Spirit, Learning and Life

Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.

Desert Words to Live By

He found his people in a desert land, in a barren, howling waste.
He protected and trained them, he guarded them as the apple of his eye.
Deuteronomy 32:10

THE DESERT CAN be an empty place where the lost are driven insane by inner demons, or it can be a place of refuge and renewal where pilgrims escape the insanity of a chaotic world. Our desert experience is determined by how we cope with being alone. Solitude can bring strange illusions and despair or it can strip us of faulty dependence, filling us with a desire for our Creator.

Desert Words to Live By

Picture by Wade Kovacs

The desert sages of the fourth century were masters of solitude. Alone in the desert, they practiced contemplation, humility, and emotional self-discipline. Weaning themselves from self-gratification, they comprehended the paradox that spiritual solitude is an expression of love for the Creator and service to humanity. We may not have the stomach for their ascetic excesses but their legacy, thoughtfully translated, corrects our spiritual hedonism; it even offers a way toward a deeper contemporary spirituality.

Being alone heals addictions and revises self identities like no seminar or psycho-technology can. Stripping down to spiritual and psychological essentials reveals the meaning of dependency. Ancient tradition taught that dependence on addictions is not the same as dependence on God. As Emerson later put it, self-reliance is God-reliance. Entering the desert and coming to the end of our resources demands courage and hard work, as well as vulnerability. There is no better place to learn spiritual reliance than with the fourth century Abbas (Fathers) and Ammas (Mothers) in the desert.

When the Church became respectable, one of its premier marks - suffering - was jettisoned. Being Christian was as trendy in the third century as practicing eastern meditation is now. Then as now, spiritual practice was devalued through popularity; pop religion became doomed to mediocrity. Those who resisted the change were considered throwbacks yearning for the second century glory days of martyrdom. Resisters headed for the desert looking for what had been lost in the watered down version of spirituality.

Entering the desert and coming to the end of our resources demands courage and hard work, as well as vulnerability.

Anthony of Coma, a spiritual refugee from Egypt, heard the call to commitment in Matthew 19:21: "If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me." He said that he felt driven into the desert in the same way the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In short, he entered silence and solitude. At Fort Pispir, Anthony struggled against inner demons and evil forces for 20 solitary years.

When rumours of his emergence circulated, many spectators expected an emaciated recluse to surface from his prison. How had he handled being alone that long? Anthony came out of his cell renewed, a more powerful and humble human being. Surprisingly, he related to society even better than before his sojourn. Learning compassion for his former enemies, he began to advise heads of state and became a spiritual director of others who decided to retreat to the desert in search of wisdom. This disciple-mentor pattern became so established by the fourth century that every significant church leader, including Augustine and Jerome, spent time with a desert Abba.

As the movement matured, styles of solitude suited to the personalities of individuals evolved. Those who chose absolute solitude were called anchorites; of them, Anthony was one of the few healthy exceptions. Excesses abounded, like those of Simeon Stylites who sat atop a 30-foot platform for 36 years. The desire for individual salvation through rigorous self-deprivation took on pathological proportions such as wearing heavy chains while wandering naked in the cold desert night. Though admirable, hermit life teemed with deforming potentials, especially for those with self-denigrating tendencies; the Abbas saw inferiority as a subtle form of self-centeredness.

In order to preserve the discipline of the desert and prevent spiritual malformation, Pachomius instituted a communal form of desert existence. These monks, called cenobites, taught that you couldn’t be alone until you learned the lessons of community. "Solitude demands the fortitude of an angel," they said. Pachomius and company had discovered the difference between isolation and solitude. Kenneth Leech, a commentator on desert faith, says, "Solitude is not selfishness. No person who is obsessed with, enclosed within, the false self can be a solitary." (Experiencing God, p. 151). The rhythm of solitude and community became indispensable in spiritual formation.

St. Anthony of Coma

Disciplines of the desert included fasting, prayer, watchings (staying awake through the night), manual labour, spiritual submission to an Abba, hospitality to a stranger, and service in the city. In short, it was a life of ego transcending service. The desert life promotes specific traits: spiritual vision, focused emotion, and compassionate service.

Spiritual Vision

Seeing without elaboration or exaggeration ensures physical survival in the desert and psychological survival in the inner desert of solitude. When alone, every stick can become a serpent; every unruly fantasy of the mind can torment. Contemplative vision requires disinterested but loving eyes. Disinterested because you refuse to make egocentric judgements. It is not the world "for me" but the cosmos, me included, that is the object of attention. Loving vision because whatever is there, no matter how discomforting, can be embraced as an occasion of awe.

Nowhere is disinterested love more necessary than between people. Spiritual growth, in community and as individuals, demands seeing what is there. Contemplative vision refuses to waste the energy that goes into spiritual hallucinations. This way of seeing doesn’t discount the conscious use of imagination but it does focus us when efficacy is required to finish what we have started. It empowers us with the discernment to dispel distractions.

