I have just learned of a new book from John Michael Talbot who argues that dizzying and disorienting times call us to the desert. In Desert Dangers and Delights he mines the ancient monastic wisdom, the sayings of the abbas and ammas, about the holy work that transpires when one enters the wilderness for spiritual growth.
This call is not new. It began in the third century, and Anthony the Great led the movement that would continue to influence Christianity to this day. Many left the cities for the deserts of Egypt, as he had done, and there they found companions with a similar desire to leave the distractions of the ear and the eye and fight the remaining battle, that of the heart. In this alternate Christian society men and women embraced austerity and the fierce landscape as a purifying reality.
We know how prominently wilderness features in Scripture. Hagar’s vision of God; Moses’ own calling and formation; the 40 years of Israel journeying toward the land of promise; the proclamation of John the Baptist; Jesus’ time of testing – all these find the desert both dangerous and clarifying. Of course, geographical proximity made this possible, yet the beckoning of God and deep resolve used these sojourns to transform persons and their futures.
In our time some are suggesting a new monasticism is needed. Venerable traditions such as Benedictine and Mt. Athos communities endure, yet new communities such as The Simple Way are emerging with the desire to live out faith more radically. The very practice of holding things in common moves people beyond the relentless acquisition that marks consumerist culture. Sharing meals, prayer and common reading, also shape these communities.
One learns about the self in the wilderness, especially how to discern between the true and false self, as Thomas Merton would say. Humans are created to find their identity in relationship, even as the Triune God dwells eternally in the richness of dynamic relations. Rather than being curved in upon ourselves, the prison of narcissism, the exocentric person finds life in attachment to God and others.
Desert is more than geography. It is a time of stripping away the sinful practices that obscure our vision of the good. It is a time of self-examination that brings a renewed sense of mission in our lives. It is participation in the dying and rising with Christ that we professed initially in our baptism.
We are in dizzying and disorienting times, so the call to the desert is appropriate. I pray that we might learn its lessons anew.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping Church, and serving humanity and all creation.