Social distancing really isn’t new. Throughout history there have been those who have chosen to engage in social distancing for lengths of time. Some for ascetic reasons. Some for philosophical reasons. Some for artistic reasons. Some for neurotic reasons. Some for religious reasons. Today, we’re all doing social distancing, to one degree or another, for public health reasons.
In the Christian tradition we have a group that we call the Desert Fathers. They were early Christian hermits, monks who lived mainly in the deserts of Egypt around the third century AD. They developed rigorous rhythms of prayer and Scripture reading, forsaking worldly wealth and prestige. Eventually monastic communities grew up around them that became the model for monasticism.
They’re an interesting bunch to read about – and to learn from.
One of the great misunderstandings and misappropriations of such monasticism (by both lay people on the outside as well as monks on the inside) is that the motivation is to escape from the presence of people in order to more fully experience the presence of God. To separate relationally from others in order to more fully love God. To get away from those that rub us wrong in order to retreat into one’s own (supposedly!) safe little world.
Such a rationale may make us feel good in the moment, but in the long run fails to develop in us the full love of God that embraces all people. We all need a break sometimes. Just not for all time.
In reflecting on such monastic traditions, Thomas Merton (himself a Trappist monk), writes:
“If you go into the desert merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils… Go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in God.”Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I believe that one of the great invitations offered to us by God in this time is simply this: To have more time and space alone with God that we might find others in God. Social distancing is an opportunity for the Christian’s heart to awaken to spiritual friendship. The phrase, “Absence makes the heart grows fonder” gets only halfway to the point. In separation we realize that we miss one another not only in an affective way, but in a spiritual way. Our love for one another in God is rekindled.
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.Hebrews 3:13
If ever there was a time that we needed daily encouragement, it’s now! If ever there was a time that we needed true spiritual friends, it’s now! Send someone an encouraging text. Or, even better, make a quick phone call. You’ll be amazed at the power of your human voice to relieve someone else’s human anxiety. As you engage in social distancing, pay attention to the way your heart is drawn towards spiritual friendship when you think of other individuals.
Who can you connect with today, even while social distancing means you are physically separated from them?
This article appeared here, and is used by permission.