I was in prayer at the Beacon, at the start of the busy after Easter season of activity. I was preoccupied and trying to quiet my heart to listen to God. Suddenly in my mind’s eye I could see myself amongst a whole group on a conveyer belt, the kind of travelator you find in an airport. I was looking for the ‘off switch’, feeling uneasy at the speed and direction the moving escalator was taking us. I then noticed a track just next to it, leading off into the wilderness. The path I took seemed to be a choice I could make. I knew again it was about my desert prayer journey.
Back in the fourth century church, there were a lot of people trying to get off the conveyor belt and take the less trodden path into the wilderness. They were called the desert fathers.
I am continuing in my exploration of desert and wilderness as a spiritual journey. As I have thought about this in recent months, the stories and sayings of the desert fathers (and mothers) have deeply impressed me. Centred around Egypt and the north African Meditaraneum rim, a whole group of Christians began to move away from their busy lives and contemporary society to dedicate their lives to prayer and extreme devotion to God. These were not famous Christians or the intellectual elite of their day, just ordinary people who felt a call to the desert. They became well known for their asceticism and wisdom, people like St Anthony, Marcarius, Arsenius, Moses and others. Beyond sheer extremism, what were the motives behind this desert spirituality?
A few things become clear as one reads their stories. One is that they turned aside from the world in order to encounter God. They were seeking to ensure their own salvation, choosing to live not in the company of others but alone before God. These people would build basic shelters or live in caves, and live in great simplicity apart from civilisation. Arsenius, a wealthy Roman educator once asked God to show him the way of salvation. A voice came to him saying, ‘Arsenius, flee from the world, and you will be saved.’ That was the start of his desert journey. Their lifestyle is a great challenge to our materialistic culture today. How do we flee the incessant pull of materialism around us?
Secondly, the desert fathers felt that their harsh, ascetic lifestyle was necessary to identify with Jesus. in the fourth century, persecution of the church had ceased and martyrdom (the greatest demonstration of one’s faith) was not possible. So Christians sought an alternative martyrdom, to lose their lives in giving everything up to follow Christ.
A Christian brother once asked a hermit, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ He took off his clothes, and put a girdle about his loins and stretched out his hands and said, ‘Thus ought the monk to be: stripped naked of everything, and crucified by temptation and combat with the world.’ Where our modern world promotes self fulfilment and how to become someone unique, their thinking was, ‘how can I become nothing and how much can I give up for Christ?’
Thirdly, these saints sought solitude, prayer and silence, not as a retreat, but a place of transformation. A desert hermit said, ‘let fear and humility, fasting, and weeping, take root in you’. They saw themselves as sinners in need of mercy. They explored their own motives and thought lives so that what was sinful or disordered could be brought into the light of God’s forgiveness. In our culture we often seek time out, more for the sake of rest and recuperation, not for the more uncomfortable process of exposing our inner life to the transforming presence of God. Where are my quality times of prayer and solitude to let God touch my inner life?
Fourthly, these desert pilgrims distanced themselves from people to as to better serve them later on. They discovered that, withdrawing from the need for people’s demands or praise so as to focus on God, gave them greater capacity to love people and bring counsel to a needy world. St Anthony spent twenty years praying in almost total isolation in the Egyptian desert. When he emerged he wasn’t eccentric but amazingly balanced. His solitude has somehow become a space into which people could be invited to be ministered to. Through fighting demons and finding his heart transformed, Anthony gained a compassion and insight into people’s hearts that brought comfort and direction.
That is a challenge to our very social world, in which our physical and virtual presence in sought daily, and immediate interaction and response is expected. Where is my holy space away from the social crowd, so that I can minister better to others? Not surprisingly, these saints became highly regarded as holy men and women, mediators between heaven and earth, people living at the limits of human need and therefore able to pray and serve the rest of the world.
Fifthly, the desert fathers saw their calling as a preparing for Christ’s coming. Their other-worldly focus was part of the early church expectation for the return of their Lord. Detachment from worldly affairs was part of their cry, ‘Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!’ They tried to live the life of the cross, in eager expectation that they were preparing themselves to enter into the full life of the Spirit. The very harsh lifestyle they maintained was to enhance spiritual longing in the light of the glory to come. It is said of Arsenius that on a Saturday evening, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the setting sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards heaven until the morning sun shone on his face. As Christians in our culture, we have generally lost that eager expectation for Jesus to come. We long for a better world, we work for the kingdom, but does our lifestyle reflect the Maranatha cry?
I read a quote from Henri Nouwen about the desert fathers (in his book ‘The Way of the Heart’ p24) that sums up the relevance of this alternative spirituality for our own faith journey as Christians today:
‘It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard is is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape that the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.’
So I find a challenging paradox in these saints of old. We want to engage well with our culture and transform our world. Yet an authentic spiritual life may also mean withdrawing in prayer and finding the less trodden path, the track into the wilderness, so that from that deep presence of the Lord there, we may offer something of heaven’s resources into our needy world.