"If the soul is vigilant and withdraws from all distraction and abandons its own will, then the spirit of God invades it and it can conceive because it is free to do so"
--Abba Cronius, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
We are in uncharted waters as a brand new virus spreads the world around. And just as we seek the solace of others to help calm our fears, we are being forced into isolation, quarantine, social-distancing, and other necessary measures to protect both ourselves and others. We are all in the same boat, but we're not supposed to be in the same cabin. The anxiety rises with the waves, often accompanied by anger, resentment, and panic.
So I want to tell you a story.
One of the most beautiful and brave souls to ever enter my life was Holly Gaudette, a brilliant young woman in a church that I served. Heading off to her first year of college, she showed all the gifts and graces of a future minister, and I encouraged her in that direction. But she was soon back home, diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and in need of a stem cell transplant.
After a stem cell transplant, a person has no immune system and must be held in total isolation in the hospital for a month and then continue to take precautions for up to 100 days afterwards. Throw in the fear associated with her disease and the high-risk of the treatment, and what lay in front of this woman who was barely 20 years old was overwhelming. Doing it was bad enough; but doing it alone?
What Holly did next showed both her faith and her brilliance. She decided that she would use her time in isolation to study the Desert Fathers and Mothers--the hermits, monks, and ascetics of the early church who lived primarily in the Egyptian desert. Their life was not one she would have chosen for herself. But the rich spirituality that flowed into the church from their willingness to separate from the world held a candle of hope for the months ahead. Holly had learned to encounter God from without. Now she would use her imposed isolation to follow their example and see if she could also find God from within.
What Holly did was to transform the pain of isolation into the spiritual discipline of solitude. Like any spiritual discipline, solitude is not easy. There's a reason we fill our days with busyness and often meaningless conversations. It's frightening to quiet our minds and encounter ourselves--to examine the state of our souls, the state of our lives, and to listen for a Voice that many believe will merely shriek words of judgment and disfavor. We are afraid that if we look inward we will be found wanting.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were brave enough to look within, where they did indeed find that they were wanting. But they did not find a Voice that opened a trapdoor to hell in response. They found instead a bottomless well of Love that would wash those imperfections away, fill their cups with humble awe, and enlarge their hearts.
Holly came out of those months of isolation, finished college, finished seminary at Duke Divinity School, and became a hospital chaplain at a major New York hospital. The disease returned and took her just over a decade later--far too young, and yet wiser than most who live to be three times her age. It was a hard-fought wisdom as she allowed God to transform her suffering into grace--something she learned to do by first transforming her isolation into solitude.
We now face a world-wide, physical illness that is compounding the world-wide spiritual sickness that has been dividing us from one another for many years. The only cure for either is for us to do as Jesus suggested in Matthew 6:6, "Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Do not fear what you find within you. God's infinite love is already right there, waiting to transform whatever you find into the healing of the world.
Resources for Solitude and Peace
Anxiety levels are high in uncertain times. We hope that the books, music, web, and app resources below can help you find the peace we all need to open ourselves fully to what God would like to give us in this moment.
The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers - by Henri J. M. Nouwen
The Wisdom of the Desert - by Thomas Merton
In God's Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics - by Joan Chittister
The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness - by Mary C. Earle
Desert Banquet: A Year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers - by David G. R. Keller
Lectio Divina: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer - by Christine Valters Paintner
Apps for Prayer and Meditation
May we all find peace, healing, and the
love of God in these days so that although
our bodies may be separate, our hearts are
one in the Spirit of Christ
Rev. Anne Robertson
Massachusetts Bible Society
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