Lecture by Kallistos Ware


'Contending with lions and tigers'

When it was said above that the regime proposed by the Xanthopouloi is 'somewhat easier', this is to be understood in relative terms; for, considered in itself, the solitary vocation is never easy.  Comparing the communal and the solitary ways of life, Evagrios says that, when a monk dwells with others, the demons attack him indirectly, through the annoyances caused to him by his brethren and through the various tensions existing in the community.  When, however, he goes out into the desert, the demons no longer use fellow humans as intermediaries but they attack him directly.  However irritating our brethren may be, it is incomparably easier to put up with them than to encounter the demons face to face.  Thus, just as the demons are more terrible then our fellow humans, so the solitary life is far harder than the communal.   The saints of the Russian tradition confirm this.  'Solitude demands the fortitude of an angel', says St Nil Sorsky.

St Seraphim of Sarov, who knew at first hand the life of both the coenobite and the hermit, had no illusions which was the more exacting: 'He was reluctant', we are told, 'to advise others to live in the desert.  One who lives in the desert, he warned, must be like someone nailed to the cross; and he added that if, in the struggle against the enemy, monks in a monastery fought as though they contended with doves, the man in the desert had to fight as one contending with lions and tigers.'

'Acquire inner peace….'

More needs to be said, before we close, about the difficulty raised at the outset.  How are we to answer St Basil when he asks, 'Whose feet will you wash … if you live alone?'  What service does the solitary render to the world at large?  Is it not selfish and antisocial to withdraw into seclusion, turning our back (so it seems) on the distress and suffering of our fellow humans?  This is a criticism of the solitary life that has often been made, alike in the past and more especially in our own time.  How shall we respond?

It is of course possible to reply with Christ's words, 'When you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret' (Matthew 6 : 6).  Christ himself regularly withdrew 'to a deserted place' in order to pray (Mark 1 : 35); Luke 4 : 42).  But surely, when Christ says 'shut the door', he is speaking of something that we are to do from time to time, on a temporary basis, before we return once more to the duties and demands of our daily life in society.  He is not suggesting that we should keep the door permanently closed.  He is simply stating that, in the life of every person committed to active social work, there needs to be a dimension of solitude.

What, then are we to say about those for whom the solitude is an enduring condition?  Of all the possible answers to St Basil's question, the best known to me is provided by St Seraphim.  'Acquire inner peace,' he says, 'and thousands around you will find salvation.’   The solitary is, to an outstanding degree, one who seeks by God's grace to acquire inner peace; and it is precisely by so doing that he assists others.  If in each generation there are no more than a few people – men and women alike – who in seclusion have acquired peace of heart, they have upon the total human community around them a creative effect that surpasses all calculation.  (Of course, the acquisition of inner peace is also possible for those living in the midst of society.)

Now solitaries who have acquired inner peace can certainly help their fellow humans in a direct way by acting as spiritual fathers and mothers, providing counsel to those who come personally to them to seek their assistance.  One such guide was the hermit St Antony of Egypt, who during the second half of his life became, in the words of his biographer St Athanasios of Alexandria, 'a physician given to Egypt by God'.   But St Seraphim's words have a wider application.  Through their hidden prayer, the solitaries also help countless others to whom their very existence is totally unknown.  By becoming a living flame of prayer the solitaries transform the world around them by their very existence, by the sole fact of their secret presence.  Such is the all-important contribution made by the one who is 'separated from all and united to all.’

Kallistos Ware
Metropolitan of Diokleia