Though addressing monks in his own monastery, St. Hesychios speaks to all of us on the contemplative path when he says, “One who has renounced such things as marriage, possessions and other worldly pursuits is outwardly a monk, but may not be a monk inwardly. Only the person who has renounced obsessive thoughts is a true monk.” For Hesychios, then, a monk is not a geriatric vegetarian who mutters prayers, but any woman or man who seeks to become one, single person (the root meaning of “monk”), instead of the chameleon who constantly changes according to the color of demanding relationships. The single-hearted search for God requires this renunciation of obsessive thoughts, our video collection.
Saint Theodoros speaks similarly when he equates monastic withdrawal from the world with this world of mind-tripping: “Withdrawal from the world means two things: the withering away of our obsessions and the revelation of the life that is hidden in Christ.” It is not ultimately a question of embracing the externals of monasticism. We may go off to retreat houses or enter a monastery, but unless we quieten the world of inner chatter, we never enter. Countless numbers of monastics live decades in a monastery without ever entering the monastery in the sense of St. Hesychios or St. Theodoros intends, because we cling to chatter like a dog to a bone. Saint Basil the Great realizes this when he himself goes off to found his own monastery. He writes to his friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “I am ashamed to write what I myself do night and day in this out-of-the-way place. For I have indeed left my life in the city … but I have not been able to leave myself behind. … For we carry our indwelling disorders about within us, and so are nowhere free from the same sort of disturbances. Consequently we have derived no great benefit from our present solitude.” All the noise of his mental craving went into the monastery with him. As Horace observed of many, “they changed their sky but not their soul.” The only monastery we all need to enter is the one Jesus opened up as he disclosed the inner depths of his own identity and purpose: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30).
The world of our videos is the worldliness we are supposed to leave, but instead “we run to see them.” Why do we need to leave behind our collection of videos? Because they deafen the listening heart. As St. Augustine puts it with insight born of experience, “All the time I wanted to stand and listen. To listen to Your voice. But I could not, because another voice, the voice of my ego, dragged me away.”
We might well wonder, Am I somehow at fault for having all these distractions? The wisdom of the desert takes a rather practical approach to this question. It is not in our control whether these videos play: “It is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts,” says Evagrius. However, this does not mean we have no recourse but to be chained as prisoners in the cave of this cinema for the rest of our days. Evagrius insists that “it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our obsessions.” If met correctly, that is, with stillness and not commentary, they end up providing a valuable contribution to our training in the spiritual arts of awareness and stillness.