeed have been one.  Once I saw some type of crow floating effortlessly over the camp, watching sharply; very occasionally there were tiny birds, swift and eager as swallows, which flew with sudden grace through the broken rocks.  Apart from that there was nothing; a huge hot nothing.  It was the deepest silence I have ever known.  There was nothing to hear.

It was hot and it was silent.  I began to experience for the first time that mysterious “song” or “sound of silence.”  There is a problem describing it, because it does feel like an aural experience, you do hear it, but I think it is in fact the absence of anything to hear.  John Cage thought that it was a physical sound and it proved to him that silence did not exist:

For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible.  Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes.  I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low.  When I described them to the engineers in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.  (Silence: Lectures)

It was this experience that inspired 4’33”, his 1952 composition in which a pianist sits at a piano and does not play it for just over four and a half minutes.  Cage’s point was that anyone listening properly would have heard sound in the concert hall.  It is these sounds, unpredictable and unintentional, that constitute the music of his piece.  Cage appears to have accepted his “engineer’s” explanation without any questions.  He writes several times about this key experience and in later repetitions drops all reference to the engineer’s opinion and presents the explanation as though it were an accredited scientific fact, but other people hear it differently and are less certain that it is in fact physical sound at all.  In his book about deserts, Grains of Sand, Martin Buckley writes:

Short of a vacuum, true silence requires the absence of friction of air upon object – the emptiness and stillness found only in the desert.  Hovering over the binaries of dust and sky, dun and blue, shade and sunlight, silence eventually becomes a sound itself: a sibilant blood rush in your ears.

I have discussed this very peculiar and distinct sound with a good number of people who have spent time in silence.  Almost everyone agrees that it is there – very low volume, continuous, and (usually) two or more toned, exactly as Cage describes it.  You can only experience it at very intense moments of physical silence.  I don’t know what it is.  No one seems to know what it is.  It is the voice of God.  It is minute particles caught in the inner ear.  It is the consequence of there now being so many people in the world making so much noise that there is nowhere to escape the last dying reverberations of human sounds.  It is the spinning of the universe, or the slow crawl of the tectonic plates deep underground, moving at about the speed that fingernails grow.  Although I first encountered it in the Sinai Desert this strange effect can happen anywhere that there is profound enough silence, still air, and someone paying attention.  I still find something thrilling about it too.

Up in my desert eyrie I had another potentially more dangerous experience.  As the day wore on just as silently and ever hotter, I would find myself slipping into a kind of lassitude that made the effort to do very simple things, like drinking, feel immense.  It was a strange, dreamlike state, in which nothing seemed important or worthwhile, without it feeling particularly horrid or alarming.  I understood with gratitude why Matt, our excellent desert guide, had gone on and on – ad tedium ­– about how important it was to keep drinking and nagged about quantity: because he had done enough to override my lassitude, in that respect at least.  But at one point, as the sun moved round, my legs weren’t in shade any more.  I sunburn easily and badly, but even though I knew they would burn, possibly dangerously, and before long the rest of me as well, I still looked at my legs in the sun dreamily, thinking, “I must move,” but not quite finding the energy to do so.  When I described this to Matt, he said, “desert lassitude” – that it was very common and dangerous. He felt it was a response to solitude and heat that is similar to snow sickness.

That day in Sinai I was protected from any serious consequences by the fact that I had to report back to the camp for supper – and, to the great inconvenience and annoyance of others, would have had to be found and fetched back if I had failed to appear.  This realization did make me wonder if one element in the gradual adoption, in the West, of community (cenobitic) models of the monastic life in preference to solitary hermits was precisely to protect the individuals, not from ravening beasts or the incursions of barbarians, but from this interior movement of the self as it becomes emptier, less precious, less well boundaried and less adjusted to survival.  Disinhibition and loss of clear boundaries would be more likely to be fatal in the desert than almost anywhere else.

I spent a great deal of each day, from the breathtaking rose-colored dawns right through the long hot silence of midday, sitting up there and trying to think about silence and prayer.

There is a tendency today to assume that prayer is primarily a private and interior activity, as opposed to “organized religious ritual,” or “rote prayers.”  But all the anthropological evidence suggests that first of all prayer was communal and ritualized, and the development of silent meditation or private prayer comes much later in all cultures.  The earliest account of silent prayer that I have found rather makes this point.  It occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures:

