The Desert Finds Us

by Alexander Patico

The joint between the pelvic bone (the ilium) and the last bone of the spine (the sacrum) acts as the bridge between one’s core and one’s locomotive apparatus. Running, walking—even standing or sitting—don’t occur without this juncture being functional. Attached to those skeletal elements are ligaments and muscles; running alongside them are the spinal cord and long, fibrous nerve tissues branching out to every extremity. Structural anomalies, aging processes and daily stresses can, in combination, put your sacroiliac out of alignment, creating pain of various types and locations.

Desert

Once again, my back was acting up. Suddenly, the easy link to friends and family,  the members of our fellowship, and others was gone because sitting at my computer was not one of the positions that “worked” for me. If I went to church, neither standing nor sitting was an option. Eating dinner became a race between assuaging hunger and avoidance of discomfort. The trail and the gym would have to wait.

When I realized, after some long days of watching TV and playing solitaire on my iPod, that I was in danger of becoming depressed, I took up a book that I had been intending to read for some time: In the Heart of the Desert: the Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by John Chryssavgis. The book concerns the wisdom found in the apothegmata or “sayings” compiled in various collections and found in commentaries on the early Christian ascetics.

My journey into that book was like a trip in a time-machine to ancient Scetis; it was so far from what had been occupying my mind that it was a complete change of scenery—intellectual, rather than physical—a venturing into solitary spiritual exploration. Fr. John’s writing, from which I had often benefited before, led the way into “the heart of the desert.”

What follows I have arranged much as he did, by themes, but with his own words taking the place of the patristic quotations he used to such good effect. They are cherry-picked, plucked out of context (much as the patristic writings themselves inevitably are)—each sentence is, to borrow a phrase from Fr. John himself, an “intense drop of wisdom.” But I hope that they are tantalizing enough to move the reader to go to the fuller text. Ideally, reading Fr. John’s book will lead to further forays into the precious legacy of the Fathers and Mothers themselves, which in turn leads to personal spiritual journeys into the depth of one’s own heart, where Our Lord awaits each of us.

The Sayings: Can the life of those hesychasts of long ago have relevance for our twenty-first century life? We each must decide what use to make of the wisdom that comes to us across a lacuna of nearly two thousand years, but Fr. John provides guidance in how to do that: “We should think of these sayings as myth. Read them as powerful stories, each with an inner meaning or secret, a message or mask.” (There is perhaps an obvious resonance with the role of Jesus’ parables in the New Testament.)

“My purpose,” he says, “will not be to make the Sayings relevant to our time and ways; that often proves a futile exercise, which only distorts the original text and is an injustice both to it and to us. Rather, it will be to make our time and ways relate to the Sayings…I believe that the words of these elders smash the structures of complexity and rationalization with which we often clutter and confuse our lives.”

Historical Context: Especially helpful was the way Fr. John provided a sketch of what surrounded the “desert era” and why its contribution is so important, especially after the Constantinian watershed: “…the spirit of martyrdom…had nurtured the Church for three centuries. It was around the year 300, no longer a risk to be a Christian…numbers of those baptized rose dramatically; standards dropped drastically…the voice of the desert’s heart replaced the voice of the martyr’s blood…the Desert Fathers and Mothers…reminded the rest of the Church that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14).” Therefore, a comfortable home in Maryland can be as fitting a place for encountering the infinite as a cave at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Universality of the Struggle: As I sat in my house, tempted to feel sorry for myself for having been sidelined by a relatively minor physical problem, I was pushed to reexamine my predicament from the perspective of what my soul most needed: “…if you do not have to go to the desert, you do have to go through the desert...you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another…if, however, we accept to undergo this experience voluntarily, then it can prove both constructive and liberating.”

The prospect of an indefinite period not being able to attend meetings or go shopping, having to cancel a visit with my daughter in Georgia, all seemed a “thorn in my side”—like the one described by St. Paul. Fr. John notes: “We do not want to face change, or pain, or passion, or death, [yet] our suffering and wounds have a remarkable way of unlocking the door to authenticity…. In order to be truly alive, we require the capacity to be wounded, to be vulnerable. It is only out of our ongoing woundedness and continual vulnerability that we can learn also to heal.”

