Saint Dimitry of Rostov, the 17th century Russian Saint once wrote:
First of all it must be understood that it is the duty of all Christians - especially of those whose calling dedicates them to the spiritual life - to strive always and in every way to be united with God, their creator, lover, benefactor, and their supreme good, by Whom and for Whom they were created. This is because the center and the final purpose of the soul, which God created, must be God Himself alone, and nothing else - God whom Whom the soul has received its life and its nature, and for Whom it must eternally live.
Although this is the task of all Christians, there are members of our Christian family who are called by God to work out their salvation in a unique arena; striving for God in a setting which is by most accounts not of this world, or at the least, removed from this world. This does not imply that they live in isolation, for they like us remain in relationship with Christ, whether they are in the mountains, the deserts, the caves, or in monasteries.
St Symeon the New Theologian in one of his Hymns speaks of monastic life as being with Christ rather than living alone:
But indeed he who possesses Christ dwelling in him,
How can he be said to be alone, tell me?
For the Father and the Spirit are united with my Christ.
How therefore can we speak of being a solitary
When the monk is united with the Three-in-one?
He is the one who is united with God even if he lives alone,
Even if he lives in a desert, even in a cave…
He who makes a heaven of his cell through virtue,
Contemplates and looks upon the Creator of heaven and earth,
Installed in his cell.
And he adores Him and is united always with the Light which never sets,
The Light without the darkness of evening, the unapproachable Light,
Which never leaves him, never completely wanders from him,
Day or night, whether he eats or drinks,
Not even in his sleep or on the road or in moving from place to place…
So those who by repentance are united with God,
Purify their souls in this world here
And they are considered as solitaries as they are separated from the others…
They communicate with the Father omnipotent…
Their cell is heaven, they indeed are a sun
And the light is on them, the unsetting and divine light…
Only such are monks and solitaries,
Those who alone live with God alone…
Why though does an individual choose such a life removed from the world? Could it be that these men and women have learned, like the western mystic, Thomas Merton, that “Man’s loneliness is, in fact, the loneliness of God.” He continues, “This is why it is such a great thing for a man to discover his solitude and learn to live in it. For there he finds that he and God are one: that God is aloneness as he himself is alone. That God wills to be alone in man.” An ancient story of three brothers, beautifully illustrates his point:
There were once three brothers. One of them decided that his mission would be to bring people to reconciliation, the second decided he would visit the sick, while the third went to the desert to live in silence. The first, finding himself constantly between conflicting sides, did not succeed in bringing about peace and therefore was himself in distress. He came to the second and found him also in deep despondency. Together they went to the third brother and asked him whether he had achieved anything in his desert. Instead of an answer, the hermit poured some water into a chalice and invited his brothers to look at it: the water was so turbid that nothing could be seen in it. After a short time the hermit invited his guests to look again: the water settled and became transparent enough for them to see their faces reflected on its surface. The hermit then said: ‘Someone who lives among the passions and cares of the world will always be perturbed by thoughts, while a hermit contemplates God in stillness.
In the saying of the desert fathers though, we learn that such isolation is quite challenging and should not be sought without humility, direction and preparation:
It was said about John the Little that one day he said to his older brother: I want to be free from care and not to work but to worship God without interruption. And he took his robe off, and went into the desert. After staying there one week, he returned to his brother. And when he knocked at the door, his brother asked without opening it: Who is it? He replied: It’s John, your brother. The brother said: John has become an angel and is not among people anymore. Then he begged and said: It’s me! But his brother did not open the door and left him there in distress until the next morning. And he finally opened the door and said: If you are a human being, you have to work again in order to live. Then John repented, saying: Forgive me, brother, for I was wrong.
As evident from this account and in accordance with St. Theophan the Recluse, true “Monasticism itself is [therefore] a perpetual labor [a labor] of conquering passions and uprooting them in order that, being in a pure and immaculate state, one may preserve oneself before the face of God.” In this sense, St. Ignaty Brianchaninov concludes: “The monastic life is in the fullest sense a martyrdom, though an invisible one, for those who live that life as they should.”
I close with the words of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos:
There are people who say that monks ought to be of some use in the world, and not eat bread they have not toiled for; but we have to understand the nature of a monk’s service and the way in which he has to help the world. A monk is someone who prays for the whole world, who weeps for the whole world; and in this lies his main work… Thanks to monks, prayer continues unceasing on earth, and the whole world profits… St Sergius by fasting and prayer helped the Russian people to free themselves from the Tatar yoke. St Seraphim prayed silently, and the Holy Spirit descended on Motovilov. And this is the task of the monk… Perhaps you will say that nowadays there are no monks like that, who would pray for the whole world; but I tell you that when there are no men of prayer on the earth, the world will come to an end… The world is supported by the prayers of the saints’.