Desert Spirituality

Desert spirituality starts with St Antony & the desert fathers who wanted to flee from the sinfulness of their sinful & corrupt world & from what seemed to be the Church’s compromise with the State.

They were called to the desert by their desire to make space for God – the external silence and solitude of the desert offered them space to attend to God without distraction. Desert represents a call to intimacy with God – “ I will lure her into the desert & there speak to her heart”( Hosea)

Desert also implies repentance/ conversion. Israel was to be led again into the desert to Know God by also knowing her sinfulness & rebellion. Equally the desert fathers experienced in solitude all the instincts, drives and attitudes which oppose God. “ Demons” dwell in the desert – the forces which tempt us to deny God & follow our own sensuality, the “way of the world”, or the forces of evil.

So the desert is

• a place where God is met & speaks to us

• a place of combat, of struggle with all the things that prevent our surrender to God in love

In the desert the monks followed a very ascetic life – regular fasting, constant prayer & night vigil, manual work. The aim was not to punish the body but to make the hunger for God and the waiting for his coming a physical reality. This kind of fasting meant knowing in your body that only God satisfies and a way of learning not to attend to other hungers. Vigil meant being alert to the presence of God in an equally physical way. The external action was meant to create hunger and vigilance as well as to express it.

On its own this kind of life would be inhuman. There was, however, an equal emphasis on charity. The great “abbas” of the desert would visit one another for spiritual encouragement; they would guide those who came to seek them. One of their chief rules for maintaining charity was an absolute ban on judging others. Prayer should teach each one the depth of his own sin and need for conversion, leaving no time or inclination for anything else. “Stay in your own cell and weep for your own sins”. ( A similar wisdom is found in St John of the Cross’ advice to novices.)  

Although a disciplined and externally harsh life the fruits of the life were joy and extraordinary gentleness, a tenderness towards all living things and a desire for universal salvation. In these aspects we can see how much St John of the Cross was a true desert father: his journey into the nights of the spirit produced the same fruits. We need to remember that the flowering of the desert in the Prophets is one of the signs of the coming of salvation; the flowering in individual lives suggests how much they participate in the fulfilment of redemption.

Jesus and the desert

When Jesus enters the desert for 40 days he repeats the experience of Israel in the desert for 40 years, linking him with Moses. He also repeats Elijah’s 40 days in the desert. He repeats these 2 formative experiences in the history of Israel in which God is encountered in the wilderness.

Jesus’ temptations also recall that of Adam & Eve. Turning stones into bread is to deny waiting on God & being fed by him, just as Eve chooses to take the fruit rather than satisfy herself with what God provides. Leaping from the parapet of the Temple calls God’s providence into question, just as Eve did. Worshipping Satan recalls Eve’s refusal to worship God when she “grasps at equality with God” in taking the fruit.

In the desert Jesus encounters the core of Original Sin and says “Yes” to God where Eve said “No”. Our call to the desert is to be with Jesus there, meeting the same temptations and in the strength of his Easter victory saying “Yes” to God with him.

Ours isn’t, of course, a physical desert. It’s what the Bible calls our “heart” – the place where God speaks; where we will and choose things; where we encounter our own disbelief, rebellion, doubt and sinfulness. Like the desert fathers we return to the solitude of our hearts when we pray but it leads us into combat much more than it leads to immediate peace and pleasure. A desert solitude which did not expose our sinfulness and frailty in this way would be very dubious. Deserts do, however, have oases and so do our hearts. If we are graced with finding one we should be thankful without planning to build ourselves a house there. (St John of the Cross develops this spirituality.)

The doctrine of St John of the Cross is aimed at leading us into the desert, into the depths of our hearts, so that we can be purified of everything that isn’t God and free to love as He loves. He uses the image of the ascent of Mt Carmel for the entry into the desert. He recalls for us Jesus’ use of the 2 paths and the rigours of being a mountaineer.  On the top of Mt Carmel – that is, at the centre of our hearts, there will be only the honour and glory of God, with no place for what we think of as ‘self’, but it will be the place of the purest delight.  Giving up our own will, denying ourselves satisfaction with less than God, is only so that we can be drawn completely into the will, into the heart of God. The journey will confront us with all our sinfulness, our illusions, our obsessions. St John of the Cross teaches us what we can do to become free of these and how to dispose ourselves for God to deal with what we cannot deal with ourselves.

St Teresa focuses on praying in the desert but also on what kind of people we must be in order to become people of prayer. She continually reminds us that prayer is not for our own benefit; our prayer is for others, is to make us fit to love others. We are to become “God’s good friends” in a world where he has few; this is how we co-operate with him in the work of salvation. We can only become God’s friend by our hearts becoming purified, fit places for the meeting with him which leads to union with him. For St Teresa, to go into the desert was to go into the heart of the spiritual warfare raging in the world.( Anyone who is taking prayer seriously will find themselves drawn into this warfare. For Carmelites that’s part of their task.  As St Therese said, we must become love at the heart of the Church – and for the sake of the world. 

By Heather Ward Nottingham group