Desert Spirituality

The Published Articles of Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm. Desert Spirituality

Desert Spirituality

Both Christian Meditation and centering prayer come out of early monasticism, which itself is a development of desert spirituality.1 Christian Meditation is the prayer of the heart described by John Cassian, the historian of desert spirituality who brought the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt and the Middle East to the West. Centering prayer comes out of the Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th–century English text that enshrines the contemplative traditions of the desert. It is no accident that both these contemplative prayer forms came to us by way of Benedictine and Trappist monasteries.

Desert spirituality was the beginning of Christian monasticism and the matrix out of which Western monks developed their lifestyle. Contemplative prayer was at the heart of their life, and desert spirituality was the context. This article proposes to examine those ancient traditions and adapt them to our times.

Desert spirituality is a technical term that has biblical and early Christian roots. The desert experience is a staple of both the Old and the New Testaments, for example, in the Exodus story, in the life of Elijah and the prophecy of Hosea, in John the Baptist, the forty–day fast of Jesus, and the three–year novitiate of Paul in Arabia (Ga 1:17). This desert experience was developed into a coherent spirituality by the desert fathers and mothers in the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Christian era. These fervent Christians fled to Egypt and the Middle East to escape the decadence of an effete Roman empire. The wastelands offered a stark and untrammeled setting for a life of penance and prayer. Its rugged emptiness and its silence and solitude invited the flight from the world (fuga mundi). A special appeal to heroic souls was the belief that the demons infested the wastelands and could be met there in open combat. It did not

take long for the desert dweller to discover that the demons were within and to be engaged on the battleground of the soul.

Life in the desert was simple. Manual labor broke the monotony of the silence and solitude of the cell and provided its own asceticism as well as sustenance and something for almsgiving. Desert dwellers spent their days in soul searching and the pursuit of the living God. Community life, especially when the solitary life prevailed, and outreach in ministry were clearly secondary and not really part of the interior struggle. Continuous prayer was the focus, and the abbas and the ammas spent their time in lectio divina, reading the psalms and the breviary, celebrating liturgy, and cultivating the prayer of the heart. These are the main features of desert spirituality.

In this setting Christian holiness was a kind of white martyrdom, a total giving over of one’s life to God, the shedding of all self– indulgence in favor of a single–minded search for God. The desert was a graphic symbol of the emptiness of life and the otherness of God. The emptiness translated into purity of heart, a heart freed from sinful affections and centered on God. Thus the beatitude that best sums up desert spirituality is “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Contemplation is the goal, and letting go of all lesser aims and surrender to the living God the condition. This general principle is abstract and can be lived out in an imaginary as well as a real desert.

The desert as symbol universalizes desert spirituality as a possibility for everyone. There is, however, still place for the physical desert in ordinary Christian life. We examine this role in the next two sections of this paper, and we will return to the symbolic desert in the third section. Our first question is this: What can the desert do for me? In other

Page 470

The Published Articles of Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm. Desert Spirituality

words, why should I go out into the desert? The second question is a prophetic one: What can I do for a desert that is now under attack by the forces of neglect or consumerism? How do my efforts to protect the environment or my failure to participate affect my personal life? After these two reflections we will return to the overall principle of desert spirituality, the call to emptiness and encounter with God.

What Can the Desert Do for Me?

In Scripture the desert is primarily the wasteland, and it leads to the garden of the promised land, the desert come to life, as in Isaiah 35:1–2: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom. ... The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” Both the bleak image and the flowering one apply to the physical desert as we use the term today. The desert means the wilderness, the great outdoors. This includes barren wastelands like sand dunes or the scrubby flatlands of Texas or Arizona, but also verdant gardens, scenic forests, majestic mountains, and rolling plains. The desert is all the places on this beautiful earth that are still largely untouched by city sprawl and offer themselves as a refuge for weary people. These lands can be gift for our spirits. They refresh us and challenge us. They beckon us to “come aside and rest awhile,” away from the noise and congestion of the city with its polluted air and harried traffic. The desert is the place to hike a trail, fish a stream, picnic with friends, or just smell the sage and be with one’s long thoughts.

