There are two deserts. One is the desert of the early monks, the abbas and ammas. Their desert was a place of withdrawal to seek God. They longed for heaven, but God’s response was the desert. Its lonely dark nights were full of struggles with tempting old memories and self-knowledge. The desert’s nakedness stripped away layers of human pride and self-reliance. Living water flowed throughout its arid emptiness. The surprising gift of the desert was renunciation, because its endless horizons baptized the elders in a new vision of human life. Its searing silence embraced the elders with the presence of God, their only source of life. The immense canopy of the desert’s starry nights kept them from taking themselves too seriously. As they gave themselves to the desert and to each other, the risen Christ became their constant companion in the work of love.
But there was another desert. That desert was the futility of the inhabited world. It was the emptiness the elders had experienced in a society whose over-abundance of activities, possessions, and irresponsible pleasures left little room for God and mocked the sacredness of life. The emptiness of the second desert was superficiality of life, the child of human pride and self-reliance. It was a consequence of losing sight of God. The horizons of this desert were short and its boundaries produced anxiety, greed, competition, and conflict. The desert fathers and mothers left that desert to seek God in the desert of Egypt. The desert elders did not leave the emptiness of the inhabited world because they believed the world, in itself, is evil. They left a society that had become tarnished and profaned by human behavior.
One desert is an empty world of our own creation. It is a house of fear dominated by three weapons of mass destruction: self-reliance, self-interest, and self-centeredness. These weapons blaspheme the sanctity of life. They rely on human power and give birth to fear, anger, injustice, greed, vengeance, and war.
The wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers lures us to another desert where the monastic virtues of humility, purity of heart, and love of neighbor offer more lasting solutions to the challenges we face than weapons of mass destruction. They rely on God’s power. Life in this desert is a difficult struggle as we learn to accomplish the work of love. It is not without risks, failure, and casualties. How is it possible to live in this second desert? The desert elders call us to a change of consciousness; a change in our attitude about ourselves and human life. They exhort us to take on the mind of Christ and through this Christ-consciousness look honestly at ourselves and the society we have created. We cannot be forced to enter this desert. Like the elders, we must leave the first desert and choose the second. Our work in the second desert will begin by slowing down and listening to God and to each other. We will say, “Give me a word.” And “What should I do?” The response will be as hard for us to accept as it was for the novices who came to the desert elders: “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
We cannot rely on the desert elders to solve our problems. Like them, we must learn to rely completely on God. They can be our companions, but we must walk our own path to transformation. We are always beginners. But their legacies can help us know ourselves better and guide us along the path we chose.
David G.R. Geller
Oasis of Wisdom