By Jeffrey Essmann - New York City - 1 March 2017
My grandmother’s favorite saint was St. Patrick; my mother’s, St. Jude; my sister’s, St. Therese of Lisieux. My grandmother loved St. Patrick because she was from Ireland, and I loved him because she did. When I pray to him now, I pray to him for courage and a sense of humor, two qualities I’ve shifted from my grandmother onto St. Pat. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes, and I don’t know if my mother prayed to him because she had a hopeless cause of her own or if the drama of a hopeless cause simply appealed to her. And my sister loved St. Therese of Lisieux because she did a miracle with roses and because everyone loves St. Therese of Lisieux.
My own favorite saint from the very beginning, and someone to whom I still pray each morning, is St. Joseph. The pastor at our parish was named Joseph, so every March 19, his name day, there’d be an all-school Mass first thing in the morning, a pageant in the school hall afterward, and then Father Joe would dismiss us. For years I connected the saint with early dismissal, so my devotion at the time wasn’t entirely unselfish. When I pray to him now in the morning I pray that I might stay on task and out of the way; that I might, as he always did, stay in the background and make sure that Jesus is alright. I pray to St. Luke for writing, St. Lawrence for wit, St. Lucy when my eyes are tired. St. Peter when I think I may have said the wrong thing; St. Mary Magdalene when I think no one’s even listening. I have my own communion of saints, most of them canonized. We all do. I have my confessors and evangelists, mystics and martyrs, the mildly heretical and audience favorites. But among them are two to whom I pray differently than I do to the others, if only because these two, each in his own way, taught me how to pray: they called me into solitude and filled it with the presence of God.
I call them my cavemen.
St. Antony of the Desert, widely honored as the father of Christian monasticism, spent the lion’s share of his 105 years in increasingly extreme states of isolation and ascetic practice, starting among other Christian solitaries on the outskirts of his village, then moving farther out to spend several years among the tombs, and finally pushing into deep desert, where he enclosed himself in an abandoned fort for twenty years and passed the last fifty in a cave in the aptly named Inner Mountain. (A monastic community grew up along the Outer Mountain to take care of the saint in his final years.) A couple centuries later, St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism (Antony lived in Egypt), escaping first the decadence of Rome and then the local clamor incited in a town where he worked a miracle, spent three years in a cave at Subiaco, an experience that formed him as a monastic, particularly his intense reverence for God, and whose spirit pervades the Benedictine Rule.
I’ve been in my current cave about four years now: the back bedroom of an apartment in Upper Manhattan. I’m directly across the street from a city park comprised of a very steep, wooded hill (the highest natural point on the island), at the top of which is a museum containing, among many other beautiful things, a reliquary that may or may not contain a piece of the True Cross. I usually pray my psalms at the window, facing the park, a wall of solid green in the summer, in winter a tangled tracery of oak branches, sycamore and elm. And sometimes as I pray I feel like a hermit in his cell, an anchorite clinging to the Hill of the Relic.
I pray the psalms at the window, move to the bed for scripture, say the Magnificat in front of an icon of the Virgin and Child, the Our Father before a cross one of my catechism kids brought me from Arizona. I don’t light the candle till I read the Gospel. I burn sandalwood incense the bulk of the year, cedarwood during Lent. These tiny rituals hold me to the moment, remind me of the Presence in which I stand, mark the journey of my prayer. It’s said that in St. Antony’s cave, over on one side, were one hundred stones. He would say an Our Father and, when he was done, move a stone from one side of the cave to the other. Then he would say another Our Father, and move another stone. Another Our Father and another and another until all one hundred stones had been moved to the opposite side. The next day he would say another hundred Our Fathers and move them all back.
The move toward the cave, of course, at least initially, is to escape the world (St. Gregory the Great, Benedict’s biographer, said that the saint “despised as if it were dust the world and its splendor”), but, once there, once alone, the real spiritual effort is to escape the self. St. Antony said, “He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing; but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.” Pushing against the weight of monastic silence is the scratchy static of the self we’ve developed to be in the world, a construct bound to be riddled with falsity, since that’s what the false values of the world demand. Static and demons. The Temptation of St. Antony has been a favorite theme in art, from Hieronymous Bosch to Salvador Dali: the holy man besieged by an army of grotesques, pulling at him, pummeling him, chewing on him. Antony said that the three chief temptations at the beginning of the spiritual life are riches, fame, and sensuality. (St. Benedict experienced such a strong wave of carnal desire that he nearly abandoned his cave. Instead he hurled himself naked into a bush of nettles and was never tempted again.) Sex, money, celebrity -- the temptations of a 21st century caveman aren’t all that different. I should probably check if the park across the street has any nettles.
But the dispelling of demons, spiritual or psychological, has less to do with an extravagant asceticism, a flashy self-loathing -- and even less, in contemporary terms, with self-help -- than with the pursuit of a clear interior space in which to encounter the Divine. You go to the cave for some kind of purity, some purging that will draw your soul irrevocably to the Living Presence. You go to the cave to strip down, to pray without the applause meter; to approach God with no projects to propose, no errands for him to run, with no particular theology, no cleverness, no imagination; with no psychology but the psychology of grace; no history but the history of mercy. You go to the cave to get rid of old gods, of idols, images, the anthropomorphic, even the cosmic, satisfied only with the sweetness and aridity of pure mystery. Jesuit mystic and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whose time in caves was primarily as a paleontologist) said that we are pure to the degree that we’re centered on God, and my cavemen were intent on finding that center.
