15. A knock in the night.

In the middle of his sleep, the monk heard a loud knocking at his door. He was confused as no one should be up at that hour, and no one should be knocking at his door.

He waited.

The knock came again.

He got out of his bed, went to the door, the knock came a third time as he was about to open it.

He opened the door.

No one was there.

He walked out, looked around the small enclosure that framed his doorway. There was no one there.

Returning to his bed, he felt a cold fear come over him.

He lit the candle by his table, opened his bible to the psalms, and read his courage back to him:

I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.

 Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.

 Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:

Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord.

 For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.

 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.

Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.

 For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.

 Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.

15. A knock in the night.

14. Quiet

The monk would often experience silence of a different kind. Sometimes during prayer, or contemplation, or during reading, he would find himself in a space neither hot, nor cold, neither dark, nor light, yet in all of these things at once; inside and out of time.

Looking out his door into the desert valley bellow, he saw people coming and going in the distance, visiting the monastery he belonged to. He would hear in the silence voices at the cave where Mass was said. He would hear the desert around his hermitage moving, smell it, taste it. He would disappear and become like the hinge of the door, the cross on the wall, the icons on the table, the words on the page before him.

In these times, he would know the presence of God was close to him. It was a peace hard fought to get, sometimes hard to maintain, and usually easier when he wasn’t looking for it.

Sometimes memories would pass while he was in this place, like leaves on the surface of a stream moving past. They would sometimes refresh him like water, other times leave him parched and thirsty. At times, he would ask God why he would be reliving these memories, these feelings. He thought back on his life and was afraid sometimes for the moment of death–not in as much as it would bring him closer to God, but that he had heard so often times of people’s lives flashing before their eyes, reliving as if living again. He did not want to relive the agony, the pain, the moments of failure.

And then like smoke in the wind, these thoughts too would pass, and he would once again find himself in the stillness of knowing God.

His past didn’t matter then. There was no past in these moments, no future, only the infinite present.

14. Quiet

12. Aches and Pains

The monk went out in the early morning to the cave where Mass was celebrated. There was no-one there. He went into the vestry, dressed, went out to the altar and said Mass. No one joined him but it didn’t matter; he was with Christ.

He returned after saying Mass in the early morning to his hermitage, took up his broom, and started to clean. Sunday after Mass was his time to clean the small hermitage; once he’d thrown the last pail of water over the stone floor, rinsed it clean, he returned to his bed and laid down for some rest.

He noticed his joints were aching, but it was a good feeling having completed his tasks for the week. His hermitage felt better having been cleaned. His icons seemed to glow a little stronger.

That afternoon, he was woken by the knock at the door–bread again. The monk upon retrieving the bread found a knotted rosary on top of the loaves. A gift from someone in the monastery perhaps. He blessed it, laid it upon the table next to the candle that burned during his reading of the hours.

The monk felt stiffness in his fingers, noticed his skin was getting worn from the dryness of the wilderness.

He took up the rosary left to him, went to his bed, kneeled beside it and began:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Breathing in Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God;

Breathing out, Have mercy on me a sinner.

Fingers moving to the next knot.

Breathing in, prayer.

Breathing out, prayer,

the next knot.

12. Aches and Pains

10. & 11. The Second Sleep

The monk awoke again from another two days asleep, having dreamed of tight spaces that were difficult to enter, move around in, and exit. Spaces that, upon consideration, made no sense to enter except to provoke anxiety.

The monk knew that the time of temptation was upon him. This is how it started.

Any time one retreats into the desert, one does so not to escape from the world, but to confront the most darkest parts of the self. One leads one’s self into temptation as part of strengthening one’s faith.

He kneeled before the icon of the Blessed Mother in his hermitage, lit the oil lamp, prayed. Today, he would go to the cave where Mass was to be celebrated.

Outside, the desert was hot, pressing down the dust into the ground. The monk opened his door, looked out into the brown landscape waving at him through ripples of heat. He walked to the cedar tree that struggled, twisted around the rock, pushed to the sky, branches open like a prayer for rain. He picked some of the lower branches, brought them into his hermitage, tied and hung them from a beam in the ceiling. In time, they would dry and become fragrant incense to help him focus.

He opened the cupboard and took a piece of bread, drank a little water. The bread was hard in his mouth, stale, yet satisfying.

10. & 11. The Second Sleep

9. Fresh Bread

The monk was awake, making a cup of coffee over his fire, when a knock came to the door. It was a fellow monk from the monastery in the valley bellow, delivering his bread for the next few days. After knocking, he said “Give us this day our daily bread,” placed the wrapped bread on the ground outside the door, took up his basket, and moved on to the next hermitage. The monk moved the coffee pot off the fire, went to the door, opened it, and brought in the bread. It was still warm from the oven, the fragrance reminding him of times past when his mother would bake bread for the week on a Monday, and always cut a slice for the monk and his brother. The monk recalled the flavor of melting butter and cinnamon, the texture of the warm inner bread, the crispness and the sound of biting into the crust.

He placed the bread into a cupboard, now having food for the next three days. He took a knife, cut a single end from one of the loaves, and ate it with his morning coffee. He looked out of his hermitage into the valley, prayed for the monk who baked the bread, the monk who cut the wood for the oven, the farmers who grew the wheat, milled it, brought it to the monastery.

He remembered drawing water from the well and drinking the cold water, the feeling of that cold water hitting his stomach, the comfort against the heat of the day.

He remembered the coolness of his cell, the warmth of singing in chapel the hours of the day, his friends, the abbot.

