Obsculta! Wise Elders and the Desert Tradition

Laura Swan, O.S.B.

I come here as a student of the desert.1 My time with the desert ascetics has been a type of novitiate. As many of us recognize within our own life stories, just as we have liturgical seasons of the Church so there are formation seasons in our spiritual journey. And many of us return to the novitiate over and over again!

To be human is to be in a process of spiritual formation. Failure to recognize the call, enticement and demands of our spiritual formation usually leads to anger, confusion, anguish and despair, and continued alienation from self. Recognition of our varied seasons of formation helps us make sense of where we are at and what is asked of us in this process of our sacred journey.

While I will be sharing some of my novitiate season with you, I want to acknowledge up front that there is no one "desert tradition." I suspect our monastic tradition of non-conformity began in the desert. Every ascetic, every grouping of ascetics and cultural regions of ascetics during the many seasons of the early and emerging Church had there own unique expressions of the desert tradition. Some traditions were healthy and some were not. I am sharing my reflections based on my own journey and in listening to contemporary people grappling with their own experiences of desert and how the desert ascetics have helped them in their journey.

Wise Elders

Wise wlders first and foremost are students of the desert and the intense spiritual journey encountered there. The desert has taught them self-knowledge and self-awareness. Daily they come to know a bit better who they are before God. The desert taught them to listen deeply and intensely. While growing in awareness of who they are and who they are not, they have detached themselves from reputation or any need to defend themselves from those who might attack their reputation. Desert ascetics did not proclaim themselves wise or seek out followers. Rather they were reluctant to take on a disciple, fully understanding the responsibility and the "costs."

Through the hard work of their own spiritual battles and disciplines, the desert ascetics gained a reputation for wisdom. Through brief encounters of hospitality, seekers returned home spreading word about this amma and that abba; seekers encountered someone seasoned in the ascetic life, who was known to have reached a level of maturity and wisdom and had experience in teaching by example, exhortation, story, and instruction.

Desert ascetics have a capacity to recognize that not all who present themselves as seekers have the capacity to live the monastic life. The harshness of the desert has taught wise elders an intuitive wisdom to read hearts. To use the language of today, they have eyes to see the red flags that warn them that this seeker may not have the interior strength, healthy ego or perseverance/tenacity to become a desert ascetic. Accepting a "questionable candidate" leads to the possibility of doing harm to the candidate and/or the community. The challenge becomes to do the necessary work of discernment and, when necessary, send the seeker on her/his way. Resistance and difficulties reveal whether the seeker is sincere and comes with sufficient determination and perseverance, or whether they are a curiosity seeker.

The wise elder attends to her/his own journey as a first priority, avoiding the temptation to project personal issues onto the seeker and work stuff out on another innocent lamb! The wise elder has sufficient self-knowledge to know hooks and hot issues, and to know when it is me and when it is the seeker--usually a mesh of the two. In self-knowledge, the wise elder guides the seeker on the desert journey as it is a terrain that they already know intimately. There is also sufficient detachment that the wise elder is able to send the seeker on their own when ready, allowing the seeker their own journey.

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.

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.

The Goal of Mentoring

Mentoring is generative; we pass on an abundant life to those younger who will themselves carry the tradition forward. With mentoring, the disciple is immersed in the tradition at the intellectual and affective levels. The tradition is passed on: heart, mind and soul. Mentoring seeks to bring together doxy and praxis: to learn the ways of the tradition, to understand the tradition and to mature in practice of the tradition. We do not mentor for theory only.

The desert and monastic tradition is a culture, a way of life, and an attitude of mind and heart and gut. As the seeker is immersed into this new culture, she/he then must "go apart" to explore what is happening, what is being learned and evoked as a result of this journey. Then seeker and elder sit together to explore the dynamics of what is happening. This slow-drip method of exploration and discernment moves the tradition into the very cells of our being.

Ultimately the goal of mentoring the desert and monastic tradition is to cultivate a deeply listening heart: Benedict's listening with the ear of our hearts. We seek to learn the fine art of listening from the very depths of our being. Elders try to help us see more clearly all the varied stumbling blocks we place in the path of deep listening. We seek to learn the music of silence and the beauty of solitude. In that place of silence and solitude, we deepen in self-awareness and self-knowledge, coming to know self-before-God. This is a silence into listening.

Today we see younger generation hungering for the tradition (be this Christian, Catholic, Benedictine, monastic, whatever) and yet redefining it to their own understanding and aspirations. They appropriate and make the tradition their own, imbuing it with their own meaning. Our challenge is to faithfully present and immerse them in the monastic way, and then engaging them in conversation around this process of appropriation. Elders must challenge and explore: is the appropriation true to the tradition? Is it sufficiently prophetic to their own generation/cohorts? To what degree are they/we pasteurizing and sanitizing the tradition--a basic human tendency. We must ultimately let go and enter the creative chaos.

Return to 'Obsculta!' Index


1Much of this talk is adapted from Laura Swan, O.S.B., The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 2001). return

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

3See Walter Brueggmann, Praying the Psalms (Winona, MN: St. Mary's Press 1986). return

4Wendy Wright, "Desert Listening" Weavings 9:3 (May-June 1994) 10. return

5Wright 12. return

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