This is the text of a lecture given at the Carmelite Centre, Melbourne, on Tuesday August 7, 2018. It is an edited version of the first chapter of Simon Carey Holt’s book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade, 2018).
He was mad, an obsessive-compulsive given to freewheeling visions and the most bizarre behaviors of self-harm. Voices told him things; at one moment they inspired him and in the next condemned and ridiculed him. Today he would be diagnosed and medicated, with a mental-health care plan to govern his days. But not then. For all his manic eccentricities, he was widely revered as a holy man. “That angel upon the earth,” they called him, “that citizen in the flesh of the Heavenly Jerusalem.” Clearly, he was a man impossible to ignore. Even today he is venerated as one of the Saints of the Christian Church.
Symeon was his name, born in 388 in Sisan, a small town in the Roman province of Cilicia on the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. Even as a boy, the son of a shepherd, he was given to long periods of self-imposed fasting and the most troubling dreams. As he watched his brother’s herds on the mountain slopes of Sis, he was moved by ancient stories of sacrifice and imagined his own—a boys-own-adventure with a religious twist. Not long after moving with his family to Antioch, by then a teenager, Symeon heard the Gospel passage from Matthew read aloud: “Blessed are they that mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Struck by the force of the words but mystified by their meaning, Symeon sought counsel from an old man in his village. The grey-headed sage explained to him that true devotion was only found through suffering, and that solitude was the most certain pathway to God. At just fourteen, captivated by this prospect, Symeon pledged to become an anchorite. He made plans to leave his family, his home and his shepherding for a life of solitude and separation; “a spiritual hunter” they would call him, roaming the mountains “to stalk his God.”
For the next twenty years, Symeon stalked the monasteries of northern Syria, but without finding the spiritual home he sought. In fact, he was routinely expelled because of his excessive behaviors. Apparently he slept so little and prayed so much, and so loudly, the other monks could barely cope. At the same time his fasting practices became more extreme. Symeon developed the habit of standing upright for as long as his body would hold him, for days and even weeks on end. Finally, the monks judged him unfit for communal life and expelled him to an isolated hut in the mountains.
As a hermit, Symeon became known as a solitary miracle worker, and a good one at that. Such was his reputation that his beloved solitude evaporated. The endless stream of human need overwhelmed him. It was in 423 that Symeon, then aged thirty-five and desperate for relief, moved out to the desert of Telanissus where he found a pillar among the ruins around nine feet high. He constructed a small platform on its top and made it his home. Small boys from the local village would climb up the pillar with parcels of flat bread and goats milk, but for the most part he was left alone.
Much to his dismay, Symeon’s isolation was short lived. Soon he was overwhelmed again by need. Great crowds gathered with requests for mediation with God and each other. A man of compassion, Symeon could not refuse them, but clearly his pillar was too short. What’s more, his personal thirst for God now consumed him. After six years on his pillar and with the aid of a small group of disciples, Symeon set about renovating his home. It was an extension he had in mind. The end result was a pillar some fifty feet high. An engineering feat, this was the deluxe version with a small platform at the top, a wooden enclosure to keep him from falling off in his sleep, and a very, very long ladder by which his disciples could bring him food and water and dispose of his waste. Once complete, Symeon moved in, or up as the case was, and there he sat, come wind, rain and heat, for the next thirty years of his life. Tradition says he never came down once. His expired body was found stooped in the position of prayer. He was seventy-one.
I confess, I am quite taken by Symeon, or Saint Symeon the Stylite as he is better known—Simon of the Pillar. Since first reading his story thirty years ago, his portrait has hung in my mental gallery of saints. To be honest, they’re all a bit odd, but that comes with the territory of sainthood. I have always wondered, what could possess a man to sit on a pole for thirty-six years? Was he just mad, or is there more to his story than that? Frankly, I am not averse to a bit of pole sitting. To an introvert like me—though I have a terrible fear of heights—the thought of solitude is appealing. What’s more, this drive to know God and to be with God resonates.
When I was twenty-seven years old, my brother gave me Psalm 27 for my birthday. Though at the time I judged it to be an especially cheap gift, it has been one of the most lasting of my life. It is a psalm attributed to David and one clearly composed in adversity. David describes God as his stronghold, his shelter and his rock. Danger lurked in his life and enemies were numerous. He found in God the strength he needed to persevere. No matter how many times I read this psalm, I am stopped in my tracks by the fourth verse. “One thing I ask of the Lord,” David says, “and this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.” David’s “one thing,” his one desire that trumped all others, was to dwell in the presence of God each and every day, to gaze upon God’s beauty forevermore.
As a person of faith—a person steeped in the Christian tradition—I have spent my life seeking to know God and to live in response to God’s presence through Jesus Christ. As a pastor, I have given my professional life to leading others in the same pursuit. Further, through twenty-five years of research and teaching, I have wanted to understand the nature of the spiritual life, how it has been lived through history and what is has meant to know God. Even more, if God is to be our “one thing” today, I want to know what that means and how we pursue it.
When I gaze up at Symeon sitting on his pillar in the Syrian desert, I may well shake my head in disbelief. At the same time, I cannot help but see in him the most tangible expression of David’s prayer. Indeed, he might have been mad, but he was mad for God. David’s “one thing” was Symeon’s. They shared a spiritual longing as deep as longing can be. While l cannot fathom Symeon’s choices in life, his resolve is extraordinary. Though I share with him his yearning, Symeon acted upon his in the most peculiar way. His “one thing” had him sitting on a pole for more than half his life.
Symeon is not alone in the history of the church. Indeed, countless women and men through history have gone to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of God. Symeon may have been the first pole-sitter, but so many others have sought the same goal through different means. There are those who have lived alone in caves; those who have chained themselves to crosses and circled the desert for years on end; others who have confined themselves to secluded monasteries, living by strict vows of silence and separation; and those who have passed their years isolated on rugged pinnacles of granite in the middle of the ocean. Whatever course they have chosen, these spiritual eccentrics have lived with a passion for the presence of God through Christ. In the grip of this desire, they have been compelled to relinquish all ambitions, possessions, and relationships judged peripheral to their pursuit: “One thing I ask of the Lord, and this is what I seek …”
As much as I am enthralled by Symeon and captivated by these extraordinary men and women of faith, I am equally frustrated. The truth is, if people like these are the exemplars of real spirituality, then frankly, it’s a journey from which I am excluded. It is not a pathway I can follow, not even in a moderate sense. Why? Because the spirituality of Symeon and his companions hinges almost entirely upon one thing: withdrawal. To pursue the presence of God, one must leave behind the pursuits of ordinary life. It is a spirituality of the desert, a journey to the margins. As a way of life, it centers upon practices of solitude, isolation and retreat, and has almost nothing to do with the busy ebb and flow of my every day.
I am not an ascetic or desert recluse. What’s more, as much I long for a little solitude, I will never be one. The desert is not my home. The margins are not my neighborhood. I am a husband and a father. I have made certain life-choices that mean acts of withdrawal will always be the exception and never the rule. I cannot run off to the desert or climb an isolated peak in the middle of the ocean. I certainly cannot live perched on a pole for the next thirty years. I have a marriage to nurture, a family to provide for, children who need my presence and support, and an ageing father who needs a son. What’s more, I have responsibilities in the workplace, friendships to maintain, neighbors to relate to, a mortgage to pay, groceries to buy, and lunches to make. Because of this, the spirituality of Symeon will always draw my attention as an admiring observer but never as a full participant. If I am to pray David’s prayer with conviction—if I am to name my “one thing” as devotion to God and God’s world—I need a different way.
Of course, I may be advised to simply brush this frustration aside, to honor the stories of these eccentric aunts and uncles of the faith, but then move on. The trouble is, if I have a heart for a deeper experience of God, moving on is a challenge. It’s a challenge because the way the church understands the spiritual and our pursuit of it continues to be deeply tied to practices of separation. No matter how much has changed in our understandings of God, mission, and the sacredness of creation, once we shift the conversation to spirituality, we revert back to images of private prayer, mountaintops, and solitude.
