Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Lessons of the Desert
For the last few weeks I’ve been teaching a class on the Desert Fathers and Mothers All of us who are monastic, cenobitic or oblate, indeed all of us who are Christian, are inheritors of the legacy of the early men and women who went to the desert to seek God.
Most of the written stories and sources of the early monastic movement take place in the desert. In the 4th century in Egypt large numbers of people went to the desert to devote themselves to a disciplined life of seeking God. Most of them lived as hermits or in informal groups as disciples of an experienced teacher, a wise abba (man) or amma (woman) who would guide them on the path of spirituality.
In Egypt at the time people thought the desert was a fearful, desolate place. No one lived there, it was a marginal place, it couldn’t grow crops, it didn’t have water. It was considered the domain of demons, a place of death. But within the space of a few years the influx of monks to the desert turned “the desert into a city” according to one famous quotation.
The geography of the desert is key to understanding not only the early monastic movement but also what it means to be a monastic today. The literal, physical desert is a symbol of the place where we are called to seek God. There are four key characteristics to the early monk’s experience of the desert. It was a place to practice spiritual disciplines without external distractions. Second, the desert was a liminal space, a boundary between death and life, the sacred and the demonic. In the desert the monks sought to escape the “world” the values of people who did not put God first in their lives. Finally, it is in the desert that the early monks confronted the forces that sought to keep them from God.
What is most important for us today is the symbolism of the desert. Most of us are not called to live in or even go to the physical desert. However we are all called to enter a deep, interior desert. The desert is the place in ourselves where we have to confront the forces and the parts of ourselves that keep us from being transformed, from knowing God deeply. The desert is where we need to be alone without the distractions that keep us from acknowledging our deepest hunger. The desert is the place without the supports that give us the illusion that we can rely on ourselves rather than God alone.
For most of these early monastics was the desert was the place of struggling with demons. The demons were the thoughts, compulsions, distractions that kept them from focusing totally on God. In the desert they couldn’t escape their demons; they had to confront them head on. The monks came to realize this was the work of a lifetime. The issues they struggled with: anger, lust, temptation, greed, gluttony and all the other powerful internal forces, did not vanish easily or quickly. The fight with these “demons” was the patient fight of a lifetime of discipline. But through perseverance and faith they experienced the love of God begin to gradually drive out the darkness in their lives.
What does it mean for us to go to the desert? Few of us are called to the heroic journey of the early monks. Most of us are called to seek “deserts” closer to home. Our “desert” means going to the internal places we would rather not go, to the parts of ourselves that lead us away from God. Perhaps it is the compulsions that keep us busy and distracted, maybe it is unhealed relationships that nag at us, it could be the parts of ourselves that we know are unhealthy but we don’t want to face. The reality is that the desert is quite close and we can take the early fathers and mothers as our guides to help us find God in the most unexpected places.