The monastic life has always been seen austere, solitary, or celibate, not least because the Father of Monasticism, St Anthony the Great, began his journey into monastic life by going out into the desert to find God. His journey was therefore necessarily austere, solitary, and celibate. By contrast, my life is not austere and I am not celibate.
For me, the spiritual journey begins with solitude – the ‘going out into the desert’ to find God. I am not leaving home to live in a physical desert but I have withdrawn, I have pursued the solitude necessary to find God.
And some just don’t get it.
Backslidden! Heretic! Lost his faith…
Such are the thoughts of my detractors.
But I am not the first to ‘go out into the desert to find God.’
There was a man called Moses who climbed Mount Sinai alone, to seek God’s face. He was gone for so long his followers set up an alternative religion while he was gone. Holy cow!
Joseph had an enforced desert experience in the pit, and then in prison, before becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt.
The Holy Spirit, we are told, drove Jesus into the desert before his ministry began.
These and countless others went out alone into the desert and sought the face of God.
‘What about fellowship?
‘What about Church on Sunday?
‘What about accountability?
‘What about being part of a community?
No doubt they faced similar questions. But the truth is, the going out into the desert is absolutely essential. It is there, in deep solitude, that we will hear the still small voice of God. It is there in the desert that we receive the call, the vision, and the empowerment.
‘Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee…’ – Luke 4:14
It is there in the desert, in the solitude, that God comes to call and empower.
The urban monastic life, therefore, straddles two worlds – the world of solitude and withdrawal, and the world of everyday life.
Strangely, it is not the chatter of the world, but the chatter of the faith-community that we need to silence – the quick fixes, the trite quotes, the shallow solutions and, frankly, the denial of the depth of God. All these voices must be stilled, and the only way is withdrawal.
When the clamour of shallow voices is finally hushed, then we may hope to hear the still small voice of God. If we truly want to be like Jesus, we would allow the Spirit to drive us out into our desert, into our place of solitude, to seek the face of God.
And here’s the thing – it’s not something you can pop out and do on a Thursday afternoon for an hour. It takes a long time.
It took Moses a long time. The people became impatient.
It took Jesus forty days.
It took St Anthony thirteen years!
It takes as long as it takes.
I have been journeying in this desert walk for three years. I think I have only just started.
Organised and institutional church is dying. People are leaving in droves, to pursue a more solitary walk with God. Something is happening. It’s a moment in history. It is time to hear the voice of God. It is time to journey into the desert. ___________________________________________________________
I have written about my journey into urban monasticism in the book Excess Baggage: