This is updated for 2020.
I know that I will address this some tomorrow but in anticipation, and now in light of current events in the 2020 pandemic, I thought it might be something to think about more often.
We live in a wonderful time of connectivity. Especially during the pandemic we have the ability to connect with friends and loved ones in a marvelous way; we can conduct business, finances, even work in the comfort of our own homes; we can even celebrate Mass together - something that would not have been true five to ten years ago. The pervasiveness of technology and its use are nothing new but at this time in history we receive an unprecedented amount of capability to be present to one another in this day and age.
But it can be hard for social creature that we are. We are actually disconnected as well. Hype and lies spread (as they always have) but our lack of connection makes it difficult to separate truth from falsehood. We are anxious and scared because we cannot always see the faces of those who tell us things anonymously over the internet and hear and see the context for things that are said. We are told to and do look for experts but often it is hard to distinguish who they are from the slick presentation that can deceive.
How like sin and temptation it is. To paraphrase Maxwell Smart: "If only he had used his genius for goodness instead of evil."
To paraphrase another response: "We have an answer for that." We know how to be alone and yet completely connected - we are the Church, the Body of Christ and the people of God. Throughout time so many saints are molded from the community of hermits. Though physically separated, they were completely connected with God and with those that they taught, healed, and comforted. When I read some of their stories I am amazed at the patience and compassion they had and the devotion to prayer and self-denial they practiced.
We are given that same chance but if we use our "connectivity" as a way to keep us apart from others instead of truly bringing us together then we fail to be disciples. It is easy to deceive ourselves that all the time we spend on-line "connects" us when in reality we use it as a way of distancing ourselves, keeping us from reaching in and getting our hands dirty, of being smug, satisfied, and of living from our couch instead of serving justice and the needs of others. And now, if we let fear of what we are to eat, how we are to get money, even illness and death, then we have let the Devil succeed in his temptations. The pandemic is not from God (cf. John 9) but it can be used by both God and the Devil for their ends. For God, "it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him." (John 9:3b); for the devil, well the effects of that are obvious as well.
So now, as many of us "quarantine in place" and practice "social distancing", let us look to the hermits. Let us live in joy and not fear. Let us take in liturgies, bible studies, and prayers and give out light. Concentrate on our relationship with God and a loving relationship with others, knowing that frustration, anger, fear, greed, sloth, and any number of other temptations and sin lie all around us. Let us come together in Christ and be one people in him.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil."
-- Matthew 6:25-34
Christians hermits show us that there is really no one who is a hermit as we use the term today. The early Christian hermits left the world to get away from it, not God or His people. Therefore they opened their caves and their hearts to those who sought help. It was the world they despised not their fellow humans.
John spent many years seeking and discerning God's call, living with many holy hermits and monks. His long path seems to have worked because according to contemporary accounts he developed a rigorous and highly disciplined ascetic life. It is said that he spent five days a week alone in conversation with God and the other two days, he spent with people seeking spiritual direction and advice with whom he spoke to through a opening in his walled up cave. He was considered wise and admired by the likes of Augustine and Jerome. Most probably because of his hours spent in solitary contemplation of God he was able to easily discern what was in people's hearts and help them. Crowds would gather on those two days to hear him preach. Completely walled in he apparently subsisted off the mercy of God and the kindness of those who brought him food and water.
If devoting your life to Christ does not carry with it all that doing so implies then your are really not devoted to Christ but to self-indulgence or self-destruction. Even the orders that are cloistered pray not for themselves but for the world around them, for those of us not called to such an intense life of prayer. We accomplish our devotion because they pray for our strength in our ministry. Let us pray to for them in theirs.
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one. If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.h But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. Treasure in Heaven. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
-- Matthew 6:5-21
How often do we need to be shaken out of our complacency or even out of our ecstatic mountain top experiences? Truly following Christ will constantly rock our world to greater and greater joy.
I think about Moses seeing the burning bush. He had eschewed the pleasures of the palace and "was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian" (Exodus 3:1) when he happened upon an astonishing sight and was compelled, like people in a horror movie, to investigate. He had settled into his life and was content; a wife, a wealthy and well connected Father-in-law, even hopes of becoming the patriarch himself one day.