He remembered the cat, the white streak that would rub itself on the legs of the monks in the dining room at meal time. He remembered giving the cat food under the table, moments seated in the library when the cat would sit warm on his knee, purr under his hand.

He remembered the purpose for his retreat, his going out into the desert. He remembered that there were small comforts in his hermitage, but only small.

He returned to prayer to give thanks.

9. Fresh Bread

6. & 7. Sleeping

The monk woke from having slept two days. Sometimes these moments come in the spiritual life where exhaustion sets in deep, into your bones. You can’t always explain why–sometimes it’s just on faith that you understand somewhere, somehow, you may have taken upon yourself a burden to help someone else. Sometimes those burdens are mysterious, sometimes we are aware of them immediately, sometimes it takes time to understand where the burden came from. Sometimes years.

The monk was thirsty, and took a small drink of water. He took bread. He sat on his bead, took his rosary in hand, began to pray.

In the middle of prayer, the monk heard a voice outside the door of the hermitage. It was not a voice he was familiar with; it was not an unfriendly voice. It asked:

“Are you sleeping comfortably?”

The monk replied, “Yes,” thinking it was the abbot. “I am comfortable enough.”

“Are you in need of anything at all?”

The monk replied, “No, I have all I need.” He realized that it was not the abbot, nor was it a friend, or a fellow monk.

“Alright then.” The stranger left as quickly as he had come, yet there were no sounds of footsteps on the dry earth.

The monk resumed prayer.

A few hours later, as he read scripture, he heard the voice outside his door again.

“Are you resting comfortably?”

The monk replied, “Yes.”

“Are you in need of anything at all?”

“No, I have all I need.”

Again, the steps left. This time, he rose, walked to the door, opened it, and looked out into the desert sunset. He could not see anyone in the valley–the hermitages near his were well enough away, but he could tell the doors were closed. He looked down and saw that the only foot prints were those of the abbot and his own from a few days prior.

The monk closed the door, and returned to prayer.

In the desert, we may find ourselves distracted by what we may feel are well meaning thoughts, practices, teachings. We may find ourselves stirring in our slumber, called to challenge what we know is truth. At times, this is meaningful thinking worth pursuing. But we must be careful that the thinking that we do is not done from self doubt. Recognize where the challenge comes from can be difficult. In those times, return to scripture, prayer, the rosary. Return to the sacraments. Pray for guidance. Dedicate any suffering you may experience, physical, mental, or otherwise, to be united with Christ’s passion. Dedicate it to someone specifically, someone you know is in pain, is suffering.

And do not be afraid of rest when it comes, for God will settle us in hope.

6. & 7. Sleeping

5. The First Quiet Sunday.

There are times in the desert we are challenged to face what we believe.

The monk had another visitor; this time, a friend from the past. There were tears, laughter, and conversation.

Though one question rang out among the rest that made the monk stop and pause. The visitor asked why the monk called himself a monk, challenged why there was a need to say “monk” over “priest” or “believer”.

The monk took pause, and answered that it was just the way individuals who entered the faith addressed those who took certain vows.

After the visitor left the monk, and the monk returned into silence, he considered the question more deeply. He asked himself why he answered the way he had, why he’d felt defensive.

In the middle of the night, the monk awoke and wrestled with this question. He couldn’t find an answer again, and fell to prayer, asking God for help to see the answer.

In the morning, the monk looked into a framed icon of the Blessed Mother, sunlight streaming through the window of the door to his hermitage. It reflected on the glass such that, behind the light of the sun, the monk could see his own reflection. The answer came to him immediately.

I call myself “monk” because that’s what I am.

I call myself “monk” because that is who I am.

I don’t need to explain why. It is.

I am a monk, and that is all.

5. The First Quiet Sunday.

3 & 4. First Days in the Desert

A monk entered the desert to fast. The first day, he considered his piety. He considered what his sacrifice would accomplish, and he went to sleep for the entire day. A spider walked across his face, paused on his eye. He opened the other to greet it, then went back to sleep.

On the second day, a visitor arrived to greet him. A fellow monk who could not stay in his hermitage. He was hospitable to this monk, speaking to him briefly but cordially. He reminded the monk of the importance of staying within his hermitage as the devil was prowling, waiting to devour the wayward. The fellow monk left and did not return, leaving the desert.

On the third day, the monk looked out his cell and saw dew on the cobwebs around his hermitage. Dew in a place of dryness. He was reminded of his thirst, and wandered to find water. Coming upon a spring, he took two sips from his hand, found his thirst unsatisfied, and returned to his hermitage. He was filled with regret.

On the fourth day, the devil came to the door of the hermitage like a whisper, and reminded him of his hunger. The whisper entered deeply into his soul, blowing the monk like a dry blade of grass in a fall wind, consuming him like a fire. The monk cried out to God, weeping like a child, recalling not just his hunger but the pain of his many years prior to the monastery.

The evening of the fourth day, the abbot came to his cell. Seeing his tears, the abbot without words embraced him, lending him strength. The monk returned the embrace, returned to his prayers stronger for the tears.

We question now when we reach out for convenience.

We pause when we consider ease, recognizing we have entered a time of restraint and self denial.

We are four days in the desert.

There may have been temptations beginning within us that we have had to work hard to resist, or they may be building slowly. This is not just a time of reflection and restraint, of prayer and fasting. This is a time when we go to battle with the baser elements of ourselves.

3 & 4. First Days in the Desert