The mountains are for stags; the rocks are a refuge for hedgehogs.-Psalm 104:18
In the desert wilds of Egypt in the 4th Century, hermits gathered in the shelter of rocks to try to find Jesus. The spiritual elite of their time, they are also a source of guidance for ours. John Cassian chronicled the wisdom and sayings of these strange people, half-starving and half-enlightened under the burning Egyptian sun. He went out into the desert to listen to their stories and to share them with the broader world. There is something to be learned from the hermits in camel hair shirts, eating almost nothing, and praying constantly. What Cassian learned from these spiritual elites is that they weren’t really elites. They were spiritual hedgehogs, like the rest of us.
Under lock-down, I find myself thinking a lot about hedgehogs. Nestled in my comfortable hole (actually a third-floor apartment), I occasionally poke my head out. When I do, I have a mask on and my spines out. I see other people scamper by me spooked by my shadow. But I too am spooked. On the verdant sidewalks of West Philly, I find myself hiding in hedgerows as others pass by. My one ‘social’ outing is to an abandoned cemetery where toppled gravestones that would make good warrens for hedgehogs.
This odd little passage about hedgehogs and stags is to me a source of delighted bewilderment. What can we learn from creatures slightly larger than teacups? What is the spiritual lesson found in spiny rodents known for curling up in a ball when frightened, for snorting in hedgerows, and for spending much of their lives hidden in their burrows?
Well, we are not the powerful stag bounding up mountains. Cassian saw in the stag the great spiritual hero who crushes Satan underfoot and reaches the height of spiritual awareness. He reflects on this passage in the context of a reflection of one such stag, Serapion, who seemed to have “surpassed nearly all the monks by his commendable life.” And yet this great mystical master had fallen into heresy thinking that God had a body. These desert hermits were spiritual athletes rigorously training themselves in a life of pursuing God. They looked up to Serapion as one who reached the summit, like a stag. When they saw him fall, they too fell.
Not many of us think of ourselves as spiritual athletes or triumphant stags. Yet it is tempting for the religious to think we have got things figured out. While the world goes astray, we succeed in following Christ. We are bounding up the mountain leaving the unchurched behind. Cassian shows the tumbling of Serapion because he wants us to realize that the spiritual athletes in the desert were beginners. Really, we are all just novices in the Christian life.
Coronavirus has made beginners of us all. We should use this time of beginning to develop the spirituality of a hedgehog. For Cassian, to be a spiritual hedgehog is to realize that we cannot rely on ourselves. Cassian quotes scripture again “a feeble race are the hedgehogs, who have made their homes in the rocks” (Proverbs 30:26). Christians can be tempted to think that our religion is for the strong, the bootstrappers, the spiritual warriors. But Cassian, living amidst the most intense Christian the world has ever seen, teaches that there is no one “feebler than the Christian.” To be Christian is the opposite of being self-reliant. Our whole spiritual life is reliance on Another. We are hedgehogs hiding under the cross of Christ.
This reliance on Christ also reveals to us our reliance on others: the mail carrier, the grocery clerk, the ICU nurse, the monk from 400 AD. A spiritual hedgehog cannot just launch out into the world self-sufficient. We shelter amidst the rocks because we need support. Living in isolation is one of the quickest ways to learn that we need each other. The hermits of Egypt were surprisingly social. They met up because they required each other for spiritual advice, the stray loaf of bread, and for a little companionship. Even hermitical hedgehogs find each other in hedgerows.
We are living in the strange experience of noise amidst the silence. Our streets are quiet. Stores and offices sit silently waiting for the return of clerks and managers. And yet this great muteness feels filled with clatter. The endless pings of social media and the chatter of Zoom meetings punctuates our days. We are glued to our devices and the stresses that come with them. When we worship together, we are encircled by the absence of our fellow congregants and distracted by the screen around which we gather to pray. What Cassian and the hedgehogs of Egypt invite us to do is to try to cut away that noise and get back to the basics of our spiritual lives. If we are all stuck being hedgehogs, we may as well learn something from it.
Being holed up gives us the chance to be still and know that God is our Master and we His novices. As Cassian reflects on being a spiritual hedgehog, he reminds us that we cannot just become mystical experts in one fell swoop. Cassian knew of too many monks who thought they were experts already, capable of going it alone. The wise beginner knows that “human frailty cannot endure without God’s assistance.” As we all curl up in our homes, we should be like the wise hermits who rely on prayer of a hedgehog: “God come to my assistance, lord make haste to help me.” Curled up under his rock, the hermit would repeat this prayer in temptation and physical strife. Curled up in our homes, we can repeat it when trying to homeschool while our webinar meeting crashes. Most of us aren’t faced directly by demons taunting us with scraps of bread, but we are wracked with anxiety about schools reopening and whether we’ll be employed for much longer. In each case, a hedgehog asks God to incline to our aid. Cassian’s prayer contains our the two sides of our faith: we are feeble and we need God. Weak, we need his strengthening. Sick, we need his healing. Anxious, we need his calm. The prayer of the hedgehog, “God come to my assistance.” And please God, make it quick.
In time, the hedgehog unfurls and leaves home. Slowly, we are starting to venture out into the hedgerows of our world. But social isolation is still likely to be the norm and may continue. Let’s use our physical isolation for spiritual growth. Now is the time to take up those long-neglected devotions and spiritual practices. Pray the words Cassian teaches us: God come to my assistance. Spiritual hedgehogs “should write this on the thresholds and doors of your mouth, place it on the wall of your house and in the recesses of your heart.” Spiritual hedgehogs know they are beginners, so let’s start beginning again. Fumble with your rosary, crack open the scripture, pray the psalms every day. If these become the words of our lips under lock-down, perhaps the words we speak when the world opens will be ones of peace and love. Let the silence of quarantine actually be silent. Turn off the screen, turn on your prayer life. We didn’t ask to become hermits, but our little retreats are teaching us to be spiritual hedgehogs again. That may be the good news of our dark times.