I have been pondering caves lately. Yes, I mean the open chambers situated under the earth’s surface, sometimes in the sides of mountains. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on four caves that relate to Christian history and spirituality. This reflection has borne the realization that caves, and the retreats taken in them, are essential to Christian mission.
The first is Plato’s allegorical cave, about which he wrote in The Republic. By including this allegory, Plato seeks to illustrate the influence and impact of philosophy on individuals and, thereby, on civilization. A man who engages in the disciplined act of philosophy will make an “ascent into the upper world,” that is, into the intellectual realm of the forms. On that ascent, Plato states, he will come to know the highest reality that can be known, “the form of the good” and “whatever is right and valuable in anything.” For Plato, then, the cave symbolizes a limited existence in which men are not free to pursue the full excellences that are possible to their nature. Philosophy and a just social order make the pursuit of such excellences possible.
While Plato’s cave is allegorical, it still provides a great help. It allows us to visualize an important reality: a human person with an untutored intellect cannot access to the fullness of reality. Philosophy, then, is the discipline that elevates a man’s mind to the essences of things and helps him to learn virtue, which is at the source of human and social flourishing. Therefore, for the Christian, the cave of shadows must be overcome. So philosophy becomes an indispensable part of the Christian life as it equips us to engage effectively in the remainder of the Christian mission. It is the avenue by which the intellect that God gave to us becomes robust and lively.
But what about real, historical caves? Five centuries before Plato, one cave was important in the life of a Hebrew prophet. After receiving a message from the Lord, the prophet Elijah took retreat in a cave at the base of Mount Horeb (Sinai in Egypt). While lodged in that cave, the word of the Lord spoke to him again: “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” This was the site of the well-known theophany in which the Lord was present, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in a whisper. After Elijah heard the Lord’s voice, he had courage to speak even more boldly. Specifically, he sought out Ahab, the wicked King of Israel, exclaiming, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” Elijah’s prophetic message, made possible by the clarity and courage he received in the cave at Horeb, was ultimately a call to conversion. Ahab’s response of humility won God’s promise not to bring disaster upon Israel (see 1 Kings 19-21).
Another important cave is La Sainte Baume (“the Holy Cave,” in French). The legend goes that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. These three were expelled from the Holy Land after the death of St. James, the first bishop in Jerusalem; and they found their way to the area around modern-day Marseilles in southern France. Instead of staying in the towns, Magdalene trekked nearly an hour into the mountains and found a cave. There, for the last thirty years of her life, she is supposed to have lived in solitary contemplation and penance, fed by the Eucharist brought by angels. The legend also states that she was transported by angels back to the local town upon her death for burial, where her tomb and other relics were known and venerated from the second century of the Church.
Finally, a cave at Subiaco, Italy, draws our attention. Benedict of Nursia went to Rome late in the fifth century to finish his education, particularly to study philosophy. Scandalized by the debauchery of the Eternal City, he found a cave in the nearby mountains. He went to the Sacro Speco, as it is know in Italian, to pray and do penance, somewhat like Elijah and Magdalene, and in the style of eastern monasticism. After some time of penance and contemplation, young men started coming to Benedict for guidance, and then they wanted to join him in his monastic lifestyle. It was from this movement that the original Benedictine community was established at Monte Cassino, Italy. After a couple of centuries of quiet prayer and work, the system of Benedictine monasteries was one of the primary vehicles of the renaissance of Europe in the Medieval period. Monasteries became the loci of towns. Trade routes between monasteries developed into a system of roads. And, of course, the Gospel message became the foundation of a flourishing culture.
From each of these historical caves, we learn apropos lessons. A cave, literal or metaphorical, is a place of retreat and shelter from the dangerous or scandalous conditions of world around us. Sometimes, we need to have the prudence and courage to retreat, especially from situations that could lead to our destruction.
From Elijah and the cave at Horeb, that God most often speaks in a whisper and not in earth-shaking events or pyrotechnics. Any message that God may want to speak to us, or that He may want us to speak to others, is most often given to us in the silence. If La Sainte Baume was Magdalene’s dwelling for three decades of silent prayer, we can conclude that she chose “the better part” of contemplation; and we can find inspiration for our own choice. From St. Benedict, we can also learn that separating ourselves from the world, even for a little while provides an attractive witness to others who want to join us for the same reasons. From both Elijah and Benedict, we see that the silence of a cave will eventually spur us to mission. The time of silence and penance provides the abundant graces necessary for our missionary work of transforming the culture around us.
So, let’s all find a cave, a time and place to retreat, to be transformed in intellect and will by God’s grace. Then, let’s embark upon our mission with humble zeal. That is the way to push back the darkness of Plato’s allegorical cave.