Fuge, Tace, Quies.
On Seeking the Desert of Stillness in a Time of Radical Upheaval.
Abba Arsenios, while still at the Imperial Court, prayed to God, saying, “Lord, how can I be saved?” And he heard a voice saying, “Arsenios, flee from human beings, and you will be on the path of salvation.” And after he had departed to follow the monastic life, he prayed again in the same words. And he heard a voice saying, “Flee, be silent, and dwell in stillness. From these three things sinlessness will grow.” —The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. (emphasis mine)
I had a dream the other night:
I was in the Whole Foods back in Boulder. There was a terminator robot1 lying motionless and inactive on a metal table near the prepared food section close to the checkout. Above the robot was a touch-sensitive control screen. Someone unseen, and unknown to me, came up behind me on my left. The unknown person started to mess with the control screen. The terminator robot became activated and started to rise. “What are you doing?” I said in disbelief and not a little fear. I began to shut the terminator robot down. It deactivated and lay back down again motionless and inert. After a few seconds, though, it began to activate again on its own. Despite my efforts, there was nothing I could do to turn it off.
The dream ended.
One of the more persistent criticisms of Rod Dreher’s version of the Benedict Option is that his is a counsel to “head for the hills”. Time and again he strenuously denies this and tries, perhaps without much success, to clarify his position. His position, as best I can tell, is that Christians first need to admit defeat in significant aspects of the culture war. Second, this defeat necessitates a strategic, and therefore partial, withdrawal into a deeper sense of community. This community of mutual support will then give us the time and space to prepare, in discipleship, for the dark and difficult times ahead.
Fair enough. I have no problem with that, as far as it goes. I think it is, on balance, a reasonable course. But does it go far enough? My position, for what it’s worth, has been and is a bit different. Instead, I say this: if one is blessed enough to have some hills into which to flee, take flight, man! Go! What are you waiting for? Get thee to that hill!
There is certainly a long precedent for Christians—monks and hermits, for the most part—to get as far from the world of ambition as they can. This long tradition can surely be a great inspiration to many of us now, as it was then. I will call this the “Arsenios Option” for shorthand. This monastic option, of whatever form has always been one for a small minority of Christians (or Buddhists, Taoists, etc.). Practically speaking, it will likely remain so. Even as a growing number of people may want out, seek it, most will never actually find any avenue of escape.
An initial question, therefore that needs to be addressed is this: do we live in unprecedented times? As my recent dream attests, I think we do. Something is waking up around us—yes, something dreamt of over the millennia. But it always remained just that…a dream. I am hardly alone in getting the sinking feeling that this is no longer the case. Now it seems the rough beast is finally slouching off to be born—that is if it hasn’t been born already2. What does it mean to flee a situation where total surveillance is fast becoming reality? Where can one go to flee this civilization of inversion, propaganda, and control? Where do we escape from an Imperium that increasingly demands from us what we can no longer in good conscience give?
If I seek a zone outside of the cultural blast radius of what is now being born, I have to wonder if there is any such place? I am afraid to say that I don’t think there is. The blast radius of what is upon us looks to be everywhere and anywhere. The global machine—what I tend to call the transmachine3—has come online. It doesn’t intend to give us the ability to opt out.
When Abba Arsenios, who then was working in the court of the Byzantine Emperor, asked how he could be saved, the voice said two things. First, it told him to, “flee from human beings, and you will be on the path of salvation.” The desert4 into which he fled, literally means a place that is empty (see footnote for the etymology). Empty of people for sure, but more importantly a place to empty oneself of the world of craving and ambition. To flee to an actual, external desert is to seek a place where my rationalizations and self-defences are no longer convincing to me. The place where I must face myself as I am, and do so without turning away.
But does this require an actual desert, an actual wilderness? Not necessarily. In reading the Desert Fathers, one is warned to be careful what one brings into the desert with them. It is better, they say, to remain in the world longing for the desert than to be in the desert longing for the world.
Second, it told him about the Way, what the path would be, once he had left. Physical evacuation to the desert is hardly sufficient. There is more. The next thing he is told is to be silent.
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One of my favorite things about being at the monastery is The Great Silence. This lasts from after Compline (here around 7 pm) until Chapter (the morning meeting of monks) the next day at 8:45 am. Benedictines don’t take a vow of silence, but The Great Silence is a time that allows for only necessary communication, and then generally in a whisper5.
