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Holy living in the PhD desert

In the collected sayings of the Desert Fathers, a story is attributed to St. Anthony the Great. At a time when he was troubled by many temptations, he was granted a vision of what he should do to be saved.

A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved. (Anthony the Great, Saying 1)

For well over a decade, I’ve been concerned with the path to holiness, mostly because my own behavior and attitudes feel resolutely unholy. I am irritable, impatient, bitingly sarcastic, proud, condescending, quick to anger, full of lust, gluttonous, overly ambitious, addicted to praise, and so on and so forth. (I won’t turn this quite into a confession.) When I was younger, I soon discovered that these sins and character traits were not so easily rooted out, certainly not by sheer dint of will or desire, nor by tears or fits of anger, nor by some sudden experience of prayer or devotion. The Spirit, in my experience, is not accustomed to cleansing hearts in an instant, without the mediation of intervening time and experience. God created us in time and materiality, and it is in time and materiality that he has chosen to save us and make us holy.

When I first became an Anglican, I often heard people say “90 percent of it is ‘just showing up.’” That is, if you keep coming to the liturgy, keep saying your prayers in the Daily Office, and keep asking for grace, something happens. You will find your character changes. The sacraments, the readings, the prayers, the fellowship, and the turn of the seasons have their effects. Even if you arrive troubled inside, or distracted, or angry, or lustful, or depressed, “showing up” counts. I’ve had similar conversations with a number of spiritual directors. Tenacity, patience, the endurance the Scripture teaches — these are virtues that make for holiness.

In recent years, one of the primary testing points for my patience has been my dissertation, and it has therefore been the arena or theater of my spiritual life. One of the things that I knew upon starting my PhD was that it would involve a great deal of silence and time alone. My study would be a little academic hermitage for most of the hours of the day. And, as my research shaped up, it became clear that I would be spending many days traveling alone as well.

For me, this could mean either that I would be driven mad by the solitude, get endlessly distracted by trivialities (Facebook, the perfect work playlist, really nice lunches), and find myself lapsing into times of confusion and depression; or, I would “redeem the time,” finding a new pattern of work, prayer, and rest. I took to heart the angelic advice to St. Anthony, “Do this and you will be saved,” as well as the words of the prophet, “In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15). I could find holiness through the PhD, even if I found nothing else. I might not come out of it a saint, but a bit more saintly.

And so I structured my days. My wife and I woke at 5:30 a.m. (she’s a baker and chef), and I made us coffee. When she went off to work, I would spend an hour reading Scripture and the Fathers and saying or singing the Morning Office. I would make breakfast. I would sit down to work until noon and have lunch. I would clean the house, bake bread, go to the market, take care of those daily personal ablutions, and work again until 6 p.m. I would say the Evening Office at home, at church, or in a college chapel. If it was a saint’s day, I would go to Mass and sing in the parish choir. I would have dinner with my wife. I would rest and rise and repeat. I would set aside Sundays for relaxation and prayer. Sometimes I would go on a trip for research or a conference, sometimes we would meet friends for drinks or dinner, sometimes I would go to seminars, sometimes I would volunteer somewhere, sometimes we spent most of our week at church for the great festivals. And three years went by in so short a time, and yet in such a way, that I can barely imagine the pattern of my life differently.

In those PhD years, I think I learned a number of things about structure, sin, silence, and solitude. First, if you structure your life for “holiness” in this somewhat old-fashioned way, you also structure your life for productivity. It was not hard in the least to finish the dissertation in three years. I knew when to work, when to rest, when to pray. There was rarely a question about how to spend my time. Even when I spent an extra moment in prayer or taking care of the house (or watching TV, to be honest), I rarely had less than ten hours work in the office, and the alternation of activity made it easy to focus on my writing and research. There is freedom and fruitfulness in discipline.

Second, I learned some of the sins of the solitary life: ridiculous irritation at disruptions (however minor), dismay at wasted time or finding oneself distracted (“Did I need to smoke for that long?”), the specific gluttony of the lonely baker attempting to live a vaguely ascetic life (no one’s there to see you eat half a loaf of fresh-baked bread; no one’s there to judge how long you spend thinking about your next meal, however meager), and many other less savory sins. Such a life must be sustained with friendship but also with accountability: a confessor, a spiritual director, a group of friends to meet with regularly or online, a spouse or close friend who doesn’t take bullshit, companions to write with and to and for. These are particular kinds of relationships, not defined by physical proximity but spiritual intimacy, trust, and encouragement.

But third, I discovered the rare beauty, consolation, and companionship that come in silence. When I was alone, I knew that I was not alone, but surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses. My devotion to and relationship with the saints, particularly to the Virgin Mary and St. Benedict, grew especially in this time. I knew that I wrote, that I ate, that I grew distracted, that I sinned, and that I repented, all in the sight of God, the angels, and the saints. (Icons help here.) The truly terrifying thing about physical solitude is not the absence of others, but the sheer presence of the world around you and of the Spirit of God within you. Without the distraction of other people’s bodily presence, you grow awake to creation and to the life of God all around, to being itself confronting you, as well as he who is beyond being. This experience may come in the Egyptian desert, as it did with the great Fathers; it may come in the solitude of one’s room or office, when a bird suddenly flits on a branch outside your window, seems to look at you for a moment, and flies away, or when a beautiful sunrise greets your singing of the morning psalms. Solitude is marked and strengthened by the society of the irrational creation, of the angels and the saints, of Jesus Christ, of the whole Trinity. A Christian is never truly alone.

That time is past now. I handed in my dissertation over two months ago; my defense is in a few days. At the end of September, I also started training for ordination at Westcott House and working regularly in a parish. I admit that I occasionally feel something of the bewilderment of John Chrysostom, when he emerged from the desert of Palestine to live with others and serve as a priest (eventually to confront the great crowds of Constantinople as an archbishop), or Gregory of Nazianzus, when he followed a similar path. You find the world is quite different from what you remember; you are surprised to meet others who have not been living “in the desert”; you discover all sorts of heresies, new and old, doctrinal and practical, real and imagined. You must learn to live and be and pray differently.

The thing I keep wondering about is whether I grew in holiness in the last three years, or simply changed. I pray God and trust that it is the former. I know things about myself, about God, about the saints, and about prayer that I think I would not have learned had I spent the time in another way.

For now, I feel I have begun to learn again the lesson about “just showing up.” Now, I pray in a chapel with others. I eat in a dining hall with others. I go to class with others. I reflect out loud with others. I hear sermons from many others, not just the Fathers and the priests in my parish. I’ve already begun to learn the particular graces, temptations, and sins of communal life. Sometimes, one feels the saints are less present and sinners more so, but this is an illusion: these are simply the saints on earth, with whom we all live, struggling alongside us. God is present here too, as is the life of holiness.

So when I find myself downcast or tired or frustrated, I remember the advice given to St. Anthony: work, pray, rest, repeat. This is the way to quell temptations. “Do this and you will be saved.”

Zachary Guiliano’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is “Control + Option” (2011) by Flickr user Juli. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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