“Our culture teaches us that the more we have, the better we are; Antony’s taught him that the less he had, the more he was!… Abba Antony said: ‘A time is coming when people will go insane. And when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person saying, “You are crazy; you are not like us.”’” Look at our economics: as we see ever-greater discrepancies of circumstance between those many who are literally starving and those few who have wealth beyond reckoning, we must wonder—am I crazy, or are they? Isn’t something wrong with this picture?

Silence: Why did I, after all, consider my precipitous isolation a burden? The fact is, I now had time to pray, and to ponder many things. Perhaps my condition was forcing me to acknowledge the difficulty I had paying attention to a “still, small voice”—or even my wife or my friends. Fr. John wrote: “Silence is…the first duty of love…the first requirement for survival within community…[according to] Abba Poemon, ‘Silence is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening.’ Words are ways of affirming our existence, of justifying our actions. We speak in order to excuse ourselves, within ourselves and before others; whereas silence is a way of dying—within ourselves and in the presence of others…. When we refuse the challenge of silence, then we cannot know ourselves. It is not that we may be tempted to think that we are more than we actually are; it is, unfortunately, then that we tolerate being less than we truly are called to be. Pride is not the ultimate sin; forgetfulness of who we are is the ultimate tragedy.”

Dispassion: Boredom, frustration, somnolence, and irritation—the fruits of my imposed inactivity were not pretty. Would anger and misanthropy eventually follow, as I licked my psychic wounds and further inflamed them? I read, “…when the desert elders speak of apatheia or dispassion…dispassion is not the suppression of passions, it is the submission of all passions to the source and end of all desire, namely ‘the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness’ (Matt. 6:33). It is only then that we may truly know what it is to be com-passionate…When passions are distorted, then our soul is divided and we are no longer integrated, whole…. Knowing our passions becomes not a crushing but a healing experience. Then, fresh possibilities are discovered in our life and in our world.”

“It takes a long time to become a human being…. In the unnoticeable changes toward ever-growing perfection, it is the things that we love that reveal to us who we are. It is the things to which we are most attached that show us where our priorities lie. It is our very imperfections—what they like to call passions and what we invariably call our wounds—that lead us to the way of perfection.”

Monastic Rule: Something in me both enjoyed and chaffed against the lack of structure to my days. How would I fare in a desert fastness where ordinary society, with its routines, were left behind? “Alongside the more institutional lines of ‘apostolic succession’ there was also a complementary inspirational element of ‘spiritual succession.’ This is why they did not establish regulations or write down fixed rules. The only rule was that there were no hard rules. Flexibility was the sole rule of the desert.”

Community: Though alone much of the time, I was, through Chryssavgis’ writings, in very good company. “The desert elders were convinced that we cannot know our heart without the presence of at least one other person [as] giving and sharing are of the essence…. ‘Allowing or sharing space’ is the literal meaning of the Greek term syn-chore-sis as well as our English equivalent translation for-give-ness…. In general, the desert produced healers, not thinkers.”

Dualism: Was I merely occupying my thoughts, as I read about Egypt of the fourth century, or was I opening the door of my most intimate self to something vital and profound? “The Coptic monks of the desert knew only a single word and a single struggle for designating both the mind and the heart. We tend to separate the mind from the heart. We like to fill the mind; yet we forget the heart. Or else, we fill the heart with information that should fill the mind. Nevertheless, the two work differently: the mind learns; the heart knows. The mind is educated; the heart believes. The mind is intellectual, speculative—it reads and speaks; the heart is intuitive, mystical—it grows in silence. The two should be held together, and they should be brought together in the presence of God.”

Elitism: How privileged I was to have plenty to eat, a temperature-controlled environment and a pleasant view out our windows—not to mention the hundreds of books on our shelves—while I was contributing little to anything outside of myself. How did the hermit deal with his own extraneousness? “The simple answer to the question…concerning elitism is that the way of the desert is not a selfish way, so long as everyone else is also traveling the same journey…. If we remain outside of the desert process, then their way will surely appear selfish…[but] everyone is called to go through the desert. We must, [Abba Alonius] claimed, be totally alone with God and with ourselves in order to rebuild and reshape ourselves…. We must never use love and service as excuses to avoid the inner work of transformation. All of us—and especially those in the caring professions—should take time out for ourselves in retreat, for our friends in relaxation, and for God in prayer.”