In my Baptist tradition, the usual measure of one’s piety is the daily “quiet time:” a period of personal solitude for bible reading, meditation, and prayer. It is a practice through which I have been deeply formed and continue to value in my daily routine. Across traditions, a practice like this might be broadened to include prayer books and the daily office, Eucharistic celebration, charismatic worship, or days of spiritual retreat. In every tradition we have learned the value of setting aside regular time for focused prayer and meditation, whatever form they take. We do this with good reason. A spirituality disconnected from such practices is foolishness. You need only scan the gospel accounts of Jesus or examine the rich traditions of spiritual practice through history to be reminded of the immeasurable worth of solitude and retreat for all people of faith. But is there not more to our pursuit than this?
David’s “one thing” is a longing for depth with God. The spiritual shallows are no longer enough. He articulates it again in Psalm 42. “As a deer longs for flowing streams,” he says, “so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (42:1–2) It is this “deep calling to deep” (42:7) that compels him, a longing for life in its fullness all the way down. But if the only pathway to such a place with God is via practices of separation and relinquishment, then where does that leave those who will never live in the desert? By all means, let’s nurture such practices where we can, but my contention is this: if the act of withdrawal defines our understanding of spirituality, then many of us are sold short when it comes to our experience of God. We who will only ever withdraw occasionally or momentarily end up feeling sidelined, having to content ourselves with being observers while others play centerfield with God.
I am a passionate cook and I love recipe books. My kitchen shelves are weighted down with a collection that far outstrips my need. I am not alone. In the world of publishing, food related books outsell most other genres. What’s more, the production values of these tomes are extraordinary. A recipe book today is a work of art. The sumptuous photography, the layout of text and image, the covers and binding all combine to make an object of pleasure and inspiration. However, research suggests the degree to which our fascination with such books increases corresponds with our declining presence in the kitchen. The truth is, these recipe books sit impressively on our coffee tables as we cradle our containers of take-out Thai. We know that we can never reproduce the stylized images contained in their pages, so we don’t even try. Somehow the simple possession of such books enables us to live our culinary longings through someone else’s expertise. It’s coffee table gastronomy and has an interesting correlation with our current interests in the ancient arts of spirituality.
The classic stories of spirituality in the Christian tradition are a most precious resource. I have taught many classes in which students have been introduced to these texts and I’ve seen hearts opened in transformative ways: texts like The Cloud of Unknowing, Augustine’s Confessions, and Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. But all too often resources like these become nothing more than coffee table spirituality, reminders to us of a journey so different to our own, so removed from the daily realities of our world.
In his book Journey to the Inner Mountain, the Australian author James Cowan traces the life of Saint Antony, the third century Egyptian ascetic known today as “the father of monks.” Orphaned at eighteen, Antony was left with the care of his younger sister, a considerable fortune, and a large family estate. Having heard the words of Jesus read aloud in the town square, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor … and come follow me,” Antony was struck by a profound sense of God. His response was immediate: he gave away his estate, donated all his money to the poor, placed his sister in a “community of virgins,” then moved out to the desert to live the life of a hermit. Indeed, Antony spent most of his life a cave dweller in complete isolation. His story inspired thousands to follow his lead.
At the very beginning of his book, Cowan entices the reader to believe that this model of spirituality is more than an interesting story from the distant past. “Few people inspire us more than those who take themselves off to the wilderness,” he writes; “they awaken in us an urge to abandon the normal constraints of society so as to pursue a free and open life.” Indeed, but all too often we leave such encounters no more able to address that urge than when we began. The question persists: how does an ordinary person with a job, a spouse, dependents, a mortgage, and an overflowing diary give expression to this “free and open life”? The only hints that Antony and Cowan give us are that we must “dispense with diversion,” and commit to the task of “renovating consciousness by a deliberate act of withdrawal.” Cowan’s account of his own stay in an ancient monastery emphasizes the point:
“I am somehow content. In fact, I don’t think I’ve known such contentment. In a place where there is nothing to do but read and think, gaze into the distance, eat a simple meal each day in the refectory, and sleep on a hard bed in a room that is bare of furniture save for a stool and a desk, there’s something to be said for solitude.”
