Obsculta! Wise Elders and the Desert Tradition

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.

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