“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the classic text “The Little Prince.” Even in the technological superiority of the 21st century, where man can cross oceans and continents in a matter of hours and run international businesses with an iPhone and laptop, the desert still represents something silent, mysterious, and even deadly.
It is a place bereft of life, a symbol of man’s greatest fears. Yet for millennia people — including Jesus of Nazareth — have ventured into the desert precisely because it is a place of silence and emptiness, where man can be alone with himself, and perhaps find God.
One such person was St. Anthony of Thebes, one of the earliest and greatest of the Desert Fathers, whom many ecclesial traditions honor today. This year we should follow St. Anthony into the desert, either physically or metaphorically. Like Anthony, doing so may change everything.
A Dramatic Conversion
Anthony was born in Lower Egypt in 251 A.D. to a wealthy landowning family. His parents died when he was 18 years old. This could have been the beginning of a life of wealth and ease while the Roman Empire was still centuries away from collapse. Yet not long after his parent’s death, he heard the words of Christ while attending a church service: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony promptly dispensed with all his property, giving it away to neighbors and donating his inheritance to the poor.
He then began a life of asceticism, studying under a local hermit. Years later, he departed for the alkaline Nitrian Desert, on the edge of the Western Desert, about 59 miles west of Alexandria, where he remained for 13 years. He later moved to a mountain by the Nile, where he lived in an abandoned Roman fort for about 20 years.
These years were defined by tremendous spiritual warfare, in which Anthony was progressively purged of his attachments to the world. There are many wonderful stories — some likely apocalyptic — regarding these years of severe spiritual discipline. He soon became an inspiration to Christians throughout Egypt, who consulted him for wisdom and guidance.
Although not the first ascetic or hermit, he is considered the father of Christian monasticism because he organized his disciples into a community to worship. More significantly, his life, which was described in glorious detail by Athanasius, served as a catalyst for similar withdrawn communities not only in Egypt but across the Greek and Roman world.
These monasteries in turn became tremendous centers of learning, guardians and preservers of ancient wisdom and texts, and engines of academic and scientific discovery. Until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of Great Britain, they provided significant social and economic resources to communities, as well as medical care. In their absence, poverty skyrocketed. Anthony died in 356 A.D. and is venerated to this day in the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions.
What’s So Great About the Desert?
One may ask; “So Anthony was an extraordinary individual who lived his days in the wilderness and inspired ancient Christians. What’s that have to do with 2019?” Plenty. Anthony and his life represent a significant rebuke to our culture’s addiction to technology and being busy.
We are a people with an unprecedented level of digital connectivity — many people spend far more time in front of screens than interacting with people face-to-face. Perhaps as many as half of teenagers are addicted to technology. Americans’ FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” has been greatly buoyed by our incessant attraction to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds.
Yet we are lonelier and more depressed than previous generations. We often don’t even know our neighbors. Suicide rates, perhaps unsurprisingly, are rising in America. French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal mused that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Indeed, how many Americans cannot imagine separating themselves from their smartphones?
Those responsible for creating this new digital age know how they are damaging the human person. As R.R. Reno noted in the January 2019 edition of First Things, those leading the “technology juggernaut” send their children to schools that enforce “no screen” policies and include “no screen” clauses in employment contracts with nannies, all while rolling out new technologies aimed at increasing usage. Yet Facebook recently launched an app, Messenger Kids, aimed at children!
We must resist the detrimental effects of the digital age upon ourselves and our children with the spirit of St. Anthony. We must creatively seek and implement ways of unplugging, of preserving quiet in ourselves and our homes. It is precisely in the metaphorical (or real) deserts we foster than we are capable of contemplation, reflection, and discovering what is most important to human flourishing.
We often think, wrongly, that the key to our success is ever-greater degrees of innovation, yet the desert can help us see what is most essential. Anthony wandered in the wilderness and inspired a monastic movement that helped save Western civilization. Thinkers, writers, and explorers for centuries have gone into the wilderness to find renewal and inspiration that bless all of mankind. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed: “I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
How Do We Get to the Desert?
For many of us, especially those living in urban areas, actually getting into the quiet of a tangible, physical wilderness is not an easy task. For those in more suburban or rural areas, it is much easier to incorporate walks in parks, woods, or open fields where we can allow silence to work its restorative power.
If we are incapable of accomplishing such physical excursions, we must take what we can get — a quiet room devoid of technology or where everything is turned off; an early morning jog through a park with the earphones out, for example. Even these little acts can help wean us off our dependence on digital technology and its many deleterious influences.
A number of movements and books are helping people find authentic quiet and contemplation. Cardinal Robert Sarah’s recent book, “The Power of Silence,” is a beautiful reflection on why and how to foster personal moments in the desert. Justin Earley’s “The Common Rule,” which will soon include a book explaining his methods, offers many useful tips and habits, including placing prayer before phone, practicing regular fasting, and limiting one’s time with media and digital technology.
There are many other practical tips worth considering that get us closer to the desert without embracing a full-fledged hermetic lifestyle like St. Anthony. Once we discover a routine of wilderness wandering, be it physical or metaphorical, we must be diligent in guarding it, lest we succumb once more to the gods of technology.
I’d like to end this reflection with a poem I published with the Imaginative Conservative on this very subject, to offer an example of what we might find if we are willing to follow St. Anthony into the desert.
“A Time To Keep Silence”
On weekend strolls at dusk
Or lonely morning drives
Do we let silence sink in,
Or rather, run and hide?
Blaring music or conversations,
From synthetic plastic to our ears,
It matters not, we console ourselves
As long as the quiet not draw near
We prefer our gods be distant,
Or visit with prophetic declamations.
‘Tis more efficient than the “still, soft voice,”
Or Esther’s hidden intimations.
The God of Shusaku or Cardinal Sarah,
It’s the former we’d rather believe,
Divine absence over beatific presence,
Is the one more palatable to conceive.
Yet Isaiah wrote of quietness,
Of a manner quite divergent:
A man of sorrows and despised,
He spoke not, that suff’ring servant.
If we stilled our souls, let quiet abide,
It’s us who might be stricken, oppressed.
Ev’ry last loud iniquity and sin
Seared to that man, dies, and we are blessed.