As a teacher of spirituality, I have deep respect for the contemplative disciplines and for the rich heritage of the monastic tradition upon which Cowan’s book is a fine reflection, but I confess to scrawling in the margin, “So who does the school run?” I do not mean to be flippant, but I tire of feeling as though I, and many people like me, are left standing on the spiritual sidelines when it comes to the real treasures of the spiritual life. Honestly, accounts like this leave me feeling like an amateur in the professional world of spirituality. Like a lavishly presented recipe book, the story sits on my coffee table alongside the story of Symeon, testaments to my spiritual interest and corresponding poverty. Yes, I am inspired but not invited, intrigued but not empowered. At the end of the day, the spirituality of such stories is one to observe, but not one that invites my participation. Truthfully, I struggle to find entry points, handles on which to grab hold as a citizen of an entirely different time and place, and so I return to my everyday life enlightened but really none the wiser. It’s back to the washing up.
Sharing my frustration with this desert-obsessed spirituality and its grip upon our understanding of devotion, the writer Ernest Boyer Jr. asks a simple but revealing question: “Is there childcare in the desert?” The answer is obvious. The simple fact is, desert spirituality requires a set of life circumstances foreign to the vast majority of ordinary Christians, and not just those with children. While we may be disciplined in our daily prayers and bible reading, routine in our church attendance, even committed to periodic practices of meditation and retreat, the lion’s share of our lives are taken up with other things. We can no more climb a pole than we can fly to the moon. Nor, frankly, do we wish to. The desert is not our home. Our lives are consumed with being sensitive partners and devoted parents, good neighbors and reliable friends, engaged workers and just employers, active citizens and carers for the environment. The fact is, our primary responsibilities are not to the desert but to the routines of domestic and community life. Because of this, we need models of spirituality that lead us to embrace these elements of our lives, not minimize them. We need daily practices of spirituality that press into the stuff of everyday life with intention and purpose, not require that we walk away from it. We need a different way.
In addressing this need, Boyer draws a contrast between two contexts for spirituality, two pathways to a life of devotion. The first, the spirituality of the desert, he calls “life at the edge” and the second, a spirituality for those who remain in the routines of everyday life he calls “life at the center.” Key to this is that the worth of the desert calling is not minimized. Indeed, it is honored as a valid and rich pathway in the expression of faith. The consequence, however, is that life at the center is lifted to a place of equal worth and opportunity.
Life at the Edge
The “edge” is the place of withdrawal. It’s at the edge that numerous men and women of faith pursue that “one thing.” This edge spirituality is a rich vein within the story of Christianity, easily caricatured but complex in its diversity and depth. The historian of spirituality Philip Sheldrake describes the earliest expressions of Christian monasticism as essentially “a movement to the margins.” From its beginning, it demanded of its participants the most decisive act of separation from the traditional centers of life. And this for good reason.
The early practices of Christian asceticism flourished in direct correlation with Christianity’s movement from edge to cultural center, from fringe and persecuted minority to sanctioned religion of the empire. It was in the fourth century, in fact, that church and empire began to merge. The call to follow the way of Jesus was no longer a call to physical martyrdom at the hands of the state, but to a spiritualized death to self and “the world.” Faced with the possibility of a new laxity in the expression of discipleship, the desert hermits stood apart from the world in the most tangible way. Indeed, this was and remains their genius.
For four years I lived with my family in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. Next door to our apartment complex in a quiet suburban street was a small Carmelite monastery, home to a handful of nuns who lived according to strict vows of silence and an unchanging cycle of daily prayers. Occasionally we would see the nuns walking their dogs around the neighborhood, though the rate at which the large animals moved pulling the stumbling nuns behind them, it was more likely the dogs were in charge. These women would always smile warmly but never stop to chat. The only public entrance into the cloistered community was through the doors of its chapel. At particular times I could go and sit in this space to pray. In the small narthex were some words of explanation about the Carmelite order. According to the leaflet, the nuns’ primary vocation was “to pray for the city of Los Angeles.” And this they did with rigorous discipline day after day, month after month, year after year.
