Desert spirituality -- some contemporary reflections



How to be alone

Three weeks in October

Desert spirituality

Living with the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Attitudes to the Desert fathers

Urban Fathers

Fairacres article

Holy Arnold

Poetry of the Desert

Guthlac prayers

New urban fathers

18 Theses on the Desert Fathers and Mothers

What is the way of the desert?  Be quiet and judge no one.
The way of the desert seeks a total openness to God.  It is not rooted in human striving and therefore is not about human achievement.  Not even amazing feats of ascetic endurance.  Or extraordinary acts of spiritual power.  Or the achievement of profound wisdom.
In the way of the desert we seek to become a conduit for God.  Anything might happen.  It is therefore a celebration of what it is possible for a human being to be.  Some people call this freedom.
The desert fathers created for themselves an environment in which they could become free.  This is the way of asceticism: exiled from the world, living in simple poverty.  Alone but supported by a network of practical love.  It had particular resonance in their time because asceticism was highly valued.  The fathers could therefore become a beacon of true humanity.
In our day if someone is going to become a beacon of true humanity they must come to be at peace with the whole earth.  We now live in a global context where it is possible for us to destroy the earth.  The earth is fragile and can no longer be struggled with, it must be cared for and celebrated.  The modern ascetic, therefore, does not think in terms of doing violence to the body but cares for and celebrates the human body as a microcosm of the earth.
Asceticism became too violent.  The obedience which the monk gave freely to his spiritual father became a subservience demanded by church institutions.  The inclusion of the body in the quest for salvation by fasting and vigils became the abuse of flagellation.  The humble monk in the desert became the abbot wielding worldly power.  Small wonder that the modern world came to despise the way of the desert and reject an abusive asceticism.
As modern people we thought that if we could control the earth: bend it to our will and unlock its secrets we would be happy.  We would achieve heaven on earth and have no need for God.  But our victory over the earth has not brought us happiness.  We are anxious, worried, never able to have enough.  It is possible, therefore, that the quest for happiness could be the way for us to return to a partnership with the earth, to a partnership with each other and to a partnership with God.  In theological terms an awareness of our lack of happiness might be seen as the first stage of repentance.
It is probable that the consequence of a reflection on happiness will cause us to refocus on relationships.  It is other people that most obviously bring us happiness.  Turning our gaze away from ourselves and towards others is the second stage of repentance.
But this will not necessarily get us anywhere.  Looking towards others and the need for establishing good relationships with them is as likely to lead us into power games and manipulation as love and kindness.  We lack the means by which to become loving.  Only when we return from looking at others and start looking inside ourselves and why we damage and destroy relationships (relationships with people but also with the earth) will we enter the third stage of repentance.
We must now struggle with ourselves and we return to asceticism.  How can we change ourselves?  How can we come to be at peace with ourselves, so that we might be at peace with our sisters and brothers, so that we might re-establish peace with the earth?  We now start to struggle with our anger, fear and desire.  These feelings are not sins but they are often the gateway to violence and unhappiness.
Anger -- which so often becomes an uncontrollable eruption within ourselves when we realise that something is wrong.  This eruptive anger seeks to destroy that which is to 'blame'.  When we are unable to do this we are overcome by sadness and eventually the sadness hardens into hatred -- whether that be hatred of the other or hatred of ourselves
Fear -- that response to danger which can so easily become overwhelming and debilitating.  Often in response to fear we become puffed up and proud, seeking to re-establish our identity which has become threatened.  This kind of fear becomes hardened into an invulnerable arrogance
Desire -- which becomes a greed for what we do not have.  When we cannot have what we desire we become restless and bored, satisfied with nothing.  Eventually this restless greed hardens in us and we become consumed with avarice
In the asceticism which is a true celebration of humanity we start to seek that joy which is acceptance rather than eruptive anger, peacefulness rather than debilitating fear, contentment rather than greed.  The desert fathers teach us that this change must happen in our bodies.  It cannot be an abstract intellectual idea, we need to experience change in our flesh. 
Anger is combated by learning to be silent when rage erupts in our heart. 
Greed is overcome by learning to control our belly through fasting. 
Fear can also be challenged by learning to be indifferent to praise and criticism. 
These ascetic practices do not merely address the presenting problem but nurture and develop our inward selves.  If we have learned to control our belly we are also in a better position to control our sexual lusts.  We are also, perhaps, better able to truly enjoy good food and the chaste sexual relationships of marriage.
But we need to learn to be wise about these ascetic tools.  Firstly they need to be appropriate to our context -- what does fasting mean, for instance, in a world of growing obesity, epidemics of anorexia and multinational fast food marketing?  Secondly we need to be aware of the limitations of ascetic tools and techniques.  Silence in the face of anger can lead to mere surliness or depression.  Fasting can lead to spiritual pride, or, as happened in my neighbourhood recently, death.  Indifference to praise or criticism can mask arrogance and lack of love.  Not only are the ascetic virtues challenging and difficult but they can also be subverted.
So what do we do in the face of our recurrent failure?  The more we strive for that peace which the desert fathers knew, the further it seems to get away.  Either we can despair or we can move into the final phase of repentance.  We start to come to where the desert fathers began.  Be quiet and judge no one.
In the quiet we watch ourselves.  We become aware of the feelings which bubble up inside ourselves.  Attempts to justify our past actions.  Unsettling desires.  Worries about the future.  When we are able to release these to God, we no longer have to judge them.  They pass.  This is the final repentance, we turn from our own will and the need to control our own lives.  Everything is released into the hands of God.  The desert fathers call this humility.
At this point we can become truly human.  We can discover all the potential in the human person.  This is the celebration of what a human being can be.  Jesus becomes luminous and meaningful in an entirely new way.  The strange ways of the desert fathers begin to become transparent and clear to us.  We no longer exploit the earth but nurture it, for we judge no one but learn from everything and discover a true spiritual discernment.  This is the beginning of wisdom.
This is not a very satisfactory way of putting things.  It is far too formulaic and, perhaps, utopian.  Even as one part of us is released to God, some other part of us is lost in the deep sleep of habitual activity.  Not that it is even possible for us to divide things so simply.  We are confused and complex human beings.  But if we could be quiet.  If we could still our restless yearnings.  If we could learn not to judge -- least of all ourselves.  Maybe we could acquire some of the wisdom and discernment of the desert and save ourselves.  And save our earth.  It is a hope worth living for.