Get to the Desert

I was attracted to the desert early in my life.  As a child, my family would occasionally travel to Palm Springs, California for a few days to visit relatives.  A hike from the downtown area to Palm Canyon was my first exposure to the wonders of the desert landscape.  There was a strange calmness and serenity which, even then, attracted me.  Another of my memories is a day or two at the old Del Tahquitz Hotel, which had a special attraction.  It is long gone but its Spanish Revival architecture was a throwback to the days of the missions and reflected the spirit of those times, an additional layer of feeling.  In later years I would visit my father, who had retired to Desert Hot Springs, a nearby community, where the inspiration of the desert could clearly be felt.  I had by then begun thinking and writing and found it to be a source of focus and introspection. And one thing more: Desert Hot Springs was known as a retirement community, where the pace of life was slower and more reflective.  It was easily felt as a part of the serene desert ambiance.

Yet there were those for whom getting to the desert was a deadly serious proposition.  I stand in amazement at the religious revolution which took place in the fourth century A.D.  Thomas Merton writes in his book The Wisdom of the Desert (New York, New Directions, 1970), “In the fourth century A.D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were people by a race of men [and women, the lesser known but still venerable Desert Mothers] who have left behind them a strange reputation.  They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude.  Why did they do this?  The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one work as the quest for ‘salvation’.  And what was salvation?   Certainly it was not something they sought in mere exterior conformity to the customs and dictates of any social group.  Society—which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life ‘in this world’—was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life…..These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they know as society, was purely and simply a disaster….What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ.  An in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in ‘the world’.  They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand….In many respects…these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks of China and Japan…..You would have simplicity, primitive wisdom: but rooted in a primitive society….a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one’s life into an apparently irrational void.”

The lives of the Desert Fathers included frequent recitation of the scriptures.  During the week they chanted psalms while performing manual labor and during the weekends they held liturgies and group services. The hermit’s experience in the cell occurred in a variety of ways, including meditation on scripture.  Group practices were more prominent in the organized communities which were to follow.

This flight was duplicated in the northern climes by those such as Cuthbert, who sought the solitude of Farne island “sieged on this side and on that by the deep and infinite sea”, and St. Kevin, whose monastery in Ireland I had the opportunity to visit.  St. Kevin (498?-618) traveled to Glendalough, where he chose to live as a hermit to avoid the company of his many followers.  There, like St. Francis, he lived in extraordinary closeness to nature with the animals and birds around him. He is reported to have gone barefoot and to have spent his time in prayer.  Soon, disciples were attracted to him as his fame as a teacher and holy man spread, and many people came for help and guidance.  His monastery grew into a seminary and served as the parent of several other monasteries. In 544 he retreated into solitude for four years and only returned at the request of his monks, living the remainder of his life by fasting, praying, and teaching, a hermit until the end.

Here an explanation is in order: the hermit is one who primarily seeks a solitary existence, living an eremitical life (derived from eramos, the Greek word for desert, where St. Anthony retreated). Turning to the New Testament, the word is most often translated as “wilderness”, an isolated place. Jesus set the example at critical junctures in his life, especially when he is baptized by John and then is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days. On the other hand, the monastic life, while accompanied by periods of solitude, is lived in community with other monks. In The Religious Life (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1968), Sister Edna Mary writes, “Perhaps the inheritance of the desert fathers was clearest in Celtic monasticism, with its cloisters of beehive huts in which the monks lived, each working or praying alone in the hut or out of doors, and meeting others only for meals and occasionally for worship.  In Celtic monasticism, as in the desert, the monk was monarchus, one who is alone with God.  It was not until Benedict wrote his rule in the early sixth century that there was any widespread attempt to establish…a disciplined corporate life which should by its common nature b a means of sanctification to the individuals involved in it, and which would incidentally provide a principle of order in a disordered Europe.”  This became known as the coenobitic life.

What was the motivation to flee from the society of which they were a part?  Sister Edna Mary gives us a clue in her phrase “a disordered Europe”.  As with those who seek this life apart today, they were repulsed by the destructive tendencies they saw in the society in which they lived.  Considering the dysfunctionality of our contemporary society, it seems to me that this call would be growing ever stronger.  While only some of us would consider the choice of a monastic or eremitical life, the call to withdrawal is nevertheless a strong one.  (This motivation was previously addressed in my post on Sabbath keeping, On Reaching God’s Land of Rest.)  There is, for want of a better word, so much garbage which can be discarded—so  much which offends, distracts, annoys—that is an obstruction to our spiritual path.  This much we can do: simplifying, purifying, focusing our life energy on that which is truly valuable.

Prophetically, Thomas Merton concludes, “It would perhaps be too much to say, that the world needs another movement such as that which drew these men into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine.  Ours is certainly a time for solitaries and for hermits.  But merely to reproduce the simplicity, austerity and prayer of these primitive souls is not a complete or satisfactory answer.  We must transcend them, and transcend all those who, since their time, have gone beyond the limits which they set.  We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster…..But our world is different from theirs.  Our involvement in it is more complete.  Our danger is far more desperate.  Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.” 

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