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We carry ourselves wherever we go: Post-quarantine wisdom from the Desert Mothers

Quarantine is a period of social isolation to help arrest the spread of disease. Turns out, it is also apparently the time to set out on a journey of self-improvement. A casual Google search for “resetting your life during quarantine” yields countless personal growth blogs and wellness articles on how to use the quarantine to make a better you! Without pre-pandemic distractions, many found the time to learn new skills, reconnect with loved ones, establish new habits of mental and physical self-care, reevaluate priorities and to simply – gratefully – slow down.

Even so, now as I personally have emerged from quarantine and resumed former patterns of life, I can’t escape the gnawing feeling that I didn’t use my time more wisely. (That quarantine guilt is powerful stuff.) I don’t particularly feel as though I have discovered a new lease on life. My mind doesn’t feel clearer or more focused. (Most days, it’s rather the opposite!) That ubiquitous question – What did you learn in quarantine? – didn’t point me toward any revelatory insight for achieving optimum productivity, or for conquering carbs.

What I honestly learned is that in quarantine, or out of quarantine, I am still just… me.

After all, whether we spent the past year mastering new tech or dusting off old board games, we were all obliged to spend a little extra time with ourselves. As a result, we collectively became more well-acquainted with our shared, flawed humanity. A ruthless pandemic caught us in its clutches and forced us to confront our terrifying mortality. Our months and months in isolation were spent mourning the rising global death count, increasing social and economic inequalities, political and ideological extremism, waves of racial violence and the staggering impact of climate change.

Truthfully, we all looked ourselves in the mirror for the better part of a year and a half, and many of us didn’t like what we saw.

Lately, I’ve found myself willingly lost in the unique world and wisdom of the Desert Mothers. I’ve loved learning about these courageous women, predominantly living in the 4th and 5th centuries, who left contemporary society in favor of an ascetic existence in the desert. The Desert Mothers (or Ammas) left behind their livelihoods, their possessions, their relationships and even their identities to dedicate themselves fully to a monastic faith. The Desert Mothers (and Fathers) believed that to be a true Christian, one must retreat to the wilderness, leaving behind secular society with all its material demands and temptations.

I wonder if many of us shared the desire of these ancient desert ascetics when we entered our own modern world of quarantine? Perhaps we believed if only we could leave our hectic schedules behind, just unplug from corporate demands and escape for just a little while, might it be so much easier to love ourselves, to love our neighbors — and even to love God?

In the words of Amma Matrona, speaking to us from her own experience in the Egyptian desert: “We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation by mere flight.”

Mary C. Earle reminds us that in leaving their old lives behind, the desert ascetics sought “not to run away, but to encounter themselves and to encounter God.” In 2020, if we learned anything, we learned that our problems came right into quarantine with us. For the Desert Mothers, that was precisely the point. The Ammas sought out social isolation not as an escape from reality, nor as a quick “reset.” The Desert Mothers sought a close, unencumbered and real encounter with what it means to be fully human, just as God made us.

As we learned in quarantine, it isn’t easy to spend so much time with oneself. Most of us don’t want to know ourselves so well. This is why the impulse to flee from ourselves and flee from God is nothing short of antediluvian, as old as the Fall itself. In Psalm 139, the psalmist extols with wonder and awe, “Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me!” Then, in just a few short verses, the psalmist’s wonder turns to trepidation. After careful consideration, perhaps the psalmist doesn’t want God to know us so well after all. “Where can I go from your Spirit, Lord? Where can I flee from your presence?”

The psalmist soon realizes that there’s nowhere to go. Nowhere to run or hide. As the ascetics discovered, in the farthest, most remote places of the desert, wherever we are, God is there with us. Today, whether in quarantine, or out of quarantine, God is with us still. In the end, the psalmist earnestly prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” For we are God’s children, fully accepted, fully loved. Even with all our many flaws laid bare before us and before our Maker, God unconditionally calls us beloved.

There’s a fascinating little 19th-century poem by Francis Thompson called “The Hound of Heaven.” Thompson’s poem begins:

“I fled God, down the nights and down the days,
I fled him down the arches of the years,
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways,
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears.”

Despite our endless running and hiding, God always, ceaselessly, graciously and lovingly pursues:

“Ah fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest.”

We carry ourselves wherever we go. This is Good News. Because wherever we go, we are God’s.