The particular draw of the more ancient forms of Christianity, to me, lies in imagery. In Eastern Orthodoxy, this is most evident in the use of icons. Every icon, or holy image, points to something higher—the saints, stories from the Bible, God himself. But it’s not just pictures and paintings; the Bible is itself a verbal icon, for instance. The liturgical seasons too are images.
The one year so far that I’ve been prevented from moving by the pandemic, and cut off from religious community, is now bookended by two Lenten seasons. I can’t help but dwell on the imagery: the great and holy fast, as the Orthodox call it, points to Christ’s time in the desert immediately after his baptism in the Jordan. Out there, he fasts for forty days and resists the devil’s temptations.
Without getting hung up too much on the presumptuous comparison, I’ve come to think of this whole time as my personal desert. It came after a year of spiritual abundance, despite thorny personal circumstances, as I prepared to join the Church. And then, almost immediately—this. My relationship to Orthodoxy has become tenuous as a result. I’m constantly noticing demons.
Many saints of old went long stretches of time without holy communion while living in the desert or in adverse conditions. Monastics have a calling, and, I suspect, a gift that empowers them to leave the world behind and do what they do.
Modern converts to Orthodoxy, especially those of a Western persuasion, tend to romanticize monastic life: there’s something about the combination of crosses, icons, beards, prayer ropes, and desert imagery—I’ve not been immune to the allure of these things. But there’s nothing romantic about this suburban desert.
The rest of us who are not monastics must be content to do our best in the world. Ironically my friendship with the world has improved significantly in the last year—materially, professionally, even psychologically. But I feel malnourished in the spirit and unable to do a thing about it but wait: forty days, four hundred, or more.