Once upon a time there was a man from the hill country of Ephraim, called Elkanah.  He had two wives – Peninah and Hannah, who had no children.  Each year the whole family went up to Shiloh, where Eli was priest, to worship the Lord of Hosts and make the ritual sacrifices.  Year after year, Peninah used the occasion to taunt, provoke, and irritate Hannah about her infertility.  Hannah was so upset that she wept and refused to eat, even though Elkanah would treat her tenderly and ask, “Hannah, why are you weeping?  Why is your heart so sad?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  But Hannah was not comforted and left the family group, deeply distressed, and went off on her own into the temple to pray.  As she prayed Eli watched her.  Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved and her voice was not heard; therefore Eli took her to be a drunkard.  Not surprisingly Eli reprimanded her, but she replied, “I am a woman sore troubled.  I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”  Eli, clearly moved, told her, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your petition.”  Then Hannah left the Temple and was sad no longer.  The following year she gave birth to a son, whom she called Samuel. (1 Samuel 1:1-20)

This is a very ancient story – probably originally eleventh century BCE, but it is worth noting that it continued to be curious enough for the later editor, who put the Books of Samuel into their present form after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, to keep it in – obviously silent prayer did not take off with quite the speed one might now expect.

It is a story set in a culture that values the word and the community so highly that silence has very little positive role in classical Judaism.  When I talked to Christopher Rowland, Professor of Biblical Studies at Oxford University, about silence in the Hebrew Scriptures, he felt that for that community silence was a negative thing, a lack or absence, indeed, and so of little or no cultural interest.   In this culture to be alive is to be speaking – the dead in Sheol are silent.  The faithful speak to God and God speaks to them directly, or through messengers (“angels”) and through the prophets.  It is not that Judaism lacks mystical or visionary insight, or denigrates intense personal union with God; it is more that the accepted form and expression of this inner authority was prophecy and poetry, rather than silent contemplation.

One might expect a society that formed its spirituality in the silent desert, and which forbids itself visual representations, to need and value language especially highly.  In such a context words take on an additional weight and significance, and silence poses a particular danger.  Perhaps it is not surprising that in the Hebrew Scriptures “silence” signifies more than simply our modern quietness and comes to mean total ruin or destruction, subjection, death, and the grave.  The direct Word of God, and the authorized record of it in the law and in history, is essential to the life of the community.  In such a culture the great terror is that God will fall silent:

“Behold the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Yet at the heart of Judaism is the Great Silence.  The name of God is not spoken.  Even God does not break this silence: when asked for a name, God only said, “I am who I am.”  Once a year, in awe and solemnity, the High Priest in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem spoke the name of God.  Even that has been silenced: the name was written down in consonants alone, but obviously a word cannot be pronounced unless its vowels are also known.  After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE there was no place in which the name could be spoken and – somehow – the way to speak it got lost, silenced in a new way.

This is one silence that was not broken.  It is a taboo so deep that it was not even inscribed in the law.  But there is an ancient tale about speaking the name of God.  When God first created the world, he created human beings “in his own image; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)  Later, after many things and for many reasons, the Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” so he took one of Adam’s ribs and made Eve from it, to be “bone of Adam’s bone and flesh of his flesh.” (Genesis 2:18-23)  There is a myth, however, to fill the obvious gap.  The first woman, the one made directly in the image of God and equal of Adam in every way, was called Lilith.  She refused to be subservient to him – some versions tell that she refused to lie underneath him when they had sex, while he felt his status required the missionary position – and the couple fought.  Outraged, she named the unnameable name and it gave her power.  She flew out of Eden and down to the Red Sea coast where (untouched by the Fall and therefore immortal) she lives forever, sustained on the flesh of her own children, which she conceives alone, giving birth every morning and consuming them before nightfall.  She is the screech owl and newborn babies must be protected from her rapacity and enmity with amulets and charms lest, not satisfied with her own offspring, she tries to consume and destroy yours.  Power and peril, male and female seem well balanced in this story.  But the central silence is protected by threats as well as by promises.

This unnamed God is known not through silence but in the ongoing story of the community and through his own direct spoken word.  When asked for his name, God first said, “I am who I am,” but then added, “The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. . . this is my name forever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exodus 3:14, 15)

Very early Christianity did not break with this tradition.  Although the Gospels record Jesus’s forty-day fast, presumably in silence, and his temptations in the desert, and although they describe him on occasion going off to the hills to pray alone, when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he did not instruct them in meditation techniques nor urge interiority and silence; instead, he immediately gave them a formalized set of words, clearly designed to be said out loud and communally.  (The Lord’s Prayer is in the first person plural: “our,” “us,” and “we.”)  Nor in his epistles, which instruct the new churches around the Mediterranean in great detail about the life in Christ, does Paul seem to give any attention at all to what we would now call “spirituality,” the silent and interior practice of personal prayer.  The attitude that insists that the practice of Christianity is centrally the disciplined worship of the community and works of charity and justice has continued ever since.  “And whose feet will you wash?” asked Basil the Great testily as yet another member of his community headed off into the desert to become a hermit.  It was a major plank of the Reformation, but also of the Counter-Reformation, and is still embedded in a great deal of contemporary theology.

