I was considering my three favourite saints, Benedict, Anthony, and Teresa of Avila, when it occurred to me that each of them withdrew from the corruption in the World and in the Church. St. Benedict and St. Anthony each withdrew to their caves and Teresa withdrew to one her little houses in the cities of Spain and shut the door. Each sought and treasured solitude. History testifies that when you do that, the lost children of the world begin to beat a path to your door. All three had to provide for the challenge of providing hospitality for other seekers of God. Benedict ended up as the founder of a major branch of monasticism. Anthony found other hermits following him to the desert. Teresa spent as much time founding little monasteries as she spent taking refuge in them.
Their societies, and ours, were Pagan; at times Pagan arrayed in the glorious robes of the Church. A cloak of virginity is not the same thing as virginity. Today when clergy fill out the forms of application for marriages they are apt to meet the question, “Bachelor” or “Maiden” with a wry smile. The Church in America has difficulty accepting that this is not a Christian country, certainly not within the parameters set by the New Testament. Perhaps it never has been except in certain remarkable cultural pockets that managed to withdraw from the larger whole.
In general, there are always exceptions, in general the response of the church echoes the words of God, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.” [i] We are ashamed to blush. When the Church has been less accommodating it has paid the price by being condemned as condemnatory, and therefore socially unacceptable.
Many of today’s voters are wrestling over which of our candidates or political parties are more Christian than the other. Be assured, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”[ii] It is within the context of the Church within the World, and the World within the Church that Saints Benedict, Anthony, and Teresa each fled to a little cave.
This is not a counsel of despair, nor is it somehow peculiar. It is the rhythm of the Church and the World. The Lord himself counsels the faithful not to seek the answer within the Church itself, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”[iii] Do not be trapped into worshipping the garments of holiness or the stones of ancient buildings, not that in America we have ancient buildings. Even our Lord Jesus himself sought times of solitude where he could be alone with his Father on a lonely Galilean hilltop.
The answer is not to be found in the World or even in the Church. “Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’”[iv] Rest is not to be found in the lost ideal of a Christian nation nor is it to be found in the beauty and diversity of the Church. It will not be found in feverish attempts to cloak social morés in the garments of holiness. That is like a gold ring in pig’s snout. Rest is to be found in the ancient paths where the good way is. “Now . . . we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.[v]
Rest is not to be found even in the ancient paths, but where the paths lead. Rest is to be found in the God of love who is also a consuming fire where all of our pretensions are only dust and ashes. One cannot in truth separate love and holiness, and it is precisely the demands of holiness that caused Saints Benedict, Anthony, and Teresa to flee from the Church within the World and the World within Church. Were they wrong? Many would tell us today that they were.
For you and for me the practical answer is to be found in taking deliberate time for solitude like these ancient saints. Pascal wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”[vi] As Oblates we are not called to live in endless solitude, but we are called to enfold times of solitude into the rhythm of our lives and our search for solitude needs to be supported by the simple round of psalms and lessons, the prayers of the Church, and corporate worship.