Pandemic: Lessons from the Desert Fathers

Vendimian_of_Bythinia_Menologion_of_Basil_IIWhat is the worst thing about this time? It’s the separation from family and, for those on their dying beds, it is the fact that they are isolated to die alone, without a hug, without goodbyes, without family holding their hand, but with a mere stranger in a uniform being the last person they see and the one to close their eyes upon death.

Can you imagine anyone choosing this willingly? I could not until I read the desert fathers and studied their stories of abandoning family, of separation from everything they owned, of adopting whoever happened to be on the same path with them, other strangers, as their family now replacing blood relations. Days and days of silence, uncertainty about food and water, battling with all kinds of thoughts attacking their very being, and prayer as the only means of communication, for days and nights.

This is absurd, you would say. Why would anyone choose this life? Many reasons have been proposed for the rise of monasticism, but I will isolate a few for our reflection.

One thing is the realization of the futility of the previous life. Many people have written, these days, questioning whether we really want to get back to the way things were. Was that our ideal? A world that elevated the rich, the holders of political, social or military power, standards of success that involved rising above all others. This is what the desert fathers (and mothers) intentionally reject and embrace the alternatives of a humble and simple life.

Another thing is solidarity with the poorest of the poor. Being completely in the mercy of God. This willing embracing of poverty and suffering would wake up one’s senses to the deprivations of the suffering people of our world. It challenged these believers to carve out a way of living in the lack of the certainties one enjoys in the world. Could one really preach to the poor on how to live in faith if one does not willingly test whether that is a possibility? Could one declare that God is able to care for your body and soul if they would not first entrust both body and soul to the conditions the poor face? But here we are. Their lives are still preaching to us today.

Finally, Christ’s willing emptying of himself and adopting those who were far from him as family, leaving his body to be handled by strangers in his death, becoming the poorest of the poor for the sake of the world was received as an invitation. An invitation for an analogous response, an analogous emptying, not the same but in the pattern of the one exemplified by the lover of mankind. The lover strips himself of everything to demonstrate the love for his bride. The bride receives this in gratitude, but desires to move towards him in a similar manner.

Now, of course, there are many ways for one to demonstrate this responsive emptying of self, one need not move to the desert to achieve it, it was never encouraged for everyone. In moments like this, where the emptying is imposed on us, we may embrace it in the manner of the desert fathers, embrace it and redeem it by incorporating it into the service of our movement towards the groom. We can clothe this emptying in constant prayer, taste the lack as participation in the life of the poor who are lifting the burden of the sinful greed of our world all by themselves. Let this participation in their lack bring gratitude and more love for them. Let all the tragedies around you point to the One who willingly planned to step into them for the sake of approaching his bride and demonstrating his salvific love for her.