The blessings of God are not a reward for living His will but are a natural part of it. They can bring contentment, joy, peace.
But joy is not complacency. If we keep at it, the experience of God can also show us the darkness that still surrounds us, even though we are bathed in his marvelous light (cf. 1 Peter 2:9b); God is an ever brightening light in a dark and fallen world.
At the same time that can cause fear, a sense that there is no stability in the world. But these are the fears of the devil, the temptation in the desert. Think of it that way: in the midst of the privation of the desert, Jesus finds the fullness of God. But it is not a journey that ended at that moment -- there is always a deeper place to go where the marvels of God await us, as well as a deepening of the call that goes with it: a deeper call to bend our will to God's will - even unto death.
Thus we quite easily and spontaneously come to spend much of the time...in these smooth flights of simple repose, gliding through the verses of the Psalms with our hearts absorbed in a simple gaze upon the God Who is invisible but near, and Whose love now holds us captive by its unworldly charm. But it also happens – and this is rarer – that under the pressure of a very great love, or in the darkness of a conflict that exacts a heroic renunciation of our whole self, or in the ecstasy of a sudden joy that does not belong to this earth, the soul will be raised out of itself. It will come face to face with Christ. In an experience that might be likened to a flash of dark lightning, a thunderclap over the surface of the abyss, its eyes will be opened and it will know him and he will vanish from its sight. This momentary blaze of recognition is not produced by a created species or image in the soul. It is the flash of a flame that is touched off by an immediate contact of the substance of the soul with God himself. In one terrific second that belongs not to time but to eternity, the whole soul is transfixed and illumined by the tremendous darkness which is the light of God.
– Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness
After heading into the Crusades, Berthold built a monastery and church on Mount Carmel dedicated to the prophet Elijah. There he gathered hermits living in the area together to form what became the Carmelite order.
Elijah was afraid and fled for his life, going to Beer-sheba of Judah. He left his servant there and went a day’s journey into the wilderness, until he came to a solitary broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: “Enough, LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and fell asleep under the solitary broom tree, but suddenly a messenger touched him and said, “Get up and eat!” He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you!” He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb. There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the LORD came to him: Why are you here, Elijah? He answered: “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant. They have destroyed your altars and murdered your prophets by the sword. I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” Then the LORD said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
-- 1 Kings 19:3-13a
In keeping with the apparent theme for this month, John was a hermit at St. Catherine's in the Sinai. Climacus ((Κλίμαξ in Greek)) translates into "of the Ladder" because that is his best known work. In it he instructs the reader on how to raise one's soul to God, as if climbing up a ladder. This work is especially popular during this Lenten season and probably a good way for us to think about the season. Certainly worth the read.
We share this saint with Orthodox Christians and I am glad we do.
Some people living carefree in the world have asked me: “We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?” I replied to them: “Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate any one; be sure you go to church; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness; and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
– The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 21
What makes a martyr?
There is always some discussion of this and this is not the place to take it up. That said, just because a Christian dies or is killed they are not necessarily considered a martyr but is is also true that just because someone does not die that they are not a martyr?
I guess the question is this: is what you are doing enough to get you into trouble, possibly even killed?
Acacius was the bishop of Hither in Asia. He was arrested in the persecution of Emperor Trajan (Decius) for the crimes of Christianity and refusing to sacrifice to idols. He was brought before a man named Martian of the local Roman court. His defense of the Faith was so impressive that they set him free and Martin was promoted (depending upon your reading, both actions by the emperor himself). Because of his arrest and his willingness to die for the faith he is often listed as a martyr, but he apparently survived.
Natalia, on the other hand did not. She was a school teacher in Poznan, Poland and a very active Catholic. She was arrested, tortured, held to public ridicule, deported, imprisoned, sentenced to hard labor, and executed by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Ravensbrück.
Time can confuse the nature of our deaths, but it cannot erase the effects of our lives if we have lived them for Christ, without compromise or fear.
Perhaps being able to die to one's self in defense of the Faith is just as important as physical death in defense of the Faith?
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
– 2 Corinthians 5:17-21