Last weekend I gave two days of presentations to a group of Benedictine novices about the early desert fathers and mothers. These are the texts about the men and women of the 4th century who desired to live the gospel to its fullest, to stretch themselves and to fully experience the call of God in their lives. These men and women went to the deserts as a way to escape the shallowness of conventional life and to truly test their faith and resolve.
As I talked to the novices I encouraged them to see themselves in these ancient stories of men and women who left their conventional lives to serve and seek God. I told them that as monastics they are the modern inheritors of the early desert monastic tradition.
Over the course of the weekend these women were able to make profound connections between their lives and the lives of their monastic foremothers and forefathers. They too experienced the call of God as well as the struggles, the “demons” and the aridity of life in the “desert” of formation. But like the early desert monastics they too are living the integrity of the struggle. Transformation is neither cheap nor easy. God’s grace is real and sustaining but we also experience the parts of ourselves that hold us back, make us want to give up and distrust the presence of God.
Throughout the weekend it struck me that the struggles of the early desert monastics, the struggles of these modern Benedictine novices, and the struggles of modern monastic life are all of one piece. As most monasteries and indeed most religious communities see a decline in numbers we tend to think that this is something new. But perhaps the reality is simply that this is our particular desert, our particular struggle and challenge.
Whether in the 4th century, in the 6th century of Benedict, in the middle ages or 21st century Idaho, monastics have always been called to a life centered on God above all else. The word monk comes from the word “single,” we are the ones who seek God alone. In order to do that we give up things that the world thinks of as indispensable such as possessions, marriage, the ability to always make our own choices. We live in community. We pray at set hours. We try to love and honor those we live with and those we serve. These aspects of our life aren’t easy, they don’t necessarily make sense to “the world” or they may seem too difficult for people to do. This is our desert, this is the place of our struggle.
For the early desert dwellers the desert was a place of asceticism, fasting, vigils, prayer. This asceticism was their means of transformation, of doing the hard inner work of cooperating with God’s grace, being remade in God’s image. Perhaps today our desert is the hard work of sharing the ancient and modern good news of monastic life. In a culture that seems to lack commitment, when people are hungry for spirituality but not religious life, we have to remain and ponder the lessons of the particular desert we find ourselves in. The early desert fathers and mothers tell us that the desert is a place of demons, struggle and doubt. But they also tell us that the heart of the desert is paradox, for truly it is where God is found.
The novices who joined us for two weeks know what the desert is like. They are joining an ancient way of life that sometimes looks like it is in jeopardy. But hopefully throughout their time they learned that monasticism has never been an easy choice, the desert is the place of the deepest challenges, but at the same time we go into the desert seeking the God who alone can make the desert bloom. In the desert we will follow the God who will lead us back to the garden.