Saturday, September 26, 2009


From Chapter 27 of The Desert and the City:

A hundred miles away, the hermits who had remained in the desert were greeting the same new morning. John was in his burrow, deep in prayer. Macarius hovered in the antechamber of the hereafter, weary of life, anxious to commence his journey, sick of the disciples forever clucking around him like nervous hens. Papnoute awaited the appearance of another angel to report on his progress. Moses was watering his herbs and vegetables, swinging his leaky bucket, watching with childlike delight the patterns the water made as it sprayed out in the sunlight, just as on the morning when Zachary had first appeared in Scetis. And Poemen...

Poemen was where exactly? Physically in his cell, kneeling, his eyes directed outwards through the door he never kept closed, save in bad weather, for as he himself said, “We have not been taught to close the wooden door, only the door of our tongues.” But although those physical eyes remained wide open, fixed on the long perspective of desert stretching out to infinity, they did not see it, they did not see anything, for to all intents and purposes Poemen was no longer in his cell, in the desert. It was questionable whether he even existed, in any meaningful sense. At least he had lost all awareness of his own existence. You could not even say of him that he was lost in prayer. He had been praying, sure enough, from the time, long before dawn, when he had first awoken. But he was no longer aware that he was praying, or even that there was anyone there to pray. He was no longer in the world, or even in time, since the constant and interminable slipping past of experience had, for him, been suspended.

Out of time, out of space, out of the interminable nagging of the self, he, if indeed there still was a he, hung suspended, in a foretaste of eternity, and having lost himself totally was found, set free--free to know himself not as some petty individual driven by trivial desires that changed moment by moment, but as a part of the unity of all things, a unity beyond speech or explanation, that existed only because God, transcending even the gulf between immanence and transcendence, flooded trees and stones and all living creatures, all of His creation, with His own Being.

So, utterly lost to himself and his surroundings, Poemen never heard the approach of hesitant footsteps, or even the timid knock on his open door. Looking in, seeing him thus, the visitor began to withdraw, and would have escaped unseen if his elbow had not struck an old clay pot that was standing on a ledge by the door. The pot fell and broke with a loud crash, and Poemen, not really hearing it but aware that something had happened, blinked his eyes, collected himself and called out. “Who’s that?”

“It’s me, Isaac, Father. I...I’m sorry about the pot.” Poemen, his sight restored, recognized a young hermit whom he knew only slightly but who had gotten into the habit of coming to his cell, every few days, and either just sitting there, waiting for Poemen to give him a word, or else asking some trivial question that Poemen knew was not the real reason for his visit. Something serious was troubling him, Poemen guessed, something he was ashamed to admit. Sooner or later he would get up the strength to admit it. With a little encouragement. In God’s good time.

Poemen felt not the slightest resentment at the disturbance. What he had experienced, what he could not tell he had experienced, for there were no words worthy of describing it, would always be there, and could be reached again, not whenever he wanted it, for it was an experience that could come only through God’s grace, but whenever God willed that he should have it. Or if He never willed it again, no matter. What happened to the five-foot-odd of Egyptian flesh and blood that was called Poemen was really of no consequence whatsoever.

“Don’t worry about the pot,” he said. “I should be grateful to you. One less material object to bother about.”

The young man bowed deeply, took a hesitant step forward.

“Thank you, Father, it’s very good of you--”

“Sit down,” Poemen cut his compliments short by saying.

“I shouldn’t have interrupted you--”

“You interrupted nothing.” That was true, Poemen thought with an inward smile, in at least two ways beside the obvious one. Because, in one sense, nothing was exactly what had been happening, and in another, nothing had been interrupted, for while one might lose the awareness of God’s presence, the presence itself could never be lost.


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