I am thinking about dropping out and becoming a mystic. You know like back in the 3rd century Alexandria, Egypt. Men and women newly converted to Christianity, dropped out of the big cities and retreated into the wild abscesses of the desert and disappeared into caves with the aim of becoming one with God.
21st century New York City resembles 3rd century Alexandria. It is the powerhouse of commerce and trade, an island port located on a strategic coast. A center of multiculturalism and knowledge, but also full of corruption, riotous living, and lots of crime and conflict. It is the center of the rat race; a place that can seem cold, uncaring, made for cut throats and hustlers. You can find all manner of sin in its belly. And now with the chances of a humane standard of work for a living wage quickly evaporating, well, it makes one reconsider his or her purpose in life. What’s it all for? the mortgage, the climbing up the social ladder to reach a glass ceiling, and after that?
So many of my peers are caught up in what I call the “packaging” of 21st century 1st world living: the cars, the large houses, getting their kids into the best schools, dining in the finest restaurants, paying the 3rd mortgage on the country house. They waste free time and energy filling their houses with Bloomingdale’s luxury items: Nespresso makers, Lennox bone china serving sets, Manolo Blatniks, Louis Vuitton handbags, the perfect foundation for their skin type, etc. etc. But is this what life is really about? All these things do not make the existential problems that come with living as a human being go away. The more they accumulate, the faster they scramble and try to-do on their long to-do lists, the more crazy, stressed, and unhappy they become. Really? Is that what it’s all about?
Back in early Christendom, thousands and thousands heard the call. They literally walked right out of the city into the wilderness. There they practiced extreme forms of ascetism, barely eating or drinking, exposing themselves to the extremes of the desert, staying awake entire nights. Why? Because they were so in love with God, they would go to all lengths to be united with Him. The body and the prison cell of the senses got in the way of this mystical union so they did everything to tear it away so that the bare soul could connect to the divine Spirit. So enraptured were they, that young women would fling themselves into thorn bushes, or roll about in coils to put the mortal body aside. In hunger, cold, thirst, extreme heat, sleep deprived, they spent hours and hours and days and months on end steadying their mind on the one thing needful, the Jesus Prayer, contemplation of the Scriptures. They were trying to unite with Jesus the mystical bridegroom. They retreated to do battle with the demons who resided in the desert. They prayed especially against the demon of acedia. That cruel demon that is more alive in the streets of Manhattan more than the desert. That demon of depression, of lethargy, that puts into your soul the feeling that nothing matters anyway, who cares? Why should you care about anything? It is this demon that is the driving force of nihilism that has strangled and suffocated the world, sitting on leathery haunches on the city shadowed under its obsidian wings.
Acedia in Greek is less about sloth and more about “weariness of heart” or “listlessness.” As descripbed by Evagrius Pontius, a real monastic psychologist, “The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour (10 am) and besieges his soul until the eighth hour (2 pm). First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour (3 pm) to look this way and that lest one of the brothers . .. And further, he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labour, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him.” Helen Waddell, tr., The Desert Fathers (NY: Vintage, 1998), p. 163.
Sound familiar? That’s you on a typical day at your desk job in Midtown.
No doubt it would be very hard for a 21st century educated professional woman to give it all up and settle into a life of apparent boredom. It is hard to get accustomed without the modern conveniences of hot water, microwave, 1500 thread cotton sheets. But what the mystic gives up in material comfort she takes back in spiritual. What is the meaning of 300 pairs of Prado shoes when your soul is tired of it all?
And what about sex and romance? After years even in the most loving of marriages, the glitter glow fades. Things settle into a routine. The good husband strays. The good wife is bored. No mortal man can compare to the Divine Bridegroom . Although human love is fickle, divine love is true. As a nun who gave up a lucrative career in finance to join a convent in Pennsylvania told me, “Christ is the best lover.”
Yes, it would be he’ll to give up everything and retreat to a mountain in the wilderness. But it would be heaven also. What barter we must do to gain the Spirit? is it worth mutilating the flesh? What profit is all the riches of this world if man loses his soul. Is it worth eliminating the nonsense to gain meaning? I think so. If the soul yearns for the supreme object of its love, that is the purpose of its energy. Can there be any pursuit higher than the love of God?
Historian Ursula King recounts in her book, Christian Mystics, this class of women:
Drawn mainly from the well-to-do, but also from courtesans and dancers. Some have been called “harlots of the desert” since they had pursued the monks to tempt them, but overcome by the men’s holiness, they renounced their own way of life and withdrew into convents or solitude to seek repentance, divine forgiveness and the greater beauty of God. Their stories were told by the ancient monks, then translated into Latin and various vernacular languages. They circulated freely in the medieval world of Western Christianity, illustrating both the power of sexual desire and the insight that such desire can also lead to God. The stories of the “harlots” express both the bondage of desire and the fire of love into which human longing is transformed, once an all-consuming love of the Diving becomes its sole object. Christian Mystics: The Spiritual Heart of the Christian Tradition, 1998.
Palladius, a fifth-century historian of monasticism, mentioned almost 3,000 women living in the desert in Egypt. Stories concerning the most famous Desert Mothers, including St. Mary of Egypt, Apollonaria, Athanasia, Hilaria, and Theodora, were popular as early as the sixth century.
It would be rather unlikely that thousands of young, professional women relinquish their careers and their potential in having families and drop out into the desert in 2016. Perhaps what’s important is what Amma Syncletiki said: there is no difference between the desert people and the city people “[t]he goal is the same for all even if the way differs for some.” (Wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Mothers)
Elder Porphyrios says the same thing: It is possible to become a saint even in the city. Amma Syncletiki said the same thing, “It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
You just have to cut down on your Starbucks frapuccinos, Zagat 5-course meals, and instead cater to matters of the spirit. We shall see.
But the ultimate truth is this: life without God even in a luxurious 5th Avenue loft is a spiritual wasteland worse than any desert.
SAYINGS OF AMMA SYNCLETIKI:
Someone asked Amma Syncletica of blessed memory, “Is absolute poverty perfect goodness?”
She replied, “It is a great good for those capable of it; even those who are not capable of it find rest for their souls in it though it causes them anxiety. As tough cloth is laundered pure white by stretched and trampled underfoot, so a tough soul is stretched by freely accepting poverty.”
Amma Syncletica said, “We ought to govern our souls with discretion and to remain in the community, neither following our own will nor seeking our own good. We are like exiles: we have been separated from the things of this world and have given ourselves in one faith to the one Father. We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else.”
Amma Syncletica said, “In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and, afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire. At first they are choked with smoke and cry, until they obtain what they seek. As it is written, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:24); so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.”
For the life of St. Syncletiki, see: http://ocafs.oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=100099.