Hermits Who Love Community
To me one of the most interesting ironies in church history is the expression “monastic community.” The monks were people who wanted to be alone – in fact the English word “alone” is derived from the Greek word “monk” (monachos). If you have ever just wanted to get away from it all, then you understand the impetus for the rise of monasticism in the very early centuries of the church. Monks are simply people who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the culture – the pressures and problems of life – and live in seclusion. Some were also known as “hermits”, from the Greek word “eremitic” which means “desert dweller” or “wilderness dweller.” They were people who wanted to escape, to live in the beauty of the wilderness and just enjoy God.
While on vacation last year, our family visited one of the oldest monasteries in the Mediterranean, built into a mountain on the Greek Island of Chios. The beauty was breathtaking. The sea sparkled below in the distance. Cyprus trees scented the air and softened the rugged landscape. A gentle breeze from the ocean caressed our bodies. In a place like this, I could see getting away from it all. I walked into a small chapel, lit a candle, and said a prayer as the sun was setting across the mountain. Yes, I can see time alone in a place like this. But . . . I also enjoyed time with my family and friends, eating calamari and sipping Greek wine at the seaside café below. I like to be alone – but I also like community.
So did the monks. And here is the irony. The monks - the people who wanted to be alone - created communities. Thus, the ironic expression “monastic community.” It is as though they said, “We need time alone, but even those of us who really like being alone don’t want to be alone all the time!” There is no contradiction here – only balance. Jesus left the crowds to be alone (Mark 1:35). But he also spent time with his disciples, time relaxing with friends, and a lot of time teaching and touching the crowds (the term “crowd” is found throughout Mark’s gospel). It is here that the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer resonate:
“Let him who cannot be alone, beware of community. Let him who cannot be in community beware of being alone.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
On this journey with God, we need both time alone and time in community. Even hermits can’t be alone all the time.