Date: February 21, 2021

Bible Text: Psalm 62:5-12, Mark 1:9-15 |

Introduction to the Lenten Sermon Series:

On the liturgical calendar, it’s the First Sunday in Lent. On the pandemic calendar, this is the “Fiftieth Sunday in Coronatide.” We have been at this for almost twelve months. It goes without saying that this has been a difficult year and that our lives have been upended in countless ways. To mitigate the spread of the virus, we’ve quarantined, isolated, or distanced ourselves from other people to varying degrees. And we’ve done this for a long time… and it probably feels like even longer! Many of us have moved daily and weekly routines to online spaces. We’ve gone to work, school, church, hangouts, family get-togethers, meetings, protests, seminars, weddings, funerals, and who knows what else on Zoom and other platforms and that way of connecting remotely has been both a gift and a challenge. At some point, each of us have probably felt alone, isolated, and/or disconnected from those we love, and even strangers, in profound ways.

Speaking personally, I’ve felt this sense of separation not only on Sunday mornings but also in my family life. Being far from home has been hard, especially in times of crisis. After Christmas I flew back to Georgia when my mom was experiencing a medical emergency. When I got there, she was in a health rehab facility and for an entire week we had to visit through her window. That was really painful for both of us; I got to taste just a bit of what others have had to go through, especially those who haven’t been with their ailing parents or spouses in skilled nursing facilities or with their loved ones in the hospital. 

Then I read an article about these people called anchorites. Anchorites withdrew from society but sometimes lived in their villages in tiny huts. People would come to their windows to give them food and ask them for prayers and advice. And that got me thinking about how many people throughout Christian history (and other religions) chose to live apart from others. Monks, nuns, hermits and other sages left their homes and towns for an intentionally isolated life. And many of them did so against the backdrop of plagues and social upheaval.

As an American Protestant extroverted young adult in the 21st Century living through a pandemic, that boggles my mind! People chose to live that way? But, I thought, there must be something there, some wisdom to glean, because so many of them make the “varsity squad” of church history and were canonized as saints and venerated as spiritual giants.

What can we learn, then, from the lives of people who chose to live apart from others either by themselves or with small communities of like-minded others? What can we learn about God through them? Enter this five-part sermon series, “A Spirituality of Staying Put.” Drawing inspiration from the lives of people in Christian history who spent long stretches of time by themselves (or stuck in one place), we’ll explore these notable figures and themes that emerge from their lives as they intersect with our experiences of the pandemic. 

To kick this series off, let me introduce you to St. Syncletica. Full disclosure: I hadn’t heard of her before last month, but I’ve found her words interesting and challenging. Bailey had a better term when we were texting about Syncletica last week: chastening. Her austere and strident living and teachings were chastening for me as someone who does do discipline, spiritual or otherwise, well. Intense as she may be, Synletica will serve as our window into the tradition known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. 

What you need to know is that Christian monasticism came to fruition in the Third and Fourth Centuries in the Middle East and North Africa. Different strands of this tradition emerged in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Palestine, but most prominently in Egypt. Most of these folks left the major towns and cities in which they were born and raised to live in caves or small dwellings in the desert wilderness. It goes without saying that conditions were harsh there, and eeking out a rough daily existence was part of their discipline, the exacting rhythm of work and prayer for most of a 24-hour period. Modeled in part after Jesus’ 40-day and 40-night sojourn in the desert to face the devil and temptations — his time of fasting and prayer that’s the seed for our own Lenten journeys — these abbas and ammas, as they were called, ate and slept little and worked and prayed a lot. They thought a lot about demons and temptation. They didn’t practice self-denial for self-denial’s sake, but rather to offer their lives as “living sacrifices” to God. Their goal was to put earthly needs and wants in their proper places so that they would be fully dependent on God, fully centered in God, and consumed by the Holy as with fire. 

Syncletica was from Alexandria in Egypt, born into a wealthy Christian family. When her parents died, she and her sister (who was blind) went to the desert to live as hermits, but were soon joined by others who sought her out to learn from her. This happened often with the Desert Fathers and Mothers; people from the cities pursued them to seek their wisdom. Some came to live with them as apprentices and never left. Amma Syncletica is one of the more notable Desert Mothers and some of her sayings/teachings, along with the sayings of many of the Fathers and Mothers, are preserved to this day. 

