23 February 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (3)

Theology of the Desert

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know...that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. ~ Deuteronomy 8.2, 3

As I said previously, the new privileges granted to the Church by Constantine resulted in a number of problems, problems which to some were radical problems, requiring radical solutions. Chief among these problems was people joining the Church for the social benefits they could enjoy. It was in reaction to increasing worldliness that lay people went into the desert to seek God.

Living arrangements varied. Some were hermits, living in complete solitude. Others were cenobites, living in communities with one another. Still others combined the two lifestyles, living in solitude for the most part, occasionally meeting together for worship and celebration of Holy Communion.

But, really, why the desert? It would be erroneous to assert that these were men and women who just couldn't handle the "real" world, or just didn't want to. Unable, or unwilling, to bear the burdens the rest of us must do, they escaped to the peace and quiet of the desert. In fact, their selection of the desert was motivated by the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, the desert was a place of death, scarce life, scarcer supplies of water. Famously, the desert was a place for the testing of men and women of God, a place of preparation. The Israelites were disciplined and fashioned by the desert, for God in the desert forty years, into the Army of God which ultimately took the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. John the Baptist seems to have been a permanent resident. Jesus spent forty days in the desert to be tempted and to have the finishing touches, as it were, put on his preparation for his earthly ministry. The desert is not a place for ease-seeking social drop-outs. It is a place for spiritual warfare. It is a place where passions are conquered, and sins is are destroyed.


The desert reflected the monks' spiritual values. There was a connection between their living environment and their inner lives. The nature of the desert, as one might imagine, encouraged asceticism. In fact, the desert forces asceticism on those who would live in it. The desert forces detachment. One learns quickly what to keep and what to discard for purposes of mere survival. One is required to decide ruthlessly upon what must go and what must remain. That which interferes with survival must be let go. The same for the spiritual life: whatever comes between one's self and God must be let go. For the monks, the physical demands of the desert matched the spiritual demands Christ makes upon us.

The desert forces one to contemplate what things separate us from survival, the same sort of contemplation which should tell us what things in our life come between us and God. Money? Ambition? Food? Desire for the opposite sex? Seeking to be desired by the opposite sex? Are we more focused on appearances than the inner reality of who we are? Are we, really, more than a little afraid to find out who we really are? (If so, God may show you; and it will hurt. Trust me.) Do we seek comfort, more than we seek God? (Let's try to be honest.)

God wants us to be free from these needs. In truth, they are not needs. The desert will teach you that.

The desert is a place of deep silence. Can we handle silence? Hours and hours of it? Some really cannot. Most have some type of sound pumped into their heads for almost as many hours as they are awake. The desert has no music for you, no talk radio, nothing to occupy you or to entertain you. Until you get used to it, silence can almost give you a headache, or even what Tigger (in an episode of Winne the Pooh) called a "hearlucination". You talk to your self a bit. Long enough and you'll start talking to cactus. You'll hum. Soon, hopefully, you'll realize you're wasting precious moisture; you're throat will go dry.

In many ways, the desert is the best of all teachers when it comes to self negation. It forces you to take a good hard look at yourself, especially as you begin to think about the things you miss about "civilization". The desert doesn't care about you. The desert doesn't care about your academic or professional achievements. The desert doesn't care if you are a high school drop-out or a Ph.D. It doesn't care if you are a movie star, a rock star, or a king.

Ladies, the desert doesn't think you're sexy. It doesn't want your body. It doesn't think you look good in those jeans. On the other hand, it doesn't think those jeans make your rear look big, either. The desert doesn't think you're hot in a bikini. It doesn't care about your measurements. In fact, the desert doesn't think anything of you at all. It won't remember your birthday, or your anniversary. It won't flirt with you, or anything else that may provide an ego boost. It won't watch chick-flicks with you or give you cards or candy on Valentine's Day. The desert won't take you dancing. It won't take you to a fine restaurant. On the other hand, it will never expect you to, as they say, put out.

Men, the desert doesn't care about your athletic prowess. It doesn't care how fast you run, or how much you bench press. It doesn't care how much money you make, or that you run a Fortune 500 company. The desert doesn't think you're hot; it doesn't care that you have eight-pack abs. It doesn't think you're great; it will never look adoringly at you from across the room. It won't fall for your sweet-talking bullshit. You have nothing to say that will entice the desert into going home with you for the night. The desert will never fall in love with you. It will never be impressed with you. It will never respect you. On the other hand, it won't disrespect you, either. But it might kill you.

The desert doesn't think you're eye candy, not even if you're Megan Fox or Brad Pitt. And it won't provide you with any eye candy, either. It has no amusements, no diversions, no distractions from the harsh reality of life within its warm embrace.

The desert doesn't care about your hopes, your dreams, your plans--or your regrests. The desert doesn't know you; it won't miss you when you're gone. The desert will give you no recognition, no honors. The desert doesn't care who you are; it doesn't care who you think you are. The desert can't hear you; it is not even listening to you.

The desert has no social justice to offer you. The desert will offer you no food, no water, no shelter, and no clothing. The desert doesn't think you have rights, not to free speech, not to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness; it just might rob you of life, liberty and happiness. The desert offers you no vote. The desert doesn't care what you think you're entitled to, certainly not at its expense. The desert will give you nothing, certainly not healthcare. More than likely, it will take everything.

When you are sick, the desert will not minister to your needs. When you rejoice, the desert will not rejoice with you. When you mourn, the desert will not mourn with you. And when you die, the desert will not know it. The desert will not eulogize you, memorialize you, or cry over the loss of you. The desert will not even bury you. The desert will leave your rotting corpse for the scavengers to feast upon. It will be as if you never existed at all. And, for the desert, you never did.

All these things the desert teaches you, while not so obvious in "the world", are true even in the world. No matter what you do, no matter who remembers you--the day is coming when no one will know, or care, about you at all. Joseph did many great things in Egypt; but one day a pharoah arose who did not know Joseph. So it will be with you, no matter who you are. Think of it: two thousand years ago, the word caesar meant something to the entire known world and could put fear in the hearts of men; now it is the name of a salad.

The desert will kick your ass and bring you down to size.

It does happen that some monks will forget the lesson. The humorous story is told of John the Dwarf. One day John decided that he had progressed far enough to have become more angel than man, and therefore better than his brethren. He decided he should be free of the requirements of labor and informed his elder: "I should like to be free of all earthly care like the angels, who do not work but ever offer worship to God."

John took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After just one week (I told you the desert will kick your ass) he returned to the monastery. When he knocked on his elder's door, his elder asked, "Who is there?"

"It is I, John, your brother," John said.

But his elder replied, "John has become an angel and is no longer to be found among mere men," and left him there, in his discomfort until morning. Then, in the morning, his elder opened the door and said, "You are but a man, John. And you must work in order to eat."

At this rebuke, John prostrated himself before his elder and asked forgiveness.

The desert can quickly whittle one down to size and put everything into proper perspective.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 5, St. Anthony of Egypt

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 22 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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