What’s important to note is that the edge is never entirely separate from the center. Lest we imagine the earliest ascetics hold away in some vast and distant desert, an arduous journey from the edges of civilization, a little geography is revealing. According to the historian of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown, the deserts of Egypt and Syria were not as we imagine. To enter the desert was to wander into the “ever-present fringe” of the village, not to disappear into another world. The desert was right there, a “standing challenge” at the immediate edges of daily life. At its best, this withdrawal to the edge was not a hiding from the world but a vantage point from which to see it more clearly and speak into it with a particular authority.
The truth is, that small community of Carmelite nuns in suburban Los Angeles was never meant to be cut off from its center, and neither was Symeon centuries before. From the top of his pole he could see the daily happenings in the village below and watch the farmers working on the nearby hills. From this vantage point and at his best, Symeon understood his vocation not as antithetical to society but marginal to it, and with purpose. History tells us that a steady trickle of delegations from the surrounding villages made their way to the base of Symeon’s pole seeking arbitration on matters as domestic as water rationing, crop harvesting, financial loans and neighborhood disputes. Symeon’s responses were often extraordinarily detailed and betrayed a man not of another world, but uniquely present to the one around him. According to Brown, it is only when we see beyond the bizarre feats of self-mortification in those like Symeon that we begin to understand the social significance of their role. Theirs was “a solemn ritual of disassociation, of becoming the total stranger,” standing apart from the institutions and obligations of family, village and church so as to mediate the grace and calling of God back into them.
This calling to the edge has been part of the Christian church since its beginning. One of its more recent proponents was Thomas Merton (1915–1968) who lived his calling as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in rural Kentucky. In the year of his death, he gave a lecture in which he described the essence of his own vocation, and that of all monastics, as a call to the edge. It is through this “marginality” as Merton called it, that the edge dweller seeks not only personal transformation but the transformation of society. Indeed, as Bernard McGinn observes, this call to the edge is not, at its heart, a self-centered, other-worldly expression of faith. Rather, it remains a noble calling to a very different presence in the world.
Life at the Center
In contrast to the edge, the “center” describes the contexts where most of us live the majority of our days. While the edge dwellers are called to a very different presence in the world, those at the center are called to a comparatively ordinary one. The center is the place of our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It’s where we buy and sell, cook and eat, work and play. It’s the context of family and friends, neighborliness and citizenship. It’s the place that hosts all the daily transactions, conflicts and intimacies of life. While the edge is never far away—we may see it from the center and go out to it from time to time—the edge is not where we live and never will be. Our more pressing need is to know God at the center of our lives, to hear God’s call with the same clarity with which Symeon heard it at the edge.
The language of the center necessarily differs to that of the edge. At the edge, it’s the language of withdrawal: renunciation, relinquishment, surrender, leaving, and denying. Though this language is not exclusive to the edge, it is not as immediately helpful to those of us who inhabit the center. Life at the center has more to do with the equally risky language of engagement: embracing, enfolding, choosing, cleaving, and nurturing. The Catholic writer David Knight reflects on this difference in language and its importance for those who live in the world. It’s a spirituality of involvement, not withdrawal; a spirituality of risk, not renunciation; a spirituality of commitment that flows from our baptism, not from a particular order or rule of life; and a spirituality attained not through successive stages of prayer or purity but through successive choices made each day amidst the chaos of life. It’s a spirituality that presses into the tasks, places, and encounters of the everyday, believing that God is as present there as God is anywhere else.
Despite its ordinariness, life at the center is as much a response to divine call as life at the edge. Typically, edge dwellers have embraced the notion of calling with a good deal of conviction. It’s why they are there. Deserts and monasteries have always been full of people for whom moments of epiphany and life-changing redirection are standard. Frankly, life at the center seems too ordinary in comparison. Dazzled by Moses and his burning bush or Paul and his divine encounter on the road to Damascus, we’ve come to understand a good calling story to be as rare as it is mystical. Epiphanies aside, the truly biblical notion of calling is much less extraordinary. Importantly, it’s as real at the center of life as it is at the edges. According to the Bible, the call of God is part and parcel of our identity as the body of Christ and the household of faith. It is not mine, nor is it yours. It is ours. It does not separate us into different strata of spirituality but unites us as one. Together we are called to be the people of God, to live in holiness and to serve the purposes of God in the world. The challenge for each of us, at the edge and the center, is to work out that calling in our particular circumstance.
