There is a line from the TV series Seinfeld that often comes into my head when I’m getting ready for a family celebration or holiday, and especially for the great event of Christmas. The Seinfeld character quotes his father as observing that “Sometimes even a picnic’s no picnic”. How true that observation seems as, in the frantic rush to prepare for Christmas, the joyous underpinning of the season is obscured by the mad frenzy of parties, shopping and cooking. It is not that we intentionally lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. In fact, I think it is the opposite: we want to honour Christmas, to celebrate it with all the joy that it deserves. As in so many things we undertake, we intend to do well. It is into this gap between trying and achieving, between intention and attainment, between journeying and arriving that we, as fallible, ‘unfinished’ humans fall. We can strive for perfection but we cannot reach it. The stories of some the early hermits often make me think of this yawning gap between intention and achievement.
St Antony is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Monasticism’. The title is unlikely to be an accurate one but there is no doubt that Antony’s life story, written by St Athanasius of Alexandria between 356 and 362 AD, helped to establish Antony’s renown as a holy man whose life modelled a particular approach to a life dedicated to God. Athanasius tells us that Antony was born in c251AD in Egypt (at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna) to prosperous, Christian parents. At about thirty-five years of age, Antony decided to take up an ascetic life of prayer and absolute solitude but things did not go exactly to plan. As Antony’s dedication became known, more and more people approached him for help and healing; so many people, in fact, that Anthony’s plans for a solitary life became virtually impossible to sustain. Although maintaining his customary discipline and austerities, he frequently had to mingle with, and attend to, a growing number of followers. As Scott Cairns, in his Foreword to Robert C. Gregg’s translation of The Life of Antony observes, “In the person of Saint Antony we are able to witness … a life that is, decidedly, a life along the way, a life led by one who understood that way to be a never-ending one, a manner of progress without conclusion”.
Symeon the Stylite faced a similar dilemma but reacted more dramatically. Symeon was born around 390 in Sission, northern Syria. He apparently decided on a life dedicated to God when he was very young and he further determined that this dedication would be manifested by great austerity and acts of mortification. In those days, the trend toward a solitary life of severe self-denial was gaining in popularity. To our modern sensibilities it may seem strange but these early hermits were regarded with awe by their faithful counterparts who, in an effort to ‘gain by association’ some of the (perceived) holiness of the solitaries, would follow them at a distance, even into the more remote areas where the hermits ventured for solitude.
This social practice resulted in a rather bizarre situation in which hermits, attempting to live a solitary life, came under the watchful gaze of large groups of people who would approach the hermits whenever possible for prayers, healings and advice. It is said that Symeon, unable to ‘horizontally’ escape the attention of his ever-increasing band of followers, finally took a ‘vertical’ escape route, climbing many metres up a pillar to live atop its meagre platform for thirty years or more.
Sometimes at Christmas, we too might feel like escaping ‘up a pole’ as Symeon did but it may be more practical for us to take Antony’s lead and regard our lives and endeavours as ‘a life along the way’, towards peace and kindness. And, even if Christmas is not always a ‘picnic’, we might be better off if we abandon any escape plans and simply put ourselves squarely amongst the mad, happy throng of our fellow humans, all rushing around with good intentions – and, sometimes, slipping through the unavoidable gaps.
A ‘rush’ of Christmas happiness to all.