For both of them it was to be found in prayer and Scripture. When Antony was asked by a disciple what one needed to do in order to please God, he offered a threefold plan: keep God in mind at all times; always follow the example of Scripture; and “wherever you are, stay there and do not be in a hurry to move on” -- unsurprising advice perhaps from a man who spent twenty years in an abandoned fort and fifty in a cave. (It was also clearly an influence on the Benedictine vow of stability, whereby a monastic promises to remain at the monastery where he or she first professes.) It was a transformative encounter with Scripture that first pointed Antony, then around twenty years old, toward the desert. Thrown into a spiritual crisis upon inheriting a good deal of money at the death of his parents, he happened to walk into a church just as a verse from Matthew was being read: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Within a year, he had done exactly that. Once embarked on his spiritual quest, like other desert monastics he took to heart St. Paul’s admonition to “Pray always,” and the numerous textual references in his preaching indicate that a good deal of his prayer was praying with Scripture. Benedict’s theology of prayer is both the heart and framework of the Rule, in which the spiritual life of the monastery is centered on praying all 150 psalms every week and daily periods of lectio divina, a prayerful, attentive reading of Scripture by which -- though faith, humility, and openness—one encounters the voice of the Living God.
My own encounters with prayed Scripture, while lacking the drama and immediacy of St. Antony’s and the rigor of St. Benedict’s, have been no less transformative. I find I’m usually struck by the questions in gospel texts: Jesus’ “What do you seek?” to his first two disciples, his “Why did you not have faith?” to Peter and, again to Peter, “Do you love me?” But it was Jesus’ question before healing a blind man in Luke that caused a seismic shift in my prayer and, by extension, my life: “What do you want me to do for you?” Certainly Jesus knew what the blind man wanted. It was pretty obvious. And I don’t think he was trying to test him, to see if he’d say something surprising. I think he just wanted to hear him be human, to hear him say, “Here’s where my life is empty and sad. Here’s where it hurts. Please fix it.” When Jesus asks me what I want, too often what I ask him for is, basically, a better theology. And as much as Jesus loves me, I don’t think he particularly cares about my theology. I think he just wants me to be human. He wants to hear where I’m blind, paralyzed, leprous, possessed. He wants to hear about the messy part. And once I got messy with him, once I got honest, once I said, “Here’s where it hurts,” everything changed.
And perhaps the most important thing my cavemen have taught me is that you can’t stay in the cave forever; that even though God loves speaking to us in solitude (that’s why he put that cool, empty space at the heart of us), he’s only in full voice when he’s speaking to us through other human lives. Antony and Benedict learned it themselves by force. Antony drew a huge crowd of people to the desert -- people who wanted to join him, be healed by him, or simply get a look at him -- and their fervor was such that, setting aside for a moment Christian patience, they tore down the doors of his fort by force. And the Antony who emerged was a changed man. (By some accounts, he actually gave off a faint light.) The graces of his isolation bore full fruit: he effected a great number of cures, and his preaching, according to his biographer, St. Athanasius, “brought comfort to those who grieved, instructed the ignorant, reconciled the angry, and persuaded everyone that nothing should be valued higher than the love of Christ.” His reputation became so widespread and his spiritual influence so powerful that the desert blossomed into a colony of monastic cells, with Antony at its center. (He later sought to regain his solitude and moved to the Inner Mountain, but it was too late: people just packed up and followed him.)
Benedict’s solitude ended when a group of shepherds came upon him by accident (dressed in animal skins, at first he was mistaken for a wild beast), and whose ongoing encounters with him so transformed them that word of him spread throughout the region and more and more people found their way to his cave. After a discouraging first experience of monastic community (a group of monks who pressed Benedict to be their abbot eventually attempted to poison him), he returned to his cave, but not for long. His reputation for holiness drew so many followers that he finally established twelve monasteries in the valley beneath the cave, the first step toward the eventual founding of Monte Cassino, the heart of the Benedictine movement that swept through Europe, sustaining its spirit and culture through the Dark Ages and reviving it in the medieval period. (St. Benedict is the patron saint of Europe.)
Being responsible for and to a community forced the two to articulate their experience of the God they had encountered in solitude, and while they may have gained notoriety as spiritual exotics, their sainthood began when they had to share that spirit with the everyday people who were drawn to them. You go into the darkness of the cave to find some kind of light and, once found, the only real question is how well or how poorly you carry that light into the world. My own solitude, after a while, began to get itchy. Although I’m involved with a vibrant parish community, a longing emerged -- in prayer; through Scripture -- for some manner of greater commitment. I prayed to St. Antony. I prayed to St. Benedict. And I contacted the director of oblates at the Benedictine monastery in central New York where I make my summer retreat. This summer, at some point during the week, there will be a small ceremony by which I’ll become an oblate novice. I’ll be given a copy of the Rule, the medal of St. Benedict, and receive a patron (I’ve chosen St. Anselm). And then I’ll get back to praying the Psalms. Sunday morning I’ll catch the first bus out of Elmira, and five hours later I’ll be back in New York. I’ll take the A train nearly to the end of the line, walk a couple blocks, and be back in my cave in time for Vespers. And the next morning I’ll be on the A train again for work, seeing if I can somehow bring that vesper light downtown.