Three rooms. One window. Little daily contact with the outside world. While this may sound like the current social distancing that we are all experiencing during the coronavirus, this was the life of St John of Egypt, one of the most famous desert fathers.
The Desert fFathers were a group of early christian hermits that lived in the deserts of Egypt. They had a major influence on the development of the church, and especially in the development of modern day monastic life.
The rule of St. Benedict heavily drew from the experience of these holy men, and the lesser known but just as important Desert Mothers. These men and women lived lives of daily prayer, fasting, and penitence. They grew close to God through extreme means.
St. John of Egypt became cloistered at the age of 25, and for the first decade of his life learned from a hermit. This hermit would teach St. John obedience and patience through often frustrating means, such as watering a stick every day for a year.
I can only imagine what St. John was thinking at the time. Especially when, after the year was up, the hermit just threw the stick away!
I would have been furious and my pride would never have let me do something as seemingly useless as watering a stick for a year, only to have it tossed.
Eventually St. John stopped being tutored by this hermit, and went out on his own. He built a small dwelling place in the side of a mountain that had three stone rooms and one window.
St. John would spend 5 days alone and speaking to God, and then spend 2 days preaching and providing spiritual direction through his window. All he ate was dried fruit and vegetables, and it had to be given to him by people who visited. He lived completely at the mercy of God and the generosity of the people who would travel to hear him preach.
Many of the saints of this week have shone light on the current situation we are living in. That is what is so beautiful about the history of the Church, and history in general. Nothing we are doing or going through is new.
As written in Ecclesiastes 1:9 -
“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”
One thing I have always struggled with, is how can the Desert Fathers, who tried to live a life secluded from others, become Saints? Wasn’t it selfish to completely isolate themselves and forsaking their families, friends, and communities?
It took me a long time until I started to understand. This is a calling that is put into the heart’s of these men and women by God. The best thing each and every one of us can do for the Kingdom, is discern God’s will for us and do it. For these men and women it was isolation, at least for a time.
The amazing thing about holiness is that it attracts people. The life that Desert Fathers and Mothers lived was extreme and not possible for everyone, but it was certainly attractive and romantic. Anyone who visited was able to see the joy and faithfulness of these individuals.
It started to attract so many visitors and, eventually, followers that the area was eventually called a “City in the Desert.” It was not what St John and the other Fathers were looking for, but it was God’s plan. They accepted, and molded their daily lives to what He willed.
That is why they would have two days a week to preach and give spiritual direction. They knew they had to give back in what ways they could. They still took time for isolation, but also scheduled in time to give of the wisdom they were gaining. That is how one becomes a Saint. Doing God's will. No matter the cost or the consequences.
What ways can we give back during this time of isolation? Can you call a friend or family member you have not talked to in awhile?
Do something special for your wife or kids?
What ways can we take time for ourselves and for our relationship with God?
Wake up early and pray? Go on a walk during lunch?
Let me know in the comments what you are doing to take time for solitude, and to give to others below in the comments.
P.S. The picture above is called Saint Jerome in the Desert by Bernardino Pinturicchio (c. 1475–80). It is not of St. John, but I thought it gave the aesthetic we were looking for!