One of the first historical developments within Christianity was the movement of pious Christians away from the moral tumult of the ancient world’s Greco-Roman cities into the spiritual solitude of the Egyptian desert. St. Anthony of the Desert and St. Mary of Egypt are still venerated as early believers who put aside the wealth and pleasures of the Mediterranean world to pursue their eternal destinies in Egypt’s secluded wilderness. Although these desert fathers and mothers went to Egypt seeking isolation, they actually encountered much company. The demons and devils that plagued Jesus during his public life gave these ancient hermits no peace in their quest for a deeper spirituality. And the piety of these early solitaries not only enriched them spiritually but actually drew a good number of disciples eager to learn their Christian disciplines. The barren desert was spiritually most fruitful.
Retreating to the desert and other solitary places has left a lasting character on Christianity. St. Basil in the East and St. Benedict in the West would establish communes of dedicated Christian men and women intent on finding God apart from the legitimate cares and concerns of the world. Family, marriage, business and politics would be left behind so concentration and contemplation on the personal presence of God in the individual soul could dominate. Other believers would be missionaries and pastors and teachers and directors, but the Christian centuries would always produce noble souls seeking peace and quiet alone with God.
While Christ’s first Apostles were eventually globe-trotting emissaries, even they enjoyed their time alone with Christ. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, St. Andrew and a companion spend a day alone with Christ. “So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day.” While the public preaching of Jesus certainly enriched his disciples, quiet times spent alone with Jesus must have been a great source of their spiritual energy. For centuries Jews had contemplated the excellence of God by quietly muttering the words of the Mosaic Law over and over in their moments of solitary prayer. “Your Law is within my heart,” this Sunday’s psalm response proclaims, recognizing the enriching value of prayer expressed only in the heart. The first apostles would have understood this tradition.
St. Paul knew that every Christian was, in a sense, his or her own temple, his or her own retreat center, where the presence of God could be enjoyed at a moment’s notice. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” St. Paul inquired of the Corinthians. And it was certainly no coincidence that the young prophet Samuel met God in Jerusalem’s Temple while taking his rest from the liturgies of the day. “Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was.” Scriptural references to the nearness of God to those who come aside from the world and rest awhile in God’s presence are numerous. And the esteem that the saints’ evidence for time spent quietly with God is equally abundant. Mental prayer, quiet reflection, silent meditation and interior contemplation have been part of the Church’s spiritual exercises from the beginning. Often associated only with monks and nuns, interior prayer is a treasure intended for all Christians.
Lectio Divina (Divine Reading) was highly prized in the Middle Ages and has been given a new appreciation in our own day. Pope Benedict especially promoted this form of interior prayer. A passage of Scripture is selected; perhaps the daily readings from the lectionary would be appropriate. (These readings can be sent to your e-mail account daily from www.usccb.org.) The selected passage is carefully read and perhaps re-read. A word or a phrase might be particularly evocative, suggesting some grace received, some virtue required or some sin regretted. A quiet meditation on this special thought should last a few moments. This pondering should lead to prayer, in which God is thanked or a grace is requested. Some practical resolution to respond to God’s love would be appropriate at this time. Ideally, these good exercises should not end here; gradually the soul should want to linger in the presence of God whom it has just encountered. This lingering is the true contemplation, the true enjoyment of the presence of God. Every Christian must create his or her own desert, his or her own hermitage, his or her own retreat house, where the soul can occupy itself with God.