Monday, May 19, 2014

The Desert in Modern Times? (Monday Morning in the Desert)

The lives of the ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers seems highly peculiar to 21st century people. A life defined by silence and prayer? Who has time for that?  Who would even want to do that?

Certainly, this kind of life is not for everyone.  God calls people to a variety of vocations in life, and for most of us, those vocations revolve around "regular" jobs or family life.  Contrary to modern reason, though, there are people who are called to live a life of silence and prayer now.  But, instead of living in the deserts of ancient Egypt, they live around us in houses or apartments, both in cities and in rural settings.

A modern day Desert Mother is Sister Verena Schiller, an Anglican who lives a solitary life in northern Wales.  She wrote a book about her life, and it contains this passage on why God has called some to solitary lives of prayer and silence in the midst of modernity:

"In our twentieth/twenty-first century western world, we no longer live in a society like that of early antiquity when almost all were believers of some sort and lived in a climate where faith in God or gods was almost universal.  To be a believing active Christian in our age was in itself becoming more rare.  And yet, and yet.... the thirst for things spiritual was very much in evidence, a thirst for a meaning to life beyond the excessive materialism and need for instant gratification so prevalent in our society at present. Many feel as though they are staring into an abyss.  Deep in the human psyche lies the longing for whatever we may mean by 'God' and many harbour a great fear that death might mean 'extinction'.  Deeper still lies this search for meaning.  For me it seemed that at least in part, the renewal of the eremitic life (life of a recluse in the desert tradition) in recent years was an aspect of this thirst. There was a sense of urgency that in a world that was changing so rapidly and seemingly intent on destroying itself, the times were urgent.  The counter-cultural intent of monasticism needed to regain its cutting edge.  So my move into solitude began to take shape."

(From p. 7 of "A Simplified Life" by Verena Schiller).

(An image from the area of rural Wales where Sister Verena lives, from an article about her located at:,-but-not-unguided).

Some may ask: "But what do people like Sister Verena do, really? Aren't they just seeking an escape from the world?"  My response is that they are living more deeply in the world than those of us who supposedly live in the "real world" can possibly imagine.  While we are working, playing, eating, or sleeping, there are modern day Desert Fathers and Mothers praying for you, me, and the whole world. They take no breaks or vacations from prayer.  It defines who they are - they could no more give up prayer than you or I could give up breathing.

The Church, particularly in the Western world, is in the midst of a transition, and we are struggling to figure out our place within a society where belief in God is an afterthought at best. As a part of that transition, I believe the Church needs to identify and lift up those people, few as they may be, who have a calling to live a life defined by prayer.  Their prayers will lift up those of us who struggle, who hurt, or who do not know of God's presence in their daily lives.  So, as they pray for us, we should pray for those called to that life as well, that God may give them the strength to pray without ceasing for the Church, the world, and all of creation.


  1. I know it is impossible to say everything in a short blog post, but this post and your last one have left me with questions. In your previous post you seemed to be saying that attaining interior silence is not the result of Grace Alone. ("There is no magic pill which will get us to experience interior silence. Ancient spiritual disciplines, such as lectio divina and praying the Jesus Prayer, are helpful practices - but our efforts, on their own, will not attain interior silence. The kind of silence that helps us to become aware of God's presence around us is a gift - a gift we can ask for through prayer, and when it is received, we cannot take credit for it, but only give thanks.") As you know, Luther's doctrine of Grace Alone was instrumental in destroying monasticism in Northern Europe and Scandinavia -- and influenced the Anglican Church to abolish monasticism.

    Now in this post you speak about "the Church." You write: "As a part of that transition, I believe the Church needs to identify and lift up those people, few as they may be, who have a calling to live a life defined by prayer." The Catholic Church has always had countless monks and nuns. It was Luther who diminished their numbers. Mother Angelica and her nuns are very visible.

    At least you must write "Protestant Church."

  2. Kathy, thanks for your response. Just a few corrections:

    (1) Sola gratia, "grace alone" - is a Catholic doctrine:

    "Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works." Paragraph 15, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

    Next, please read the following from an article on the "Catholic Education Resource Center", which reviews the works of Fr. Louis Bouyer, a pre-Vatican II theologian who also confirmed that "grace alone" is a Catholic doctine:

    "1. Sola Gratia. What was the Reformation's main principle? Not, as many Catholics and even some Protestants think, "private judgment" in religion. According to Bouyer, "the true fundamental principle of Protestantism is the gratuitousness of salvation" — sola gratia. He writes, "In the view of Luther, as well as of all those faithful to his essential teaching, man without grace can, strictly speaking, do nothing of the slightest value for salvation. He can neither dispose himself for it, nor work for it in any independent fashion. Even his acceptance of grace is the work of grace. To Luther and his authentic followers, justifying faith . . . is quite certainly, the first and most fundamental grace."