So it is not entirely clear why, from the middle of the third century, Christians began to go into the desert, initially around Egypt and east of Jerusalem, and develop an intense spirituality based on rigorous asceticism and particularly on silence.  Nonetheless, for the next several centuries they did so in surprising numbers.  The extremity of the desert and eremitical life is as far as one can possibly go – so they went.

The simplest explanation is that the end of active persecution by the Roman state provided a challenge to a church that had seen martyrdom as the noblest expression of faith, not just because dying for a cause is always effective, but also because being martyred was imitating the life of Jesus.  The extremes of the ascetic life were a response: create something as difficult and disagreeable as dying and you too can be as heroic as the martyrs were.  While this is generally viable, it does not explain why silence became such a central form of asceticism.  There are lots of other more spectacular disciplines, as the early church set out to demonstrate.  Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has suggested that early Christian spirituality was highly experimental: sit on a pillar, nest in a tree, live in a desert, dance, study, fast, don’t speak and so on – and see what that does for your interior life and your relationship with God.  In the light of the actual physical and psychological effects of silence it seems reasonable to suppose that silence emerged as an effective instrument for inducing profound experiences, and for lowering the barriers between the self and the Other – the resurrected Christ.

Peter Brown, in The Body and Society, has suggested that some of the impetus towards Christian chastity and virginity (now interpreted mainly as body hatred and dualism) in fact arose partly from a radical refusal to participate in or support the Roman Empire.  For women virginity meant childlessness and refusing to have babies was a clear way of expressing contempt for the system, especially as the empire had a worrying population shortfall.  If this is correct, it might be worth remembering that public speaking (rhetoric) was another key citizens’ duty and the central focus of a Roman education: silence, like virginity, was a critical stance.

In any event, in a surprisingly short time this new faith threw off the aura of faint suspicion in which silence had been wrapped and adopted it with enthusiasm.  It is hard now to understand what a profound and radical shift this idea of silent and interior prayer was.

Each day, I took up into the rocks with me Helen Waddell’s translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of the things that hermits said about the eremitical life, which were collected by various contemporaries and became immensely influential in the church for many centuries; and The Life of Antony, by Athanasius, a pugnacious bishop and politician who nonetheless wrote an immensely moving account of Anthony’s life.  I tried to sit still and listen to these accounts in the silence of the desert itself, and think about their experiences and how they might relate to my own.

It is tricky to do this honestly, because these writers had such a very different mindset from mine.  Two particular differences get in the way of a straightforward comparison between a modern silence seeker and Anthony.  The first is that his culture on the whole had very few problems with asceticism and physical penance.  The kind of ascetic practices we might see as self-hatred or even masochism, were seen – following Paul in his epistles – not so much as penitential but as training, as for an athlete or soldier; and training for a prize well worthy winning.  We now believe that fasting and sleep deprivation, for example, produce some very particular physiological results that have little or nothing to do with holiness as we understand it.  We would probably diagnose a substantial number of the famous and highly regarded saints of this tradition as suffering from “eating disorders.”

The second difference is the very straightforward belief in devils – or demons or Satan himself.  This went way beyond a belief in the “forces of evil” as an abstraction and pre-dates the Augustinian idea that people have a predisposition to sin and a split, divided will.  This belief meant that effects like auditory hallucinations, boundary confusions, and a consciousness of risk have a totally different meaning and value.  Of course they were all at risk – there is nothing that stirs up devils so much as watching a hermit trying to control his or her passions.  The demons were continually there, malignant, assiduous, and cunning.

Even when I was able to recognize these differences, there remained a sense in which the sources we have for the hermits of the desert are, in modern terms, ideologically contaminated.  Athanasius’s beautiful and moving “biography” of Anthony, for example, was written in part for political reasons.  Athanasius was well aware of Anthony’s immense popular prestige.  It was crucial to him to demonstrate that Anthony was a rigorous anti-Arian in order to mobilize popular enthusiasm for his own lifelong struggle against this widely received Christological heresy.  However, it is well-nigh impossible to work out anyone’s academic theology if he lives in complete silence and never says anything.  Athanasius manages, rather cleverly, to present Anthony as silent all the time except when he was sounding off about orthodoxy.  For this cause he was apparently always willing to break his silence, even to leave the desert and come to Alexandria and speak out.  Of course this may be exactly and precisely true, but knowing Athanasius (contra mundum they nicknamed him: “against the world,” “against everyone”), one can’t help having some doubts.

