Written with V. Rev. John A. McGuckin, Ph.D.
In ancient times, as early as the late second and early centuries of the Common Era in Egypt and Syria, more than a few people abandoned their civic responsibilities, relationships and personal crises in order to seek relief and commune solely with God. It was the beginning of a new and distinct social movement among the early Christians (a society which hitherto had been spreading in urban sites) and came to be known from this preference for solitariness (Greek: monachismos) as "monasticism." These early solitaries fled to the desert and took up residence in caves and near the oases of the Red Sea desert, putting their worldly comforts and egos aside, seeking a goal of spiritual enlightenment. Some of them lived in strict separation (hermits and cave-dwellers) others lived in loose associations -- the somewhat paradoxical idea of a community of solitaries. Such communes based around ascetic and celibate ideals had already been known in antiquity (such as the Therapeutae at Alexandria or even the Qumran community by the shores of the Dead Sea in the time of the Roman War in 70 C.E.). But this emergence of Monasticism among the Christians was something new and extraordinarily popular. News of the desert hermits even became popular best-seller material in imperial Constantinople, with titles such as Palladius' Lausiac History, or Theodoret's History of the Monks of Syria.
The early ascetics take their name from their training in ascesis, the Greek word for "athletic discipline," but now it came to be chiefly a term applied to early Christian spiritual renunciation and obedience. New Testament precedents surely sparked some of the inspiration for this movement. The idea of asceticism was first used by Paul (cf. 2 Tim. 4.7) to signify the need of Christians to train themselves by rigorous observances (sexual renunciation, fasting and deprivations) to observe the commandments with exceptional zeal. Many lead-ideas of the Christian ascetical movement can already be seen as prevalent in the New Testament literature, which developed apocalyptic themes by contrasting the radical life that ought to be lived in accordance with the Kingdom of God with the ease of a worldly existence.
The ascetical message also resonated well with Hellenistic ideas about the "sober life" of the wise man or woman (sophrosyne), and much of late first and second century Christian literature, such as the Didache, the Clementine Letters or the Shepherd of Hermas, began to stress the need for this wise lifestyle kind of sobriety as a fundamental character of general Christian discipleship. It is a powerful impetus in the second century writings of the African theologian Tertullian who already reports large numbers of male and female lay ascetics in the Carthaginian Church of his day. It is in the mid-third to fourth centuries, however, that the ascetical movement really became a powerful and distinctively organized movement in Christianity.
The same movement of spiritual training and obedience to a life of faith still exists today, so many centuries later, and its core themes crop up once more in the growing popularity of meditation and prayer. Many of the desert monasteries that first sprung up with the early ascetics are still around and functioning. There are many examples in Egypt, Syria, Greece and Eastern Europe -- some erected as early as the late third century (the first buildings at St. Katherine's Sinai date to this era) -- still active as centers of monastic spiritual training. Interest in, and the practice of, silence and prayer spread to the West long ago; there are many monks and nuns living the solitary life of Christian obedience and renunciation all over the world. The ascetical life is thriving. It would be a great mistake to think that because the Reformation world turned its back on it, it either went away or had nothing left to say. There are many contemporary hermits, monks and nuns, some of them highly educated and accomplished, leaving the civilized world behind to seek God in silence and prayer.
Does it take leaving the world behind to become spiritually enlightened? Does one need rigorous ascesis to encounter God? It may be argued that many of us already lead solitary lives in our own modern equivalent of caves and monasteries: the cells of modern apartment buildings found in impersonal high rise buildings and desert caverns of urban avenues. While there has been an exodus away from churches and "organized religions" in recent decades, record numbers of spiritual seekers are meditating and praying on their own, in new churches, on yoga retreats or in non-denominational meditation centers.
There is much value in simply taking time to be silent and still. There is tremendous power in setting oneself aside and letting the likeness of God inside you shine through. Settling down and quieting the frenetic stimuli of modern multitasking not only brings peace and calm, it may also be a revelatory experience (something the ancients expected and called "epiphanic").
From this revelation of God found in silence and prayer -- one may remember the "still small voice" that Elijah recognized as the authentic medium of divine experience after the brash "false avenues" of the whirlwind and the fire (1 Kings. 19.12) -- all real spiritual life and theology can be said to derive. At the heart of prayer is the celebration of the glory of the divine transcendent: the "hallowing of the Name." Central to it also is the deep human experience of petitioning and experiencing God from the basis of human need and limitation. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great talked about the ascetic life as being nothing less than "the life of the Gospel." St. Paul encouraged Christians to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). Prayer and silence are the vocation of Christians and spiritual seekers. This spiritual way, this task, can be done anywhere, not just in caves or monasteries. Take a moment at the office or job just to be quiet, acknowledge God, and say a prayer of peace and understanding.
Ascesis is compassionate and empathic. We set ourselves aside in a peaceful attitude looking to God for guidance, understanding and acceptance. We do our best to love and recognize others, to see the likeness of God in them, learning to tolerate, even to accept, them in compassion. Prayer and silence are always inclusive; they never act divisively or exclusionary. Whether practiced alone or within a spiritual group, this simple inner movement unites us all. Whether a simple exercise of thankfulness ("glorification") or asking for specific help or instruction -- or even not as structured as this -- silent prayer and the spiritual practice of peaceful awareness offers each of us a veritable oasis in the daily sea of stress and stimulus. Anytime, anywhere, one can experience the heart and spirit's repose in companionship with God. You need not leave all behind for the rest of your life. For some spiritual rest in your life, let yourself be alone for a short while with God.
Dr. Norris and Father John briefly left their families and work behind to encounter God studying the words and actions of contemporary ascetics in the caves and monasteries of Egypt, Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Russia. Join them in their spiritual travels in the new film and book, "Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer." Visit their website for more information and to join the mailing list.