“The same Amma said: “Many live in the wilderness and behave as though they were in a town. The latter are wasting their time. It is possible to be a hermit in the mind while living among the masses; likewise, it is possible to be a hermit and live in the crowd of one’s own thoughts.”
“The same Amma” referred to is the one from yesterday’s reading, Synkletike, one of the Desert Christians whose words are recorded in the compilation “Sayings of the Desert Fathers.”
It has been estimated, according to the books I’ve read that at one time up to thirty thousand Christians, men women, children, fled the cities when Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome. Living where I live, the USA, Christianity is so encultured it is hard to appreciate how Christians of the fourth century felt. They believed that although they were in this world, they were not of it. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, that made Christians very much a part of this world or so they interpreted it.
So they fled the cities, the towns, the villages to gather in the wild places where no one else was living and their goal was to live in the world but not of it. They formed communities to aid each other with the basics of food, shelter, and clothing.
Sr. Benedicta Ward says this is the background to this and many other Sayings. We know what it is like to live in a town. We know all the distractions. We also enjoy a degree of comfort that we wouldn’t have were we living completely alone.
Amma Synkletike would like to see all those who fled to the wilderness live as monastics, making the pursuit of holiness their top priority. Otherwise, they waste their time with distractions.
At the same time, one living as a hermit can also be equally distracted by one’s thoughts, unless one does the hard work of practicing prayer to such a degree that one gets past all distractions.