Despite misgivings about Cowan’s portrayal of St Antony, the gift of his book is the author’s own immersion in the monk’s story. Cowan retraces Antony’s steps. He travels to the Egyptian desert where the ascetic lived in isolation as a cave dweller on the side of a mountain. When Cowan arrives at of the edge of this desert 1,700 years later, he is told there is now someone else living on Antony’s mountain: “the last anchorite” they call him. Curious, Cowan seeks permission to visit him.
With the recluse’s approval, a week’s supply of bread and a clear set of instructions, Cowan makes the trek up the mountain to the foot of a terrace carved out of its slope. Following directions, he waits awkwardly at a distance. In time, a man emerges in a black habit and a hood that covers his head and casts a shadow across his bearded face. After a long pause, the man lifts his weathered hand in the air, bidding Cowan forward. Taking the final steps toward the terrace and with his heart still pumping from the journey, Cowan introduces himself, expecting from the aged man a strong Egyptian accent and broken English. Instead the man responds warmly and in a distinctive Australian drawl. “Lazarus is my name, because I am reborn,” he says as he invites Cowan to sit down. Over two mugs of tea, a loaf of bread, and some honey for dipping, the two men talk. With some prodding, Lazarus tells his story.
It turns out Lazarus was a teacher of literature in an Australian university and happily ensconced in the suburbs when his mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Moving in with her for her last months of life, Lazarus was deeply affected and felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction with his own life. Upon her death, he found himself wandering the streets of Melbourne in deep distress. Overwhelmed with despair and a rising sense of meaninglessness, he walked in through the open doors of a church. Amidst the filtered light of the stained glass and the burning candles, he watched an elderly woman lay prostrate before an icon of the Virgin Mary. In that moment, Lazarus said, he heard a voice. He understood it as the voice of the Holy Mother calling to him. He fell on his knees and called out, “I have nowhere to go. Please help me!” The voice replied, “Poor man, place yourself in my care, just as this woman has done.” As Lazarus exited the church into the stark light of the afternoon, he knew his life would never be the same. What followed for Lazarus were years of pilgrimage through the rituals and monasteries of the Orthodox Church, culminating decades later in his retirement to this desert home in pursuit of the same spiritual “exile” that Antony had sought.
In the weeks that follow this first encounter, Cowan makes a number of return visits to the mountain and each time the conversation with Lazarus is challenging. Eventually, though, Cowan has to say goodbye as he begins his journey home. His final question to Lazarus relates to the application of this anchorite way of life beyond the mountain. Lazarus is clear: the spirituality of the future will not be a spirituality of the edge. “I can’t imagine,” he says, “nor would I like to see it happen, that the desert becomes once more populated by thousands of hermits living in caves. This would be to repeat history rather than to honour its gift.”
According to Lazarus, our task is to cherish the stories of those who have preceded us while discerning new ways forward in the spiritual journey, ways that reflect the realities of today and for those who will never inhabit deserts or mount fifty-foot poles. The Catholic scholar in spirituality Elizabeth Dryer says it well. “Not only must we know, critique, and make use of the past,” she writes, “but we must also envision and create new words and new categories that will reflect the experience of more black and yellow and female and married saints; plumber saints and teacher saints, secretary saints and mother and father saints.” As one such ordinary saint, I couldn’t agree more. My hope is that this book can make a small contribution to that important task.
 Attributed to Evagrius, a theologian of the fourth century. Quoted by Gannon and Traub, The Desert and the City, 28.
 Brown, “The Rise and Fall of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” 112.
 Cowan, Journey to the Inner Mountain, ix.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 33.
 Boyer, Finding God at Home, xiii.
 Ibid., chapters 1– 2.
 Sheldrake, Spirituality, 50.
 Brown, “The Rise and Fall of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” 111.
 Ibid., 131.
 Quoted by McGinn, “Withdrawal and Return,” 149.
 Ibid., 153.
 Knight, “A Practical Plan for Lay Spiritual Formation,” 7–16.
 Cowan, Journey to the Inner Mountain, 171.
 Dreyer, “Traditions of Lay Spirituality,” 210.