It is a relief not to have to talk. A great wonder of being human is discursive language. And man, can we ever talk! We now live in an overabundance of talk. We immerse ourselves in it all day every day—or close to it—’till human voices wake us, and we drown6. I am adding the same right now to this general cacophony—and wait until I start a podcast!7 This unending and contradictory stream of commentary has no precedent. Never has a human being been so informed, so sure of himself, and yet so completely lost and deluded as he is now. A peasant from a thousand years ago had a truer, more grounded, sense of reality than we do. That peasant knew—concretely and directly8— what was happening around him. I doubt that is true for most of us anymore. We live increasingly in the abstract and far-flung. In so living, we are largely deluded, spiritually and otherwise. That we are often quite erudite in our delusion is hardly compensation.
All of this is to make a simple point: we all need to practice silence. It seems prudent and wise to give our minds time to cool off, so to speak. The more silence the better. Silence being, say the Desert Fathers, the language of heaven. In silence, we are able to come to ourselves and back down to earth. Of course, this return can be a bit of a shock. We tend to prefer all the noise to a life of silence and attention. We are spending more and more of our time in this dictatorship of Noise9. Silence is the antidote because we are made for it.
Dwell in Stillness.
Man is Born in Tao Fishes are born in water Man is born in Tao If fishes, born in water, seek the deep shadow of pond and pool All their needs are satisfied. If man, born in Tao, Sinks into the deep shadow of non-action To Forget aggression and concern, He lacks nothing His life is secure. Moral: "all the fish needs Is to get lost in the water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao." From The Way of Chuang Tzu. Versions by Thomas Merton.
There is much that could be said about dwelling in stillness, but here I will keep it brief10. Once we have left the world of ambition and fled to the desert (in whatever form), and once we have practiced being silent and turned off and away the noise, both within and without, we begin to feel a shift in ourselves and our relationship with everything around us. Admittedly, it can be somewhat painful at first, and periodically thereafter. We aren’t accustomed to living this way. It is easy to become disillusioned in silence as we may have been in the world. Any disillusionment we find in stillness is of a different qualitative order. This higher disillusionment is the cure and not the disease. Yet we cling to our illusions and don’t always want to be rid of them. Stillness is letting go.
Just as we were made for silence we are made for stillness. We are born, like fish for deep pools of water, in and for the Way. The Kingdom of God is all around us, but due to the frenetic busyness of our minds, and blindness of our hearts, we are unable to see it11.
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! --Psalm 46.
What Did You Go Out into the Wilderness to See?
I still have answered—concretely answered—what the Arsenios Option is or could be. The reason for that is that I don’t know the answer. If I could, like Arsenios, go flee into the wilderness, be silent, and rest in stillness, I would. But in so desiring, I shouldn’t fool myself about what I would be actually doing. If I go simply to be safe from the world, or out of disgust for its very real and growing insanity then I am going for entirely the wrong reason. In so doing, I will likely only find ruin for myself. It would be better to remain in the world, for all its moral dangers.
But if done in the right spirit and with humility—as best as one is able—then there is a great opportunity waiting for us there. That is true no matter what the future holds, no matter how catastrophic. The reason to flee is not to escape from the world, but to move towards something far greater.
So I ask you, where are the new deserts?
The hermits who sought refuge in the desert of Egypt reminded the rest of the church that, “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). In so doing, they founded an alternative Christian society. This probably occured unintentionally on their part. Nevertheless, their influence lasted long after their time. They promoted a way of life that reflects a reversal of all ordinary social values and expectations.
—The Heart of the Desert. By John Chryssavgis.
Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919.
In my scheme, the metamachine was birthed around 1980 with widespread digital technology. Perhaps what we have now could be called the transmachine. The transmachine seeks to subvert and transcend its own origins—i.e., its origins in striving and ingenueity of biological humanity—and give birth to the post-human, or trans-human. Yikes.
From Strong’s Concordance on the Desert:
2048 érēmos – properly, an uncultivated, unpopulated place; a desolate (deserted) area; (figuratively) a barren, solitary place that also provides needed quiet (freedom from disturbance).
In Scripture, a "desert" (2048 /érēmos) is ironically also where God richly grants His presence and provision for those seeking Him. The limitless Lord shows Himself strong in the "limiting" (difficult) scenes of life.
[2048 (érēmos) in the strict sense expresses a lack of population (not merely "sparse vegetation"). This root (erēmo-) does "not suggest absolute barrenness but unappropriated territory affording free range for shepherds and their flocks. Hepworth Dixon (The Holy Land) says, 'Even in the wilderness nature is not so stern as man. Here and there, in clefts and basins, and on the hillsides, grade on grade, you observe a patch of corn, a clump of olives, a single palm' " (WS, 22).]
If something is on fire, for example, one gets to yell.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. By T.S. Eliot
Maybe I can start a podcast that is an hour of silence.
Don’t get me wrong, people have always been deluded. Humankind can’t bear much reality. But there are degrees.
cf. Cardinal Sarah’s book by the same name.
Yes, I am echoing Saying 113 of the Gospel of Thomas. Nonetheless, it is true.