    Bouyer then shows how, contrary to what many Protestants and some Catholics think, salvation sola gratia is also Catholic teaching. He underscores the point to any Catholics who might think otherwise:

    "If, then, any Catholic — and there would seem to be many such these days — whose first impulse is to reject the idea that man, without grace, can do nothing towards his salvation, that he cannot even accept the grace offered except by a previous grace, that the very faith which acknowledges the need of grace is a purely gratuitous gift, he would do well to attend closely to the texts we are about to quote."

    In other words, "Listen up, Catholics!"

    (to be continued)

    1. (continued)

      Bouyer quotes, at length, from the Second Council of Orange (529), the teaching of which was confirmed by Pope Boniface II as de fide or part of the Church's faith. The Council asserted that salvation is the work of God's grace and that even the beginning of faith or the consent to saving grace is itself the result of grace. By our natural powers, we can neither think as we ought nor choose any good pertaining to salvation. We can only do so by the illumination and impulse of the Holy Spirit.

      Nor is it merely that man is limited in doing good. The Council affirmed that, as a result of the Fall, man is inclined to will evil. His freedom is gravely impaired and can only be repaired by God's grace. Following a number of biblical quotations, the Council states, "[W]e are obliged, in the mercy of God, to preach and believe that, through sin of the first man, the free will is so weakened and warped, that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do good for the sake of God, unless moved, previously, by the grace of the divine mercy . . . . Our salvation requires that we assert and believe that, in every good work we do, it is not we who have the initiative, aided, subsequently, by the mercy of God, but that he begins by inspiring faith and love towards him, without any prior merit of ours."

      The Council of Trent, writes Bouyer, repeated that teaching, ruling out "a parallel action on the part of God and man, a sort of 'synergism', where man contributes, in the work of salvation, something, however slight, independent of grace." Even where Trent insists that man is not saved passively, notes Bouyer, it doesn't assert some independent, human contribution to salvation. Man freely cooperates in salvation, but his free cooperation is itself the result of grace. Precisely how this is so is mysterious, and the Church has not settled on a particular theological explanation. But that it is so, insist Bouyer, is Catholic teaching. Thus, concludes Bouyer, "the Catholic not only may, but must in virtue of his own faith, give a full and unreserved adherence to the sola gratia, understood in the positive sense we have seen upheld by Protestants."

    2. (2) The number of people in consecrated religious life in the Catholic Church is in steep decline - So, the Catholic Church also has work to do in promoting and praying for vocations to the religious life, whether cloistered monks or solitary religious.

      (3) Although weakened severely, monasticism was not destroyed in German territories that subscribed to the Augsburg Confession. See these previous articles about Lutheran monasteries that have existed since the time of the Reformation in my "Virtual Tour" of Lutheran monasteries:

      So, through God's grace, which Catholics and Lutherans together believe is a gift to us, let us hope and pray for those who are called to pray for us as their vocation.

  3. Of course I am hopeful about Lutheran/Catholic reconciliation... but first we must understand our differences. From reading your articles about Lutheran monasteries, I have the distinct impression that there are fewer that 100 Protestant monks and nuns..... as for Grace Alone -- we are saved by Grace Alone, but we have to work out our sanctification -- by Grace and our own will-directed efforts. The Lutheran Church eliminated the Sacraments -- especially Confession -- to help us. There is no central teaching authority in the Lutheran Church to help us. These are serious issues.......................

  4. Luther himself once asserted that one does not ask IF works are required, but rather WHICH works are required, not as a matter of earning grace, but in recognition that grace will compel the Christian to good works. Even Lutherans get it wrong on this point. The divide here is not as large as it seems, something Pope Benedict recognized when he fought to salvage the JDDJ when it was dead in the water.

  5. Really, this is just common sense. Nobody "earns" Grace. We are saved by Grace, but we work out our salvation, that is, we work to become better, with the help of Grace. Sad that so much confusion has arisen over this.