Environment: As the days went on, I became more aware of the variety of bird- calls that could be heard outdoors, the noises of planes, traffic and road con-struction, the shouts of kids and their parents. I became more synced to the changes of sky and wind, sun and rain—a mild form of what the desert-dwellers must have experienced. “Detachment…implied a sense of becoming one with the environ-ment. Their holiness was part and parcel of a sense of wholeness. If at-one-ment with their neighbor was of the essence of desert spirituality, so too was at-tune-ment to their environment, to the world, and to God.”

“The desert elders were, in the most intense and intimate manner, ‘materialists.’ Everything—including simple matter—really mattered!… These elders may some-times appear eccentric; but eccentricity means moving the center, recentering the world on God.

“If you don’t go within, then you go without. When we neglect the world of the spirit, then we also end up neglecting the spirit of the world; and when we disregard the world of our soul, we in fact end up ignoring the soul of the world.”

Gender: Was I willing to have meals fixed for me because I was uncomfortable standing, or because they were being prepared by my wife, and that is part of her role? Had it been the same when she had surgery on her neck and I was pressed into caretaker service, or did I rely on carry-out? Women and men approach retreat, too, from slightly different perspectives. “Moving into the desert meant taking a step into the realm of freedom: freedom from slavery, freedom from obligatory subjection, freedom from exploitation, and especially freedom from possession. Generally, women in the early Christian centuries did not own themselves; they did not possess or control their lives or even their bodies. They were at the disposal of other people, normally men, who owned them; these might include their fathers (as children), their spouses (as wives), or their lords (as servants)…. In the desert, however, women were able to throw off these constraints and restrictions…[and] were able to remind the men (who might otherwise have been tempted to forget!) that their goal in the desert was not to fulfill particular social roles. By struggling to exclude and overcome the conventional forms, the Desert Mothers themselves became witnesses and martyrs of another reality.”

Miracles: With changes in my activity, came changes of perception, though not nearly as radical as that which would accompany long years of reclusiveness. “In the desert…reality acquired a different perspective. Somehow, the order of this world was infiltrated and influenced by the order of another world…. Explaining miracles rationally is like trying to explain the existence of God logically. It is not so much that trying to make sense of God is wrong; but trying to make sense of the world without God—at least in the mind of these early Desert Fathers and Mothers—is certainly insane.”

Prayer: Why, when I now had all the time in the world, was I not spending more time in prayer? “‘There is no greater labor [said Abba Agathon] than that of prayer to God. For every time a person wants to pray, one’s enemies, the demons, want to prevent one from praying, for they know that it is only by turning one away from prayer that they can hinder one’s journey. Whatever good works a person undertakes, if one perseveres in them, one will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’ Prayer is acceptance of frailty and failure—first within ourselves, and then in the world around us. When we are able to accept our brokenness, without any pretense and without any pretexts, then we are also able to embrace the brokenness of others, valuing everyone else without exception. Prayer is learning to live, without expecting to see results; it is learning to love, without hoping to see return; it learning to be, without demanding to have.”

“It must be remembered that the monastic way of life is merely the life according to the Gospel…. All people are called to respond to Christ’s call to salvation. The circumstances of the response may very externally, but the path is essentially one. In the spiritual life there is no sharp distinction between the monastic and the non-monastic; the monastic life is simply the Christian life, lived in a particular way.”

Finding God: In reading the book, I found that solitude no longer meant loneliness. “God is right there, in the middle of our struggles…. Our aim is to stay there…. Struggling…is a way of fully living life and not merely observing it…. In the struggle—in the very place where we meet God, and where we are loved by God—we too discover how to love others…. The desert experience was a love-based theology and a love-based spirituality. Fear denies the body and the world; love affirms every detail in our life and in the world…. The only and ultimate response to ourselves, to others and to God is love. Every other response is but a derivative dimension and secondary version of the primary reality of love.”

The Task: Perhaps something had begun that would not be—and should not be—set aside when my back was fully healed. “No one can lead us into the desert. Each one of us must find our own path. Each must look for the places where we are tempted, where we are lonely, thirsty for meaning, and hungry for depth. Each of us will discover the areas that need to be purified, where we can encounter God and where God speaks to us…. Those are the places and the moments of temptation; those are also the places and the moments of transformation…. We can learn…the beauty of eating and drinking, of sleeping and waking, of walking and talking, quite simply of breathing and living. Our heart will beat in unison with the heart of the world. For then we shall know that we are less than what we are called to be when we are without one another… [and] can be grateful to God for ‘making us truly alive.’”  IC

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

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