Obsculta! Wise Elders and the Desert Tradition
The Desert Way
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann3 speaks of the capacity of the psalms to move us from orientation, through disorientation, and returning to yet a new space, a stance of reorientation. We experience times of equilibrium, yet when God moves us into a space of dislocation and relocation, beautiful psalms are birthed. In many ways this same experience is embodied in the lives of the desert seeker. The ascetic was thrust into disorientation by accepting and embracing the gospel call to be lived out in the desert or monastery. Following each new experience of reorientation the desert ascetic would then be thrust again into disorientation through continued ascetical practices, yet moving ever closer to deep unity with God. The experience of orientation, disorientation and reorientation moved the seeker deeper into the heart of God. This movement stripped the seeker of all that separated truest self from God. This process of purification cultivated humility, compassion, purity of heart and apatheia.
Apatheia was the goal of the desert journey. Apatheia refers to the quality of an interior spiritual journey where the inner struggle against inordinate attachments has ceased. Grounded in profound interior freedom, the ascetic was free of the strong pulls of worldly desires. Apatheia is a mature mindfulness, a grounded sensitivity, and a keen attention to one's inner world as well as to the world in which one journeyed. Strong emotions such as anger, fear or anxiety did not dominate or control the ascetic's inner world. Strong emotions were disciplined to serve the inner journey rather than disrupt it.
Apatheia is purity of heart. The desert ascetics taught us to let go intentionally of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and addictions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism. Apatheia is nourished by simplicity grounded in abundance of the soul. This simplicity is in balance and harmony with the human community and the created world. To cultivate apatheia, we must be uncluttered in mind and heart, continue to be watchful and vigilant about those "seeping boundaries" where we can be deceived out of simplicity and into complexity under the guise of a "good."
Although solitude was deeply valued and actively cultivated, the desert ascetic received all guests with a deep spirit of hospitality. With the guest, Christ was received. Hence, one's fast might be set aside to join the guest in a light meal. Silence would be broken for heart-to-heart conversation. The guest might later be taught to sit silently in the presence of God while enjoying one another's company.
Desert ascetics understood that the journey to a deep and mature relationship with God was made within oneself. The arduous work of stripping away illusions and all that keeps us from knowing God, gifted the ascetic with a deep sense of understanding one's own true humanity. A keen understanding of one's true humanity--created fully in the image and likeness of God and yet still on the journey towards full maturity--made desert ascetics deeply humble people.
Desert ascetics faced suffering with determination and courage. They understood that suffering was grounded in their attachments to attitudes, thoughts, motives, relationships and reputation. Suffering was the avenue towards freedom and detachment, towards maturity and humility. Suffering remained until "letting go." A deep capacity for compassion often resulted.
Their experience of compassion brought the ascetics to a place of deep understanding of the struggles of others, seeing themselves in the lives of others and removing any sense of distance or distinction. Desert ascetics vigorously rejected any judgmental or critical attitude. Desert ascetics teach us that awareness of our own weaknesses gives us an opportunity to deepen our compassion for the weaknesses of others. As we cultivate a tender, vulnerable, expansive heart that embraces the humanity of all, we see with new eyes, the eyes and heart of Christ.Prayer was a continuous way of life in the desert. It was intentionally cultivated until it became second nature. Prayer involved the hard work of learning a new language--the language of heaven. For the ascetic, prayer was not merely the speaking of words. Prayer was the heart yearning for God, reaching out in hopeful openness to being touched by God. Prayer was the Holy Spirit breathing through the inner spirit of the ascetic and returning to God with yearnings for intimacy.
The ascetic sought to cultivate a silent, passionate and burning love for God experienced in deep and nurturing solitude. The atmosphere for rich prayer was a simple quiet voice, not an inner noisy crowd. Physical as well as inner stillness and quiet were necessary attitudes. The words of prayer were brief and straight from the heart. Praying the psalms, intercession, contemplation and silent awareness of God's presence were all expressions of prayer in the desert and monastery.
The psalms were recited throughout the day. Ascetics strove to pray into the night as well. Reading the Sacred Word was a bodily experience. Ascetics did not simply "recite" the psalms. In their pondering of the Word, they allowed it to permeate their inner being in order to pray from their gut. Desert ascetics were grounded in Sacred Scripture. They rejected a rigid approach to understanding Scripture, knowing there were multiple senses of any text.
Seeking to interiorize the Word and make it a part of their very being, ascetics often began their desert journey in deep inner struggle to reflect upon, understand and become one with the Word. Reverenced as a source of life, the Word was seen as having a capacity to awaken deep sensitivity and to transmit life energy. Meaning was found when Word and life corresponded. Wrestling with God's Word cultivated in the ascetic a way of understanding and reflecting on the world. The Word shaped how they saw and interpreted their culture. The Word was their source for discerning God's call of the church.
Desert ascetics warned their followers that as they began their discipline of prayer, they would be attacked by acedia. This is a sense of boredom or dejection that comes without cause as a temptation in prayer. Acedia deters from the inner journey and discourages the inner struggle towards freedom. Followers were invited to be tenacious in prayer and to trust the original desire for God. The boredom then would pass.
Silence helps us begin the pilgrimage within and better discern the sacred. Silence helps us to cultivate and deepen our passionate love for God because it provides the atmosphere of true and authentic communication with God. Silence teaches us to speak simply, directly, compassionately and honestly. Sitting in silence with the silence of God is the deepest, most intense form of prayer.
Entering into silence is not easy. To risk encountering our fullest and truest self, and to meet God as God is requires courage and the freedom to risk. Silence invites us to meet and discover our truest selves--with masks, illusions and public personae removed. Self-image is stripped and realigned: we begin to put on the mind of Christ. Silence, therefore, invites us to change, to grow towards the fullness of life. Silence cultivates a healthy detachment from reputation, thwarted desires and plans, and anything that keep us distracted from God.
The ascetic strove to sit quietly and attune her attention fully to the silence, allowing silence to speak its wisdom. As the psalmist tells us: ". . . but I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me" (Ps 131:2). And how we struggle to sit still today!
For the desert dweller, "silence itself was layered, having depth and texture, and that to learn to be attentive to the varied qualities of the layers was to begin to discern the presence of the Spirit of God."4 Silence is essentially listening. Desert ascetics were "practiced in peeling back the layers of silence, pierced to the core the hearts of fellow seekers and laid bare for them the voice of the living God."5 Obsculta!
Desert ascetics cultivated a listening heart. The desert way was a life engaged in intense listening. Listening for the Beloved's voice cultivated a wise and compassionate heart, able to yield to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Listening for the ebbs and flows of the Spirit was fundamental to a life of discernment. A still, focused attention was needed for fruitful discernment. True discernment does not presuppose how the Spirit is to move, nor what God is to say. In this life of cultivated listening, ascetics were open to the unexpected. They were willing to risk being surprised.
Desert ascetics were deeply aware that their cultural background, education and life experiences framed and influenced listening. Some were concerned that prior education and privilege would hamper their inner journey. We live with this same challenge today due to the bombardment of all our senses from the media; we are a society driven by the information age. Desert ascetics steeped their minds in Scripture and other sacred writings in order to cultivate a mind and heart able to listen for God's voice. Growth in self-awareness clarified the lens that filtered and colored their listening. The clearness of a prism was the goal.