Disinterested love was practiced in the community of the desert. With no inflated reputation to maintain, their personal gifts and limits, as well as those of their fellows, could be acknowledged. Being threatened by someone's gifts, or being naïve about their own weaknesses, would threaten the community's very existence.

Desert integrity is not an ideal; it’s an obligation. The survival of desert communities depended on individuals doing what they said they would do. The emphasis on manual labour as a spiritual discipline promoted this sort of integrity. What came out of the mouth by way of promise could be measured in reality. Submission to each other, and to an Abba, kept that stark reality ever present in their consciousness. A gracious patience with each other's mistakes and a refusal to become judgmental provided the context for integrity in the best desert communities. Years of commitment to a variety of simple tasks prepared the monastics for honest living. Revolutionary honesty and prompt confession enabled them to parse out truth from verbiage upon their return to society, where the value of the word had lost its coinage. The importance of the word of integrity is implied in the desert novice’s heart-felt appeal to their Abba, "speak a Word so that we may live." A short word would be given and it would sometimes be a year before the novice had thoroughly internalized it, making it a living word.

Focused Emotion

Desert teachers cautioned their novices that passions and prayer have a special relationship. When they used the word passion it implied a distinction between feelings and obsessions. Passions are those obsessive drives that are rooted in such emotions as lust or anger. To be driven by passions is to be torn apart by conflicting emotions like a team of horses pulling in opposite directions, one attracting and one repelling. Non-egoic loving requires emotional self-discipline.

This is difficult to translate for modern readers because we have only recently discovered the gnarling effects of emotional repression. To live passionately is to live intensely; any rational spirituality that is anti-emotional will simply not suffice. Was it not passionate attraction to God and a detraction from superficiality that led the monks into the desert in the first place? What the desert monks had, that we have all but lost, is an understanding of the will and reason that is promoted by strong emotion. The emotion is energy and its application ought not be accidental or unconscious but tethered to its charioteer- the reason. Unhinged emotions serve selfishness whereas reason coupled with emotion animates love. Focused emotion is another way to describe disinterested love. Abba Hilerion expressed the simplicity of emotion honestly when he vowed, "Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me, and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone." There is no repression of emotion here; nor is there an unconscious living out of rage. Emotions are focussed into passionate truth-telling and commitment to each other.

In community our spirituality is grounded

Compassionate Service

Clear vision and disinterested love qualified the desert saints for service in the city. Individual purity and salvation could not be left to bleach in the desert; it had to be expressed on behalf of others. They moved from the city to the desert for a purpose. That purpose now accomplished, it was time to move back into the cities with the vision, wisdom and compassion of the desert.

The desert is found in the cry of any human heart yearning for more, as common in the suburbs…as in the inner city.

Basil the Great, a Cappadocean Father, realized the social goals of solitude when he made "radical hospitality" central to monastic community. Wisely, he saw that being interrupted was one of the chief means of grace. Prayer, spiritual reading, contemplative labour - all these were only human efforts attempting to gain what the divine interruption through the needs of another brought naturally. The monks had to discern when the interruption was of a saving or a damning nature but mere interruption of schedule was not the basis of that discernment. Hospitality took on a rather unpretentious quality that filled the soup kitchens of Cappadocea with holy hermits listening for the Word of God on the tongues of the hungry. They followed their exemplar Jesus of Nazareth who moved in rhythm from country to city from prayer to open table fellowship.

T.S. Eliot, a modern desert poet, wrote,

The desert is not remote in southern tropics. The desert is only around the corner. The desert is squeezed in the tube train next to you. The desert is in the heart of your brother or sister. (Leech p. 159)

The heart of the desert is at the core of our cities. A desert activist said,

The noisy streets of the inner city are our cloister, the wilderness of human hearts is our desert, and our hermit’s cell is the deep centre of our heart where we seek to foster an interior life of union with the Holy Trinity... Our vocation is to enflesh the spirit of the desert fathers in our times and in the city. (Leech p. 159)

The desert is not, however, limited to the core area. It is found in the cry of any human heart yearning for more, as common in the suburbs, in universities, in the art galleries, theatres, or malls as in the inner city.


It is no longer popular to be a Christian like it was in the third century. The process of popularization that had watered down the radicality of Jesus of Nazareth has run its full course. The church and society have become post-modern and post-christian wastelands. Our cities have turned desert on us. There are pockets of resistance both within and outside the traditional structures that desire more. It is to these that the desert sages speak a word so that we can live, a word of integrity, clarity and compassion that promises renewal through solitude in community. There are no more institutional containers, no dogma that will hold it, no structure capable of keeping it intact, and no extras necessary in this new faith. It is a word that encourages us to enter the meaningless and harshness of our modern world, not to hide behind the cult of ritual or dogma but to see what is there, love what we see, and serve those around us.

Recommended Reading

Leech, Kenneth. Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. 500p.

St. Ephraim of Syria

St. Ephraim the Syrian. Permission pending from Orthodox Gifts (click on image for details)