I’ll share two of her sayings with you because they touch on two important themes in the desert tradition, in the psalm and gospel readings for today, in the spiritual life in general, and in this pandemic: solitude and silence. Solitude and silence go hand in hand and are vital for helping us know ourselves and know God. They help us to stop, slow down, and listen deeply. The word the Desert Fathers and Mothers used that encompasses both was hesychia, which means inner quiet, rest, and stillness. Hesychia is deeper than getting just a quiet moment to oneself; it’s a developed quality. Syncletica said this: 

“For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, he does them harm because of the dilapidation of his dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; he causes loss to those who come.” [1] 

In other words — this is my way of paraphrasing what she said — if we can’t be by ourselves, how can we be with others? The American feminist writer bell hooks put it another way:

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”  [2]

Try this little exercise: how long can you sit by yourself completely alone and in complete silence? Nobody else around. No music. No TV. No phone. No thing or nobody to distract us. No substance or activity to numb us. And no judgment either — this is just an exercise. If you decide to try it this week, which I encourage you to do, notice what bubbles up. Notice how you feel. Notice what thoughts come to mind. 

I would wager that people who are grounded in that way, can be present to others fully and authentically. And it’s not just important interpersonally; think of the great leaders of social movements who were grounded spiritually. Many of them spent large chunks of time in intentional solitude and silence and led from that spiritually centered place. People who are at peace with themselves and within their own skin can be others. And here’s the point that Syncletica and the other ammas and abbas would drive home: these people can be with God, too. “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from [you],” the Psalmist writes. 

“But Bart,” you might be thinking to yourself, “I’m not moving out to the desert to live as a hermit anytime soon!” The problem is that the conditions of solitude and silence are hard to come by these days, especially in the chaotic and wired world in which we live. I read a recent Smithsonian magazine article about a wilderness photographer, Gordon Hempton, who calls silence “the think tank of the soul,” and observes that, “All religions share and revere silence.” He warned, though, that quietude “is and has been on the road to extinction for a long time.” He has the data to prove this:

In 1984, after Hempton had spent some years chasing silence, he identified 21 places in his home of Washington State… that were free of human-made noise for intervals of 15 minutes or longer. In 2007, Hempton reported that only three of those places on his list still fit that criterion. Today, he believes a natural silence longer than 15 minutes is rare in the United States and all but gone in Europe. Even remote wilderness areas and national parks are frequently crisscrossed by jets, shrinking the average noise-free interval to less than five minutes during daylight hours.

Silence is elusive for many of us, especially over the last eleven months. You may have kids at home and your kitchen table has become a classroom… or a battlefield between warring, screaming siblings. You may have been working remotely, and the living room has become the office; work and home have blurred together. And if you’re not working, maybe you’ve spent more time with your partner or dog or cat than you ever thought you would!  

Or maybe the opposite: you’re thinking, “This is the quietest stretch of time in my life and I’m sick of it!” or “I’ve been by myself this whole time. I’m lonelier than I’ve ever been.” And I hear that, really I do. That’s perhaps one of the hardest things about this pandemic: our deep, unmet need for connection for which we’d had to accept poor substitutes, like Zoom. 

It’s important to point out, though, that solitude is not the same as being alone and that it doesn't necessarily depend on noise reduction. Syncletica also said this: 

“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” [2] 

Solitude is an inner state that takes time, patience, practice — and yes, intentional silence — to cultivate. It’s a steady center, a well from which we draw strength for other parts of our lives. Jesus, the gospel writers show, spends this long, intense period in the wilderness wranging with evil and temptation, before his ministry begins. And during those very active years, time and again he steps away from the crowds, slips away from his disciples to go and be alone. To pray. To be with his Father. 

Since it’s unlikely that we’ll be moving out into the desert to live in a cave anytime soon, it becomes important for us to carve out time and space within the hustle and bustle of daily life… or even the ruts of the pandemic. Syncletica and the others might be quick to point out that fleeing urban life for the desert is the easy part. The hard part is when you’re in the solitude and silence; that’s when the hard work begins. Taking time to be with ourselves and to be with God is hard to do — so, so hard to do in this noisy life. So we have to start small and start somewhere. 

Lent is a good time to take things as well as give things up (both have their place). What “miniature deserts” can we carve out for ourselves in the six weeks until Easter? What moments, however short or long, can we reserve for cultivating this inner stillness? 

A warning though: trying this takes a certain measure of courage, because we don’t always know what we’ll encounter. Syncletica and the others spent a lot of time talking about demons and other spirits. However we understand that language in our modern sensibilities, it’s still true that in solitude and silence we’re often confronted with thoughts, attitudes, and wants that can be frightening and even oppressive. 

But the good news is that in solitude and silence, we can invite God even into the inner muck. “I want Jesus to walk with me,” the song goes, “all along my pilgrim journey.” I want Jesus to walk with me in the places he walked himself for our sake. In the end, we can enter into such a place of solitude and silence trusting that an indescribable love meets us there, too. We trust that, as with Jesus, a voice speaks to us in the stillness, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG (1975), p. 233.

[2] All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks (2018), p. 138.

[3] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 234.