Dearest monks and artists,
We begin a desert journey on Wednesday through the sacred days of Lent this week on Ash Wednesday. We will be drawing wisdom from the desert mothers and fathers and creating a sacred space for contemplation and reflection. As we collectively move through a desert time in this pandemic, the desert elders have much to offer us. This is an excerpt from the introduction to my book about them:
The wisdom the ammas and abbas offer is so pertinent to our times because it is about the fundamental struggle to live a meaningful and authentic life. They offer a challenge to the values of our contemporary culture which include productivity, achievement, “power over” rather than shared power, self-interest over the common good, and self-preservation at all costs.
In many ways the ethos of our times are similar to that which prompted the ancient monks to flee out into the desert. Many of us are similarly seeking ways to live with integrity and congruence between our inner convictions and actions in the world. It takes courage and insight to live in active resistance to the destructive forces in the culture around us. Desert wisdom helps us to see ourselves more clearly and remember that our relationship to God is at the center of our lives’ meaning.
In The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, his book on desert and mountain spirituality, theologian Belden Lane writes, “Certain truths can be learned, it seems, only as one is sufficiently emptied, frightened, or confused.” The desire to go out into the desert is a desire to be stripped bare of all pretension so that we might see what is real. He goes on to write:
“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. . . It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.”
Desert spirituality is about allowing ourselves to be broken open and to meet our attachments with a fierce willingness to surrender. The desert demands that we be vulnerable and broken open. This is no comforting path assuring us tritely that “everything happens for a reason.” The God of the desert elders shatters the boxes to which we try to confine the sacred.
We do not have to journey to the literal desert to encounter its power. Each of us has desert experiences – seasons that strip away all of our comforts and assurances and leave us to face ourselves directly. When illness, death, or loss of any significant kind visits us, we meet the desert in one of its guises. Each of us can benefit from the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers who speak to us across time about the meaning and grace possible there. The symbolic, and very human, dimension of life in the desert is common to all of us.
In the desert, the only option is to stand clear-eyed before every aspect of yourself, to your temptations, to your addictions, to your ways of falling asleep to life. The way of the desert calls us to confront our hearts and its deepest desires without any place to hide or turn away. There is no room for lying or deception there. It is the struggle of a lifetime.
The desert is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. The ultimate paradox of the desert is that to find oneself, we have to relinquish everything we think we know about ourselves.
Ultimately, and in contrast to “sanitized and sterile” spirituality of today which Belden Lane warns against, these desert monastics are fiercely uncompromising in their advice for fellow pilgrims traveling the interior geography of the human heart. This fierceness is refreshing, it takes our woundedness seriously, but always points back to our beauty as creatures of God. Their wisdom is in the service of healing and love rather than theological systematization of ideas or doctrine.
Scholar of religion, Andrew Harvey once wrote, “The things that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us; they refresh our courage with the purity of their detachment.” One of the goals of the spiritual life in desert tradition was detachment from our own desires and agendas. Being in the desert landscape reminds us of what that means on a visceral level. The harshness of that world helps to clarify the mind and reorder priorities. To be in surroundings which are not conditioned by our own meek presence, which do not exist for us, can also set us free. For a moment in time the world is not there to serve us, we fade into the background. We can release our frantic quest for self-fulfillment and return to what is deeply true and meaningful, to the essence of the spiritual life.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD