St. Antony and those who followed him learned that a
desert of silence, solitude, and survival refines the heart.
A red-tailed hawk soars above me. He lives in our woods,
an old oak savannah we’ve been restoring. Brambles
invaded it decades ago. Repairing woodland is a slow pro-
cess, a constant battle against invasive species. Recovery is
taking much longer than expected.
The hawk rides the wind over tree and field. A solitary
soul flying, gliding, hunting, and watching. A quiet presence overseeing all. I’ve named the hawk St. Antony after
the Desert Father and guide in Christian monasticism who
lived in the vast wilderness of the Egyptian desert in the
Both St. Antonys became my comforters and guides
during a long season of poor health. I spent three years in
more isolation and solitude than I could have imagined. It
was my own personal desert. During the pandemic, solitude
became a way of life again. As I waited for recovery in the
world, I returned to the guidance of St. Antony and those
who came after him.
St. Antony lived in a world that was complex and
tumultuous. Though he came from a wealthy family, he
could neither read nor write. Shame may have been a
struggle. Perhaps he needed to look inward at a very young age. Maybe he cultivated an inner life of silence and longed
to live it out completely.
St. Antony felt called to leave a life of doing and enter a life of being, a life dedicated to seeking God in prayer.
He followed the pattern of Jesus, who was led by the Spirit
into the desert. St. Antony was called to be alone, present
to God, to himself, and to the forces within and against
him. Eventually, he gave all his possessions to the poor and
devoted his life to solitude and silence in a cave.
There he found God, a calling, and a wealth modern life
could not replicate. He found stillness where he could train
himself in the art of solitude. It wasn’t an escape from reality, however. He wrestled with his inner demons of pride and
lust. He fought wild animals and dark forces. He described
his spiritual battle as “like a man filled with rage and grief.”
He discovered that at the end of himself was the beginning
of God and his true identity.
After Life of Antony (written by Athanasius of Alexandria
sometime around 360) became a bestseller, others followed
in St. Antony’s footsteps. They were drawn to the authentic-
ity of becoming a whole person and honestly looking at the
dark side of human nature as well as the goodness of being
made and redeemed in the image of God. One desert proverb
teaches, “The one who lives secluded in the desert is free of three conflicts: hearing, speaking, and seeing. There is one
left—the heart.” The desert refined the heart.
This process happened in the wilderness of the soul
as well as in the actual desert where they lived. Amma
Syncletica, a Desert Mother known for her wisdom and
candor, taught, “The demons attack us from the outside,
and they also stir us up from within; and the soul is then
like a ship when great waves break over it.” Having lived
this experience, her words carried great weight. “We must
direct our soul with discernment,” she advised.
Discernment came in a variety of ways in the desert. But
silence was the greatest teacher. It was a silence that wasn’t
just the absence of noise, which we all crave from time to
time, but the deep silence of God.
Silence opened a vast topography of prayer that matched
the desert they were living in—an endless terrain of the soul
dependent on God for salvation and survival. When another
solitary monk, Abba Sisoes, was asked by a brother, “What
am I to do?”—a common question from beginners—he said
to him, “What you need is a great deal of silence and humility. For it is written, ‘Blessed are those who wait for Him.’”
I returned to the call of the desert during the pandemic. I recognize its spiritual movements.
Waiting for God became a way of life for the Desert
Mothers and Fathers. They developed simple rhythms of
prayer and work, intricately linking the two together. They
left a rich legacy. Their stories, sayings, and spirituality are
part of a collection calledThe Philokalia, meaning “love of
the beautiful.” When the English translation was completed
in 1995, the editors described it as “an itinerary through the
labyrinth of time, a silent way of love through the deserts
and emptinesses of life, especially of modern life.” The search for meaning was the same in the fourth and fifth centuries as it is today. The call away from “doing” into
“being” was so powerful that at one time 70,000 souls lived
and prayed in the desert. Abba Theodoros explained the
reason some were called into this experience. “Everything
may be understood in terms of its purpose,” he taught. “The
purpose of our life is blessedness, or, what is the same thing,
the kingdom of heaven.”
My years of poor health dragged me kicking and screaming into the call of deep silence. It was a reluctant call but
one that eventually brought blessing despite my resistance.
I returned to the call of the desert during the pandemic. I
recognize its spiritual movements.
A barrenness of soul from the many losses of the
pandemic empties me of the things that define me. The
brambles of fear and anxiety choke my heart. A cracked dry
ground forms inside me where normally there’s a land of
plenty I can depend on. An intense spiritual fire makes me
thirst for something deeper. It’s the thirst from an ancient
Psalm, “My soul pants for You, my flesh faints for You, in a
dry and thirsty land with no water.” It’s a thirst that can only
be satisfied by the pure streams of God running below the
surface of my spiritual life.
As I watch the hawk, my St. Antony, reach his great wings
for the sky and lift himself heavenward, I’m consoled. He
reminds me that the work of bramble and barrenness is an
essential work in his woods and in my life. It’s the work of
God. It’s the work of the desert.