The Cave Experience

June 06 2014 | by

SICK OR dying animals, knowing their vulnerability to predators, seclude themselves in an isolated shelter until they either recuperate or die. Sick or dying human beings, on the other hand, typically seek medical care. However, if the illness involves depression, many humans isolate themselves from others in what we might call a ‘Cave Experience’, a natural inclination to seek solitude while the soul works through its emotions.

St. Anthony had what seems to have been a Cave Experience. As Fernando, the son of a noble knight, he entered religious life at the Augustinian monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, but within two years he felt his spirituality stagnating due to frequent visits of friends and family. Therefore, he requested a transfer to Holy Cross Monastery in Coimbra, Portugal, which ended these disruptive visits. Fernando, having progressed rapidly in his studies due to his quick mind’s ability to retain information and learn languages, eventually was ordained a priest. However, sensing deficiencies in his own spirituality, he was drawn to the followers of St. Francis of Assisi because of their joy and simplicity. Having come to know some friars personally when they came to beg at the monastery, Fernando was awestruck and anguished when those men were martyred in Morocco. When their remains were interred at his monastery, Fernando spent hours of prayer and introspection at their tomb. Feeling that they had given their lives while he was living in relative comfort, he asked the Franciscans to accept him as a member on the condition that they send him to Morocco to preach. The friars, who renamed him after St. Anthony of the Desert, probably surmised his ulterior motive – to become a martyr and attain eternity.


Spiritual disappointment


However, God thwarted Anthony’s plan. On the voyage to Morocco, Anthony became so ill with malaria that, unable to preach, he was sent back to the friary in Portugal. But his return ship was blown off course and was shipwrecked on the shores of Sicily, just in time for him to attend a chapter meeting of the friars in Assisi. At this chapter, friars were assigned to various hermitages. Anthony was sent to say Mass for a small group of friars at Monte Paolo, an out-of-the-way hermitage near Forlì, currently in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

At Monte Paolo, Anthony lived in a cave, offered daily Mass, washed dishes, and did odd jobs. What was his state of mind at this time? We can only postulate that the Cave Experience that he entered on board ship from Morocco continued on Monte Paolo.

It seems that the failed Morocco expedition caused Anthony to fall into a type of depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the symptoms of depression may include the following:

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions.

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness.

  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism.

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable.


Place of silence


At the Chapter meeting in Assisi, Anthony did not advocate for himself nor ask to be sent anywhere. He told no one of his qualifications, nor did he mention the failed chance at martyrdom. He seems to have withdrawn into himself. The Assidua, the first life of St. Anthony, puts it this way: “Once the chapter was concluded as usual, and when the ministers provincial had sent the friars entrusted to them to their destinations, only Anthony remained abandoned in the hands of the minister general, not being requested by anyone of the other ministers, like a man who is considered inexperienced and of little use, and because he was not even known. At last, when he called apart Friar Gratian, who was then governing the friars in the Romagna, the servant of God began to entreat him that, once released by the minister general, he be taken to Romagna and there be taught the rudiments of their spiritual life. He neither mentioned his studies nor boasted of the churchly ministry he had exercised; instead, out of love for Christ, hiding all his knowledge and intelligence, he declared that he wished to know, thirst for, and embrace only Christ, and him crucified.”

At Monte Paolo, the Assidua tells us, “he entered into the place of silence.” When he saw that a friar had built himself a cell in a grotto, Anthony asked to use that cell. The friar agreed, and thereafter, every day, Anthony “after fulfilling the morning community prayers, would daily retire to the cell, taking with himself some bread and a small container of water… Often, when the bell rang, he would prepare to return to the friars, but, since his body was tired out by sleeplessness and weakened by abstinence, he would walk uncertainly, waiver, and fall. Indeed, sometimes he so reined in the desires of his flesh with abstinence that, unless he had been held up by the friars (someone who was present is a witness to this), he would not have been able to walk back to the hermitage.”

Additional symptoms of depression include:

  • Fatigue and decreased energy.

  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness.

  • Appetite loss.

  • Persistent aches or pains, cramps.

While the author of the Assidua attributes Anthony’s weakness and abstinence from food to his spirituality, much of this was probably due to depression, and perhaps to the lingering effects of malaria.


Surrendering control


Traumatic events and the loss of something or someone greatly desired or loved are major causes of depression. Anthony had recently experienced both of these causes. First, he was dealing with the loss of martyrdom for Christ. He had been certain that God had sent him to Morocco, so why had his plan been thwarted? Was he unworthy of martyrdom? Was he unspiritual? Had he misunderstood God’s direction? While dealing with this, he experienced the trauma of almost losing his life in a horrific storm and shipwreck. How can noble ideas about death withstand the terror of impending destruction?

Anthony’s reaction was to retreat to a cave and emerge only when necessary. In this cave, he most likely wrestled with God and his emotions. Eventually he reached the conclusion that we all, when depressed, must relinquish our habit of doing things our way and, instead, do them God’s way. We must surrender our control to God’s control. Only this attitude can bring peace.


Hidden treasures


Anthony later wrote in his sermon on St. John the Evangelist: “The way of wisdom is the way of humility; every other way is the way of foolishness, the way of pride. He showed us this way when he said: Learn of me, etc. [Mat. 11.29]… Poverty makes us rich, obedience makes us free. He who runs after Jesus in these paths will not meet the stumbling-block of riches, or of self-will… Follow me, then; I will give the hidden treasures and the concealed riches of secret places [Is. 45.3] (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. IV, translated by Paul Spilsbury, Edizioni Messaggero Padova, p. 35).

Anthony gave up ‘the stumbling block of riches’ when he entered religious life. He gave up ‘self-will’ when he resolved the aftermath of his aborted trip to Morocco. Only when he had given up both attachments was he able to receive ‘hidden treasures and the concealed riches of secret places’.

Updated on October 06 2016