Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Abba Arsenius and Me

OK, you already know I'm different ...

I was one of those odd teenagers who love to stay in their room and read. Of course, I had friends, and I saw a lot of them; but if no one was around, no problem! I loved solitude. I stayed happily alone and read, or wrote stories.

My mother actually locked me outside in the summer! Fearing this, I often concealed a book in a plastic bag underneath the hydrangea bushes. I am fond of hydrangeas to this day.

As an adult, I still love solitude, especially when I get to share it with dogs. I spend my lunch hours reading, either in a remote corner of the courtyard, or in a cozy place I have discovered up in the stacks, by a sunny window. I love the anonymity of the subway, and dread to meet someone I know on the platform, since I'm not good at small talk. I have been known to scurry to the other end of the train if I see a familiar face (and am not seen first).

So I wasn't much surprised when, having recently picked up a copy of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I discovered in it others who found solitude agreeable to their nature and profitable to their souls. Of course, the solitude of the desert was rigorous: the abbas often did manual labor to support themselves, survived on a very simple diet, and were plagued by all sorts of temptations that arise in solitude. And yet ... I see myself, there in the desert.

Take Arsenius, for example. His sayings were among the first in the book, as it is arranged alphabetically.

Born in Rome about 360, he was well-educated and well-born, and served as tutor to two Roman princes. In 394, however, he left his well-appointed life, sneaked off into the desert and became an anchorite. He was well-known for his asceticism and habit of silence, and apparently other anchorites found him somewhat forbidding. In fact, his behavior sometimes approached the curmudgeonly:

Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him, "Will you put into practice what I say to you?" They promised him this. "If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there." (p. 10)

Obviously, he was a little extreme in his love of solitude (and his lack of manners!). But I do see his point. He probably would have liked to have as his epitaph my personal favorite:

IF YOU CAN READ THIS,
YOU ARE TOO CLOSE.


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