Monastics in the earliest Christian Tradition were all hermits. They lived alone or perhaps in groups of two or three, but each in their own cell. In the Egyptian desert, these cells were often not much more than lean-tos against rocks or a small tarp tied up with some woven branches. Although they lived alone, monastics in an area might gather for the celebration of the Eucharist or other events if there was a priest present, or if there was some other reason. In the early days, very few of the monastics were clergy.
This was known as idiorrhythmic monasticism, to distinguish it from the community-style that became common later. This latter form of monasticism was called coenobitic (or cenobitic). St Pachomius in the East and St Benedict in the West are the fathers of coenobitic monasticism. It is St Anthony the Great who is the father of idiorrhythmic monks everywhere. He has suddenly become our father as well.
Even by the 4th to 6th centuries when coenobitic monasticism had become common, idiorrhythmic practice was sometimes followed, especially in Lent. St Sophronius tells of his community (about 100 years before his time) all leaving the monastery at the beginning of Lent and spending the entire 40 days in the desert fasting, praying, and struggling with their sins. One of the greatest Saints of the Byzantine and Orthodox tradition, St Mary of Egypt, was herself in the desert for over 30 years. She received communion only twice in her recorded life.
In case you can’t tell we’ve all become idiorrhythmic now.
The message I want to convey. Many of our fathers and mothers have chosen to be here, in this very situation, and have worked out their salvation, becoming Saints.
The concept of frequent communion and easy access to the Holy Mass is a modern, Western problem. Most of our ancestors were not able to go daily. Most of our ancestors did not have clergy to go to for such. And most of our ancestors did not even conceive of it as a necessary thing. Yes, most of our ancestors did not live in cities, and by the 5th Century or so, frequent liturgy in the city was not unheard of. But it was not common. And frequent communion meant on Sundays. Daily mass was the privilege of monastics who lived in community and even they did not partake of communion itself on a daily basis.
So we have the blessing from God now to work out our Salvation in an ascetic field that was common to many – if not most – of the Saints of our earliest history. Our spiritual Fathers and Mothers have already given us the tools to do so. The daily office, Lectio Divina, prayers counted on ropes of knots or beads, silence, aloneness, and occasional social interaction.
So, I know this sucks. I don’t want to pretend that it does not suck. In fact, and 14 to 21 days I could be dead. You could be dead. Any of our friends, co-workers, family, clergy, fellow parishioners… we could all be dead. That’s the truth of the matter in which we live. I’m counting on several different timelines until I get to 14 days: since my last meeting with a person, since my entry into work-alone status, since the shelter-in-place status, and since the last time I might have been exposed. And when I get to 14 days that only means I haven’t been exposed yet. So what am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do?
I would suggest that we become Saints. I would suggest that we buckle down and become the idiorrhythmic monastics that our spiritual DNA has set us up to be. This is our genetics our gift from our parents. We can do this by God’s grace and we don’t need to worry about “public masses” – which unlike our ancestors – we can literally watch any time we wish now.
Let us all pray to come out of this alive or dead.