If you study the Life of Antony by St. Athanasius, one striking aspect of the story is the "anachoresis" of Antony - his withdrawal into solitude and into the desert. It is often tempting to write this off as anacharistic, the spirituality of another time period. But if those beginning to pray would have something new to offer the world, finding solitude and making desert retreats are key.
Henri de Lubac, in his work Paradoxes of the Faith, put it this way:
"There is no serious study without withdrawal, a temporary refusal which may look like desertion, an evasion. It is however not by keeping au courant with daily facts or by discussing the slogans of the man of the street and the latest formulations of current objections that you live in your time and perpare for action." San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987, p 55.
To understand part of what de Lubac is getting at, it is important to associate two activities that today are seldom associated at all: prayer and study. Nearly everyone agrees that study entails a quest for the truth. But in the West, since the time of Francis Bacon and St. Thomas Aquinas, we have been divided on what Truth is. For Baconians and most scholars today in whatever field, truth is whatever is verifiable or demonstrable by supporting data. Here, study does not require solitude and has no relation to prayer whatsoever. It requires hypothesis, collaboration with peers, finding and assessing data in light of the hypothesis, to prove or disprove its validity. For St. Thomas, Truth is above all a Person, a Someone whom you encounter. We can find Truth first of all because He has revealed Himself in what He has made. He has also revealed Himself in the history of human events. Finally, he continues to reveal Himself to us personally, above all in prayer. Because of the way He has revealed Himself, we constantly find Him anew through both study and prayer, faith and reason.
Why can we discover Him through a disciplined and prayerful use of reason? St. Thomas understood that Truth is Reason or Logos Himself - the very Creator of human reason. In creating human reason, He made it so that it could help us find Him, because far from being indifferent, the Word yearns for each one of us, particularly, and longs for us to be in communion with Him and one another. Yet, human reason by itself is not enough to find Him. The light of reason needs the light of faith to find what it searches for. Whereas reason is given by virtue of our nature, faith is a sheer gift. To recieve it, we must ask the One who made us, and this petition requires a humble prayer, a cry in the dark. And His answer is more clearly heard in solitude, in the wilderness, by waiting in vigil even through the night. If the Gospels are read carefully, we discover that this is precisely the way Jesus prayed, the way He studied the Will of the Father, so that through the obedience of Christ to his Father we too might become the sons and daughters of God.
The discoveries of science have greatly benefited the world in most cases, but the discoveries of faith have saved it from destruction. The world without God exhausts itself because it cannot generate anything beyond itself. It is growing old and sick. All the great efforts even in science begin to seem more and more futile because science cannot address the deepest things of the human heart. To really thrive, the world must live in the light of heaven, of something more beautiful than itself. This is as true on the world stage as it is in our families and local communities. No real Christian can be indifferent to this. Christ commanded us to love and when we see others who fail to thrive our own hearts must be pierced - or we are not worthy to be called Christian. We know world needs the Lord, and that the Lord in his mysterious plan has chosen us to witness in the world. But how can we witness to someone whose heart we have not studied? This is why we must imitate Christ in attending to the heart of the Father through constantly making time for solitude, study and prayer.