The Uncomfortable Desert

Today we remember Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Mark the Anchorite of Athens. They both struggled for many years in the loneliness of the desert.  St. Mary said the first 17 years were the hardest as she struggled fiercely with passions. St. Mark said much the same, except his extreme trial lasted 30 years. It puts me to shame because I often complain when my trials last more than a few minutes.

About half of the worlds population is in quarantine right now due to the COVID-19 virus.  It’s been difficult for us even though we’ve only been at it for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, most of us have sufficient food, drink, clothing, and ample entertainment. I can’t even begin to imagine struggling in an actual desert in complete isolation with no material comforts, people, hardly any food or drink, and no entertainment for decades. But the unique desert-dwelling calling is not for most of us, at least not in its literal form.

The calling that God has for our lives right now is to live in the desert of quarantine.  Unlike Ss. Mary and Mark, we didn’t choose this desert voluntarily.  Yet our task is to endure it. Great amounts of grace are given to us when we patiently endure trials we didn’t ask for, and when we endure something brought upon us that isn’t a direct consequence of our actions.

It’s been a terrible struggle for many of us due to loneliness, boredom, restlessness (acedia), and anxiety about what the future holds when this is all over.  The saints also struggled fiercely with their isolation and the temptations that came with it. It’s ok for it to be difficult for us, that is to be expected. We’re going to cry, scream, get agitated and anxious; we’re going to struggle, we’re going to miss all the things we used to have (including the church services), and that’s ok. The saints felt the same way while getting used to life in the desert.  Building character is a messy process.

We just have to keep struggling, we have to keep getting up whenever we fall into darkness or gloominess or old sinful habits. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others, whether it be people in your parish or your priest.  We may have orders from the civil government to “stay at home,” but that doesn’t mean we have to do it alone.  We are here for each other.

Even more than calling a friend, I have found that reading the lives of saints who underwent similar tribulations has been a great source of comfort and courage to me during this time and other times of my life.  I would recommend reading the lives of St. Mary and St. Mark.

May God preserve us and strengthen us during this time.

Photo credit: image of St. Mark created by Lifelong Acolyte, a friend and fellow seminarian whose work can be found here.

4 thoughts on “The Uncomfortable Desert

  1. Mother Tabitha April 5, 2020 — 7:03 pm

    One can find beauty anywhere, even in the desert. I grew up on the edge of a desert. It was a magical place for me. The Great Plains of Colorado. I have a feeling that those strugglers in the desert saw and experienced beauty and awesome things. Mary of Egypt had that lion that she knew and obviously it knew her St Seraphim and his bear. Imagine being so full of peace that the wild animals love you.

  2. Anthony Wilder April 6, 2020 — 8:34 pm

    There are many among us who are legally not allowed to see our friends and family my grandmother is in isolation and is broken by it not being able to see her family. This is a great evil which has come upon us all. we are not saints who seek the desert for solitude rather we are great sinners who long for the embrace of family and friends. I dont know what is upon us but consider that Satan has desired for millennia that we should forsake the gathering together of Christians especially during pascha and now it has happened and without resistance. Dont get me wrong I fully submit to our bishops and patriarchs and know this was all done prayerfully and I trust their decision. I am confused and wonder if this is a bigger deal than most are making it out to be. Please give me your thoughts

    1. Hi Anthony, you said you are “confused and wonder if this is a bigger deal than most are making it out to be.” I’m assuming you mean the temporary closure of our churches without being violently forced to close by the government. I think we are doing right to obey the bishops that God has set over our churches.

      What are the long-term ramifications of willingly going along with the government for this kind of thing? I don’t know. It would be far more concerning if churches were singled out by the government. But that is not the case. Everybody was shut down except medical facilities and a handful of businesses. This is not an attack on religion, not even covertly. We should tread carefully and watch closely over the coming months to see if something more sinister develops. But at this time, I’m not greatly concerned.

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