Hesychast for a Day


Even though I’m embraced by the bursting springtime flowers of Cape Cod, I spent yesterday in the desert.

As a widower, I already live alone, often spending days at a time without seeing anyone else. So for me, going into the desert means no news, no television, no cell phone, no voice or text conversations, no email, no Internet, no Twitter or SnapChat or Instagram. No music playing softly in the background. And no work.

Instead, I spend the day in complete quiet. I read uplifting books and articles. I reflect throughout the day. I make soup. I watch the sun both rise and set. I think and make notes. I write about elevated subjects—like this essay. 

And, of course, I fast. Fasting keeps my mind focused on what I am about during the course of the day.

Fasting does not necessarily mean going without food or eating only bread and water. It also means eating foods you don’t enjoy. With an eye toward proper nutrition, for example, I might have:

  • A cold egg and some fruit for breakfast
  • For lunch a simple green salad with a splash of oil and lime juice
  • A cup of soup for dinner

I abstain from starches, like toast with the egg or crusty bread with the soup. I forsake my customary Illy with cream and sugar in favor of unsweetened green tea—which some joker once described as “the stuff pollywogs like to swim in.”

Christ set a model by fasting in the desert for forty solitary days. Lent, Yom Kippur, Ramadan—all are times when practitioners enter a calming state of repentance, resolution, and renewal.

In his book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen writes of the long history of Eastern Christian spirituality that was centered in the wilderness of the Middle East. Known as the Desert Fathers, these hermits did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening.

The literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” The Greek word for rest is hesychia and hesychasm is the spirituality of the desert. A hesychast is a person who seeks solitude and silence as pathways to unceasing prayer. The prayer of the hesychast is a prayer of rest.

My Desert Day is supposed to be a recess from both stress and pleasure, a time of rebooting mind, body, and spirit in acknowledgment of the Higher Power guiding my life—if only I would heed that guidance.

So how did I do yesterday? Here’s my log . . . 


5:00 AM        

My iPhone Calendar wakes me with a chime to tell me this is a scheduled “Desert Day.” I didn’t want to be awakened at 5 AM! I feel immediate guilt that I am not lacing up my shoes for a morning walk.

5:30 AM        

I down a glass of lemon water, a new regimen I’ve been following for a week or more. Make coffee; rationalize a teaspoon of sugar in it, even though my intent is to eliminate sugar from my diet. Additional guilt but, hey, I'm Catholic.

6:00 AM        

I sit down with the coffee to plan my day, in 30-minute segments. Unfortunately, I cannot find time for a walk.

6:30 AM        

I meditate about today’s Gospel reading, John 13: 34, where Christ says, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” The ancient criterion, as defined in Leviticus 19: 18, is known today as the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ’s criterion: “Love one another as I have loved you.” In other words, be ready to lay down your life for another, just as Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a condemned man in Auschwitz. It’s damn hard to be a true Christian. I cannot drive a mile down the road before I am cursing some other driver. I am called to die for that person if need be? You gotta be kidding, Christ!

7:00 AM        

I have a vague nausea. Not from the subject of the meditation, but from the conjunction of lemon water and coffee in my belly. I turn to Vigils in the Liturgy of the Hours, followed by Lauds. Here I read Isaiah’s words that God did not make the earth to be empty “but to be full of life.” We often do just the opposite: mating without bestowing life, polluting our planet rather than nurturing it, stifling the spirit if not the very lives of our fellows.

7:30 AM        

I end the session with twenty minutes of centering prayer, akin to transcendental meditation, which I learned from the Trappist monks. Sitting with eyes closed and mind empty but open to God’s presence in the present moment. I doze just once, as the session is about to end.

8:00 AM       

Breakfast: vegetable juice, grapefruit, boiled egg . . . blood pressure pill.

My understanding of fasting is that this ancient practice involves more than hunger; it’s founded on the idea of denying yourself the pleasure of food. So fasting entails reducing both portion and pleasure. That’s why I have grapefruit, which I typically take a pass on, and the boiled egg with no added salt.

The second sacrifice of a Desert Day meal is eating mindfully, without distraction. This means no catching up on news, no reading, no television. This is a tough one for me—a congenital newshound.

8:30 AM        

Time to clean up the kitchen and feed the koi. They seem to enjoy their breakfast more than I did mine.

9:00 AM

It's already time for Terce, the third of the Liturgy of the Hours that is prayed by monks. There are seven such hours spread throughout the day, giving the monks a scheduled pause to reflect on the transcendent realities of life while sanctifying their day. The Hours are composed primarily of Psalms, and I am taken aback that words written several thousand years ago still have stunning relevance for us, like this morning’s Psalm 27, which asks protection from those who “speak peace to their neighbor but evil is in their hearts,” or those whose "hands are stained with their crimes, their right hands heavy with bribes.”