Modern biography – trying to discern and then explain the true inner life or nature of a famous person – did not develop as a literary form until the Enlightenment.   Augustine’s attempts to write autobiography in the modern sense in The Confessions were extremely ill-received by his contemporaries.  Athanasius, like other commentators on the early saints, was not attempting biography in the sense we would understand, but hagiography (writings about the lives of holy individuals), a separate genre with its own codes.  One of the “rules” of hagiography, at least until the nineteenth century, was that the saints should be exceptional and extreme in whatever way of life they were engaged with.  Their sins prior to repentance are always the worst the writer can think of; their penances eccentrically abject; their virtues miraculous in their intensity.  Christian hagiography dotes on penitents (ideally young beautiful females whose sins have been sexual); Buddhist “hagiography” seems to prefer rich, nobly born young men.  Practically no one in this literature goes off to be a hermit because they think they might like it.  They are driven – at best by a desire to atone for hideous sins, but failing that by a fierce and painful renunciation of a sinful world.

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt (seventh century, from an oral tradition) provides an early model for this sort of narrative.  Zozimos (fifth century CE), himself a famous ascetic, used to spend Lent in the desert; there by chance he met a woman, naked but wrapped in her own hair.  She told him that at twelve she became a prostitute, not for money but for “unbridled lust.”  (I find this detail intriguing.  A modern morality would tend to treat taking money for sex as more sinful than indulging genuine sexual desire.  I am not sure when this shift in consciousness took place.)  At twenty-nine she took a pleasure cruise to Jerusalem, which she paid for by selling sex to the sailors.  However, once there she was miraculously unable to enter the church.  An icon of Our Lady taught her that this was because of her sins – so she instantly repented and rushed out into the desert, where she had lived for the last forty-seven years on “what this wild and uncultivated solitude afforded,” before Zozimos stumbled upon her.  She had lived in complete silence for all this period and had undergone agonizing temptations and equally agonizing mortifications, and now her “mind was restored to perfect calm.”  She had been taught the Scriptures directly by God, as she could not read.  She asked Zozimos to bring her the sacrament, which he did once, but when he came back again the following year he found her dead and a handy lion helped him bury her.  This is an exemplary hagiographic account and it reveals some of the problems in discussing the tradition of silence. (Waddell, Desert Fathers)

Nonetheless, with all these caveats in place, I wanted to brood on the contemporary accounts of the hermits in the hope of understanding this desert spirituality better.  I chose The Life of Antony because Anthony is seen as the founder of the monastic tradition and the first of the Desert Fathers.   He was not the first individual to experiment with silence as an aid to spiritual growth – we know that he himself sought instruction from some already practicing hermits – but partly, indeed, because of Athanasius’s hagiography, his influence and importance, both in his own day and in the development of Christian monastic life ever since, cannot be underestimated.

Anthony was born in Egypt and, while still quite young, sold all his possessions and started to live as a hermit.  Subsequently he barricaded himself into a ruined fort in the desert west of the Nile for twenty years in total solitude.  (His friends posted him food through a small aperture.)

Adam Nicolson, drawing on his own experiences in the Shiants, comments on the early stages of Anthony’s spiritual development:

All the solitaries of the past have lived with that intense inner sociability.  Their minds are peopled with taunters, seducers, advisers, supervisors, friends, and companions.  It is one of the tests of being alone: a crowd from whom there is no hiding.  A hermit will force himself to confront that crowd of critics.  The followers of the great Saint Anthony, the third-century founder of Christian monasticism, who immured himself for twenty years in the ruins of a Roman fort in the Egyptian desert, could hear him groaning and weeping as the demons tested him one by one. (Nicolson, Sea Room)

After twenty years, however, his friends and admirers broke their way into Anthony’s fortress and forcibly ended that phase of his silence.  They were surprised to find that he was neither emaciated nor mad, but fit, well and serene; “his mind was calm and he maintained a well-balanced attitude in all situations,” although he manifested “an aura of holiness.”

He then moved to the eastern desert and spent the next period of his life training and supporting other would-be hermits, teaching, healing, and developing his ideas on silence and self-discipline.  He was illiterate so he has left us no first-person accounts or theology, but he was widely quoted and his thoughts were recorded by a number of his disciples and visitors.  However, “the arrival of so many people was a nuisance to him for they deprived him of the silence he desired,” so he persuaded some travelling merchants to take him with them deeper into the desert.

After a journey lasting three days and nights they came to a very high mountain at the foot of which flowed a spring of sweet water; on a small strip of flat land encircling the mountain there grew a few untended palm trees.  Anthony fell in love with this spot.  He accepted some bread from his fellow travelers and he remained alone on the mountain.  He lived there as though he recognized that place as his own home. (Athanasius, Life of Antony)

Although he made an occasional trip back to his settlements, and received visits and supplies from his brother monks, “he was pleased to be able to live in the desert by the work of his own hands, without troubling anyone else.”  And he died there aged 105.



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