During a recent holiday to Paphos, Cyprus, I stumbled upon a hidden gem that piqued my curiosity—The Monastery of St. Neophytos. Nestled amidst the hills, the sanctuary seemed as isolated as the hermit it is named after. But, as I learned from conversing with the monks who call this haven home, St. Neophytos' quest for solitude was anything but straightforward. This led me to explore the paradox inherent in his life's mission: the tension between Christian community and individual seclusion.
Born in 1134 in Lefke, Cyprus, St. Neophytos displayed an early inclination toward asceticism and spiritual solitude. In today's fast-paced world, many of us share a similar yearning to escape the "rat race." Wellness retreats, digital detoxes, and solo travels are just some of the ways people attempt to break free from the overwhelming demands of modern life.
However, St. Neophytos' solitude was not an end in itself, nor was it centred on personal well-being or self-indulgence. Instead, his withdrawal from society was motivated by a deep-seated desire for communion with the Divine. His yearning led him to seek a life that was not focused on self, but was directed outward, toward a higher spiritual realm.
While contemporary escapism often emphasises personal satisfaction and self-care, the life of St. Neophytos teaches us that solitude can also be a path to transcending the self, forging a deeper connection with the Divine and, paradoxically, with the wider human community.
As a young adult, St. Neophytos finally broke free from societal constraints, retreating to a cave near Paphos. Here, he committed himself to a life of prayer and contemplation, a life he thought would be devoid of human interaction. But as I saw during my visit, the cave has since transformed into a pilgrimage site, visited by scores of devotees year-round.
While St. Neophytos may have retreated from society to forge a personal communion with God, he found himself anything but alone. The appeal of leaving behind the ‘rat race’ and seeking spiritual solace seemed to resonate as powerfully in the 12th century as it does today.
When visitors came to sit at his feet, the atmosphere was one of hushed reverence. This shared period of silence was not empty but full of spiritual significance. Both St. Neophytos and his visitors would enter a contemplative state, allowing them a deeper connection with God. It was as though his solitude had a magnetic quality, pulling those in search of divine intimacy into his orbit.
Following this quiet communion, St. Neophytos would usually offer spiritual guidance, teachings, or blessings. His words were not merely for his own edification but aimed to uplift his visitors, guiding them closer to God. In this way, his cave became a unique meeting ground: a space where individual spiritual quests converged into a collective journey towards divine understanding.
Fr. Paul Wheeler