9:30 AM        

I’ve allotted this time slot to submit my novella, Billy of the Tulips, to a publisher. The book tells the story of a fifteen-year-old homeless boy wrestling with life issues like sexuality, trust, and happiness. Because the book has a distinctly Catholic aura, I feel comfortable doing this bit of "work" during my Desert Day.

11:00 AM        

I begin prepping the soup I'll have as my supper. Making soup is so monastic, isn't it? I’m using new potatoes, baby carrots, chick peas, diced tomato, sautéed onion, and sliced mushrooms. For spice? Cayenne pepper, paprika, ground cloves, celery seed, and, of course, garlic, salt, and black pepper.

11:30 AM        

For some reason, things are beginning to feel rushed as I approach midday. I’d expected this, based on how my typical days unfold, and this is why I allotted a meditation period right here. The idea is to become one with the now. This means focus on breathing and on the sounds and sensations of the present: the hum of the refrigerator, perhaps, the rustle of leaves, birdsong outside, a breeze kissing your skin, a siren in the distance. On a day without much to eat so far, add the sounds of rumbling from my vacant stomach.

12:00 PM        

Sext. The noon Liturgy of the Hours. And again, words written thousands of years ago speak to me. This time from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I look up from the reading and ask myself yet again how the Catholic Church rationalizes its refusal to ordain women to the priesthood.

I follow Sext with the repetitive rhythm of the rosary—a continuation of the meditative period I began at 11:30.

12:30 PM        

I prepare an appallingly unattractive fruit plate for my midday meal: blackberries, blueberries and severely bruised bananas that have sat on the kitchen counter far too long. Worse is that I am not allowing myself to read—I have to look at this stuff while I eat it. Yuck!

1:00 PM        

As I enjoy a postprandial rest period, I’m aware that a Desert Day is more than an exercise in fleeing the constant connectedness in which we live. The desert forces an encounter with self. It is a series of individual time packets, each one sidling up and offering us the chance to answer questions we seldom even ask.

When Christ wrestled Satan in the desert, Christ was face-to-face with the fundamental question we all entertain at some point: Am I willing to sacrifice my integrity in order to attain my heart's desire? 

One thing hits home right now: time in the desert is not pure repose. It's an encounter with self, a confrontation. At the same time, it is sanctuary. Throughout the Gospels we read of Christ’s continuing practice of seeking sanctuary from the crowds that pressed him: "Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place."

1:30 PM        

I put the soup together and it’s simmering on the stove.

2:00 PM        

I start writing my blog essay for posting tomorrow—the one you are reading now, he said hopefully.

3:00 PM        

I break away from the blog to turn to None, the mid-afternoon reading of the Liturgy of the Hours. As I try to concentrate on the words, the temptations of secular society torment me here in my makeshift desert. I wonder what is happening with the Trump situation. Since Trump became president, he has caused me to anticipate a daily dose of bad news—like Chinese water torture. Turn on CNN for just a minute or two, a voice whispers! Then I remember that within the hour the local theater will run the first showing of the new Alien movie. Damn, I’m going to miss it! All this runs through my mind even as I read Psalm 126’s admonition that if we do not revere God, it is a wasted effort “to rise before the dawn and go late to your rest, eating the bread of toil . . .” 

3:30 PM

Back to the blog …

5:00 PM

I finish writing tomorrow’s post just in time for the Vespers. Its intent is to close out the work day in preparation for a peaceful evening. I follow Vespers with another twenty minutes of centering. As I sit with quiet and open mind, I truly do feel the tension slip away.

6:00 PM

Supper. If anything, my vegetable soup turns out to be too tasty. I am enjoying it way too much for a Desert Day. Still, I think about the weekend tourists who are arriving about now, just in time to tuck into exactly what I’d rather be eating—shore dinners of lobster, clams, oysters, melted butter and baked potatoes—the very reasons I settled here, beside the North Atlantic. 

7:00 PM

I feel good that I accomplished all that I set out to do here in the desert today. Now off to read The Cloister Walk until I fall asleep, hopefully by at least nine o’clock. After all, I have to rise at five in the morning to post this blog.


Showing 5 reactions

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  • followed this page 2017-05-20 20:29:45 -0400
  • commented 2017-05-20 19:38:24 -0400
    Helen, I apologize to you and my other Jewish friends for my error in confusing the central Jewish holidays of Passover and Yom Kippur. I have corrected my post.
  • commented 2017-05-20 10:32:53 -0400
    Peter, as a Jew, I have to point out that a better comparison to your fast is Yom Kippur — not Passover. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and personal reflection. On the other hand, Passover is a completely joyous holiday that celebrates the ancient liberation of an enslaved people. Yes, we Jews do not eat bread for a week, but so what? Passover meals are delicious, and there are many Passover foods that, because they are so tasty, are eaten by choice during the other 51 weeks of the year.
  • followed this page 2017-05-20 08:28:21 -0400
  • commented 2017-05-20 07:31:03 -0400
    Retreats can be made in a whole lot of ways. This way is very creative and truly feasible even for people with heavy work schedules… it’s often impossible to do a full retreat. I envy you this one.