Except for some few families that have declared their independence and homesteaded in the wild and some rare hermits who have also settled there, people today only visit this desert; they do not dwell there. They go out for physical exercise and emotional refreshment, for meditation and for fun. They enter desert places hostile to human habitation very gingerly, armed with water jugs, proper sun gear, and ideally with companions. Some

visit these “fierce landscapes” (Belden Lane) for excitement, others to deal with a crisis, a limit experience, a sorrow that overwhelms them. Perhaps unconsciously they are looking for an environment that mirrors their troubled soul. A good example of this kind of match between soul and terrain is a retreat for middle–aged men described in a recent publication.2 It was conducted by Richard Rohr and designed to help men from many walks of life through their midlife crisis. The retreat took place at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico in the summer of A.D. 2000. The men were challenged to let down their defenses and face themselves squarely. The retreat turned out to be a harrowing rite of passage. The torrid summer heat and the bleak lonely emptiness of the desert combined with soul-searching introspection and dramatic rituals to test the most stouthearted.

More often retreats or “a day in the desert” are spent in more friendly spaces. An attractive pastoral setting calms the soul and provides the quiet that people need for facing the real issues of their life. God seems closer in pristine settings. One popular formula for such outings is the poustinia, a concept popularized by Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Poustinia means hermitage, and folks become poustiniaks for a day, bringing along only a Bible and a bit of bread and cheese. The poustinia can actually be a back room or the attic of one’s home, but there are advantages in going out to the woods or the seashore.

Getting out in the country, breathing in the fresh air and fragrances of the meadows, walking around the lake or trudging along paths in hilly terrain, can be healthy physical exercise and spiritual refreshment. These are ways of slowing down, of refusing to be a couch potato and insuring the balance of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). Grace builds on nature, so a healthy body and soul are a good basis for the life of God in us. A good health regime works directly against anxious, workaholic tendencies or the equally bad habit of inertia

Page 471

The Published Articles of Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm. Desert Spirituality

and laziness. Recreational activities also develop the playful side of our lives. This is our contemplative side.

Visitors to the desert know that God is everywhere and that they do not have to go up to the heavens or across the sea to find the word of God. “No,” Deuteronomy says, “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Dt 30:11–14). But the desert facilitates the search. The wide open spaces, the silence and solitude, reveal God. Silence is the best contact point with God, since God is always present, though beyond speech, images, and concepts. The desert fosters this silence, this emptiness, the letting go of everything that is not of God. The desert is built for kenosis, the self–emptying of Jesus, who was perfectly open to God and was therefore exalted with the pleroma, the fullness of the resurrection (Ph 2:5–11). The desert way is the way of emptiness and fullness.

These reflections belong to the first step on the spiritual journey, the appreciation of creation. Original blessing preceded original sin, and immersion in creation and appreciation and love for this gift ought to precede the work of redemption. This is the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, Matthew Fox, Francis Kelly Nemeck, and Marie Theresa Coombs. More recently Dorothee Soelle sees “being amazed” as the first of the three ways or stages of the spiritual life.3 Instead of the classical ways of purification, illumination, and union, she proposes “being amazed, letting go, and resisting” as the three steps. Amazement and appreciation help us take an objective stance before the earth, and this makes it easier to let go, the second of the three ways for Soelle. This leads us to involvement, to compassion and commitment, regarding the world. She calls this resistance, because it involves working against the threats to the environment and society. That is to say, we resist and work for justice in all areas of life, such as the economic and the ecological

orders. The unitive way calls to action as well as divine union.

What Can I Do for the Desert?

The work of saving the earth is a challenge and responsibility for people everywhere today. The call resonates among informed spiritual persons. They have listened to the new cosmology presented by scientists like Brian Swimme and the “geologian” Thomas Berry, and they have heard the plaintive warnings of the environment