Obsculta! Wise Elders and the Desert Tradition

The Desert Tradition of Mentoring

The mentoring relationship begins with desire: a seeker has come to recognize a yearning and desire to draw closer to God and a willingness to learn, to be shown the way. It also begins with a willingness to enter into or accept the desert that God has handed us. Desert ascetics had a sense of doing battle in the wilderness. The desert would refine their inner strength and resolve, as well as deepen their sense of utter dependence on God. The desert was especially related to death: it was the place to die to the false self and false supports, the place to bury old ways and attitudes, as well as the realm of the spiritual and demonic. Desert ascetics believed that close proximity to the forces of nature also had the effect of quickening the spirit in prayer.

While our famous desert ascetics mostly journeyed into the deserts of Egypt, Persia and present-day Turkey, deserts take many forms. It may be an emotional or spiritual interior place, where we grapple with despair or depression, anger or loss of hope. It may be the season of mid-life where we must weave the sacred stories of our lives. It may be the journey through chaotic family dynamics, aging parents, disabled friends or monastic communities facing the realities of diminishment. A willingness to face this place of starkness, fear and total dependence upon God with the potential of abandonment is a necessary requisite. We cannot negotiate our deserts; we either embrace them to cultivate the potential treasures or we dedicate our lives to running from them.

With this courageous first step of entering into the desert, the elder-disciple relationship was ritualized with the donning of the monastic garb and often with receiving the monastic tonsure. The disciple usually moved into the elder's home, monastic community or desert cell to begin this slow, careful process of learning the monastic way. Desert ascetics taught by example, by actually doing the life, which then transforms our hearts.

A relationship of trust, essential to the necessary vulnerability of spiritual formation, was built between elder and seeker. A relationship of deep spiritual bonding was formed: the elder taught more often by example than by words. The disciple prayed as the elder prayed. The disciple worked with the elder. In the early desert, this meant weaving baskets, rope and cloth, and distributing alms to the poor in the manner the elder did. How one worked was as important to spiritual formation as how one prayed.

Mentoring those practices, passed on from elder to disciple, dispossessed the ascetic of all that kept her/him from God. Asceticism was valued in its ability to move the seeker toward authentic freedom. It was about reordering priorities in support of the inner journey. All that supported this journey was acceptable; all else was rejected as superfluous. The desert way of elder and disciple was one of hard work, a lifetime of striving to redirect every aspect of body, mind and inner world toward God.

Although the journey began with giving away possessions, desert ascetics understood that what possessed them is greater than the sum of goods owned. All that owns us--all that possesses our minds and hearts--our attachments and compulsions must be healed and reconciled. Desert ascetics called this process towards inner freedom detachment. Detachment allows for greater direct experience of the Divine Presence as we are attached to fewer distractions.

The ascent into the desert began with cultivating a comfort with silence and solitude. Manual labor and studying sacred texts or other literature occupied the body as the disciple grew in comfort with silence. The interior was learning to focus on prayer and communion with God. Words were kept to a minimum. The desert ascetics recognized that our words reveal our heart, hence cautioning us to be wise about what we say. Word was understood as giving life; it was received by savoring and pondering (now known as lectio).

The cell--whether in a monastery or the desert--was important to their spirituality. They understood the cell to be the place of spiritual combat, the place where one must face one's truest self and deepen awareness of one's sin and woundedness. If the ascetic could not find God dwelling in the cell, then God could not be found by going somewhere else. The true ascetic remains within the cell in mind, body and spirit, and perseveres there until true unity with God is attained.

The cell is that place, and all those places we have been handed where we encounter the paradoxes that foster our growth. This cell, at times, is our families, colleagues, work, students, communities, our faith community or whatever. It is the place where we do battle with ourselves. It is the place where we confront the reality that God is God; we are not God. Here we stretch and grow; here we grow comfortable with the gray areas of life, not demanding that the world be black and white, clean and neat. The cell demands a response: Can we embrace stability? Can we sit still and learn, especially from imperfect people?

An elder journeyed and struggled side-by-side with the disciple yet maintained the necessary detachment for effective discernment. Communication was open and honest. The disciple shared her heart's struggles and the elder did not hide her own humanity. Knowledge and wisdom in dealing with unruly or false passions was learned by long, hard living. Learning was day-by-day in all the little stuff of life. Desert ascetics were aware of the necessity of self-understanding and the importance of taking responsibility for one's own actions and mistakes.

Desert ascetics were seeking an abundant simplicity. While material simplicity and our tendencies to rely on goods for our security was the first step, they were ultimately interested in cultivating simplicity in their emotions and in their attitudes. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all possible obstacles to the deepening of this relationship with God. Obstacles included unhelpful attitudes and motives, thoughts that stalled the pursuit of God, and emotional ties that complicated the inner journey. They sought to be mindful and intentional about their actions: they were attentive to how they washed clothing and utensils and how they spoke to one another. Mindlessness was seen as an enemy to the inner journey.

Desert ascetics understood that the cultivation of inner freedom was vital to deepening their experience of God. As they deepened their interior freedom, all aspects of their false self2 was removed and a clearer understanding of their truest self emerged. It is this true self that dwells deeply with God. In the abundant simplicity of our true self we experience deepest joy.

Desert ascetics cultivated compassion, tender love, deep and practical care for the poor and dispossessed. It was a spiritual stance quietly accepting of all persons who came to the door. Each was received as Christ. The desert ascetics understood that compassion and tender love cultivated a healthy humility.

Authentic asceticism used those practices that deepened self-awareness. The desert ascetic understood that growth in self-awareness was a necessary and valued component of the spiritual journey. Self-awareness was pursued through ascetical practices in order to become more deeply united with God and closer to heaven.

As the desert ascetics taught, our inner hesitance and resistance to meet God in honesty, silence and solitude are related to our resistance to come to know ourselves in our frailties. An honest encounter with God challenges our capacity for intimacy. We may come to discover that we fear our passion for God. We may want to run from our sense of emptiness. Self-awareness calls us to face our hurt and anger. Above all else, self-awareness reveals our idols--those self-serving, false images of God that deny who God actually is.

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2Although not original to him, the terms true self and false self are often associated with Thomas Merton, a contemporary ascetic and Trappist monk. The true self is that part of myself revealed in Christ. It is the person I was originally created to be: my gifts, strengths, passions, interests as well as my truest capacity to love, extend compassion and hospitality. The false self is that part of myself I have created was created in my upbringing that is not true to the person God meant for me to be. In many ways our false self is more evident than our true self is. In part, this is because my true self is revealed in God's own time and usually within the context of community. return

© 2003 by The American Benedictine Academy / www.osb.org/aba/