A Holy Hermit: Elder Isidore of Gethsemane Skete
The entire world is experiencing the impact of COVID-19, the Novel Corona Virus pandemic. It is commonly said that one of the Chinese words for crisis can be interpreted as opportunity. With the limiting of so many being able to go out, we invite you to discover the opportunity to go in. To go in to the place of the heart. Over the coming days, we will be posting wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church regarding the values to be found from times of silence, solitude, and reflection.
All this talk of isolation and distancing! While very few are called to live the life of a hermit, these doses of isolation can be very beneficial. It gives us a chance to slow down and reconnect with ourselves, one another, and ultimately God. But during longer times of isolation, it's important to keep in touch with friends or advisers that have had experience of such times. This will help us to stay balanced when feeling overwhelmed, depressed or tempted to give in to addictive tendencies.
If then there is benefit to a life alone, what is it? Church history is full of examples of hermits. A hermit is one who has faced these struggles and passed by on the other side, with humility and love. But what is a real hermit like? If living alone, without the many benefits of our modern time, has a positive effect on the soul, who would be such an example? Let me introduce you to one that lived in the last century in Russia before the Revolution. His name is Fr. Isidore, a priest and monk who lived in a small skete near the large monastery started by St. Sergius of Radonezh.
Fr. Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox priest, philosopher and one of the New Martyrs during the communist era, developed a close relationship with Elder Isidore. He visited him in 1908 at Gethsemane Skete, part of St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow. He recorded his impressions and experiences for us in the book, Salt of the Earth.
In Fr. Isidore, Florensky also found an embodiment of his ideal of monasticism, an ideal characterized by freedom of spirit, freedom to live according to the laws of spiritual life, so vastly different from the ways of the world... Fr. Isidore... was at all times himself, in keeping with the ancient words of Socrates, "it is better to be than to seem." He refused to be governed by worldly codes of behavior, and broke them with charming ingenousness. Absolutely fearless, he was at the same time possessed of profound humility. He was soft, warm, pliant and innocent - like a child, yet he could stand up for anything. For Florensky, Fr. Isidore - a lowly, forgotten old monk - was a giant who dwelt on another plane, a truly spiritual man.
Salt of the Earth, Introduction, p. 12, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA 1987.
The natural things around Fr. Isidore were reflections of his inner life. Regarding his cell (monastic dwelling), Florsensky writes:
This tiny toy-like house (a small hut made of logs) contains many nooks and crannies. As you enter it, you somehow begin to remember things - even though it's impossible to remember everything - as some half-forgotten, dear, sweet dream of the heart. Everything is extremely simple and poor, yet special, with a warm appearance, and quiet. Things have their own eyes; and Fr. Isidore's interior meets the sight so cheerfully and invitingly, and bids farewell with such endearing glances. As you enter - straight at you look the holy icons. Each has its own story and is connected with some important personage: important, however, not here on earth, but in the Kingdom of Heaven. Below the icons is a shelf containing a Jerusalem cross, decorated with pearls; an old ragged copy of the Gospels, in a shabby and glossy leather binding; and an icon-lamp on a blue glass table. All the walls of the cell are adorned with picture postcards from all different people tied spiritually to Fr. Isidore; pictures, poems and candy wrappers. All of this may seem insignificant, but with Fr. Isidore everything had a reason for being. Everything was a symbol of the heavenly and reminded one of the highest... So, you have entered into the cell. On the window ledges there are "flowers," as Father would call them; cans with moss in them - tin cans with some kind of weeds well tended to by the gardener; a corked bottle with water in order to serve as a vessel for any "flower"; a bottle with a broken willow branch... It's hard to recall everything that was on the window sill at Fr. Isidore's.
Salt of the Earth, pp. 44-45
His years of aloneness weren't really alone. They laid the groundwork for encounters. As the years went on, his soul became attuned to the other world, the "still small voice" as Elijah the prophet put it. For Elder Isidore, the most simple and mundane things radiated with grace and energy. He had found the friendship of the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Isidore loved to mix things together which no one would have ever dreamed of mixing. Thus, he would have a pot of his famous jam - a conglomeration of leftovers of cherries, dried figs, cranberries, raisins, kvass [a Russian rye-beer] and probably turnips. Sometimes Fr. Isidore would tell us how he would prepare this jam, and with a smile would say, "Some people don't like it, but that doesn't bother me - its' delicious." He would only serve this jam to the "selected few" (as he would jokingly put it) in whom he had confidence; but in fact, he would let anyone try it. Indeed, there were reasons for this: those unaccustomed to it could barely swallow a whole spoonful of this ascetic jam. Yet Fr. Isidore would eat several spoonfuls himself and continue praising its merits.
Even in such details as Fr. Isidore's "furniture," his "jam," and so forth, one is compelled to see the subtle irony on the 'luxury of the world" - the Elder's detachment from the world, his other-worldliness. It was as if he were saying, "You think you impress me, a bearer of the Spirit of God, with your furniture, your various jars of jam, your worldly comforts. And I pay no attention to all your comforts, because when the Spirit is present, then my furniture and my jam are quite sufficient - but when the Spirit is not present, your furniture and jam are good for nothing."
Salt of the Earth, p. 53
Elder Isidore reflects the fox in De Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince:
Here is my secret. It's quite simple. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.
To see with the heart takes time. And time is what we've been given in this current crisis.