Friday, June 3

Sacred Spaces: The Desert Experience

One of the most common sacred spaces found in all of the Abrahamic traditions is that of the desert or the wilderness. This is largely due to the majority of Biblical stories taking place in very arid geographical locations, but it has to come to take on a more spiritual significance. Many significant figures have often gone out to meet the Divine or to find themselves in the wilderness. Consider that Siddhartha Gautama discovered his inner self when meditating under the Bodhi Tree, the Muslim prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was seeking for the Divine in the caves near his home. In the Christian tradition, after being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the Judean wilderness for forty days, and it is only after this period that he embarks on his itinerant ministry. What is it about the desert or the wilderness that creates for such spiritually charged encounters with ourselves and with the Divine? What is it about the desert that pushes us to become our most authentic selves, our True Self?

Consider the many other examples in the Bible where we find the desert experience: Abraham, known at the time as the nomad Abram, goes out to commune with the Divine and while in the wilderness, God makes a covenant with him. In the book of Exodus, we find Moses in the wilderness for forty years before hearing the voice of God, which subsequently leads him to bring his people out of Egypt and wander the wilderness for another forty years. In 1st Kings, we find Elijah in the wilderness for forty days on his way to Mt. Horeb. Also, as aforementioned, in the gospel narratives we read of Jesus' forty-day period of testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). Further, according to the New Testament, when Jesus is resurrected, he appears to his followers for forty days (Acts 1:3). The pattern here may already be evident: the number forty. There are several other uses of the number in the Biblical corpus - the initial rainfall from the Flood described in Genesis, the number of days God and Moses met for the giving of The Law (Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9, 11), the amount of time the spies searched the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:25; 14:34), the number of days that soldier Goliath challenged Israel (1st Samuel 17:16), the prophet Jonah’s time in Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), as well as all of the aforementioned incidents. 

In most of these forty day periods of time, we find that turmoil, challenges and tests were involved - only the final set of forty days, that of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, are days filled with blessing and transformation. The number forty is significant in Biblical numerology because it signifies a long period of time. It does not always literally mean forty days or forty years, but it is a number meant to invoke a sense that great lengths of time are passing. When considering a desert spirituality this is important, because we can often get too caught up in the planning, the fulfillment of our plans, and the timing of our plans. When we are seeking to find our desert experience and foster a desert mentality or desert spirituality, we must begin to develop a sense of detachment and begin to let go of our desire for order, to be "on-time" and "on-schedule" in order to fully engage and fully immerse in our own desert experiences.

Many people are familiar with the idea of hermits living out in the wilderness or in caves praying and seeking solitude. The word hermit comes from the Latin word ĕrēmīta, which means "of the desert" or  a "desert dweller." The first known hermit in the Christian tradition is St. Paul of the Desert, a man from Thebes, Egypt in the mid-AD 200s. His follower, St. Anthony of Egypt (or Anthony the Great), is perhaps the most well-known and possibly most influential of the early Desert 
Fathers. Prior to his conversion, the renowned theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) actually read about the life of St. Anthony the Great and was inspired by his example. Now, the lifestyle of these hermits was very strict and difficult; the hermits mostly lived in caves, cells or hermitages in the deserts or forests. Also, as can be found in the collected sayings of these early hermits, these early men - and women! - would weave baskets which they would sell in town in order to buy food, so their life was filled with prayer and work.[1] A number of early Christian hermits did this very thing - Anthony, Pambo, Gregory, Evagrius, Macarius, Zacahrius, and many others.

Many people would often seek out the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers for their received wisdom, spiritual counsel or spiritual advice. There was also a group known as the Stylites who lived on top of pillars in the desert for years on end and preached to people from atop the pillars. All of these various pieces in the Christian tradition continued to develop a kind of desert theology or desert spirituality. It began with the nomadic Hebrews early on and continued up until the present day with the monks and hermits of the desert. But this kind of theology and spirituality is not meant only for monks or hermits. In the Biblical writings, God would send his people into the wilderness so that they may be tested and have a change of heart - a transformative inner experience that would then flow into their outer actions toward themselves and others. This is why Jesus went through a desert experience prior to beginning his itinerant ministries. We are also called to have our own desert experiences, though this does not necessarily mean we must leave our cities, our homes or our workplaces to do so.

Photo credit to Luca Galuzzi
Consider the further example of St. Paul. In Paul's letter to the Galatians we read, "But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus" (vs. 15-17). What is relevant for our purposes here is the interesting comment that Paul went into Arabia, even before he went to verify his teachings and his theology with the early Christian followers and apostles. Before truly beginning his ministry, he did not seek the highest ecclesiastical authorities, so to speak - he went into Arabia! But what could be in Arabia? There are some who speculate that Paul, following the tradition of the early Jewish patriarchs, went into the Arabian desert and had an experience of deep prayer and meditation, just as Jesus did. Experiences such as these do ask us to consider how or why this desert spirituality was so effective for these early followers.

It is important to note, however, that this desert experience is not simply found in antiquity, but still alive and present today. We still have hermits - consider Fr. Lazarus al Antony who lives in the Egyptian desert. Around the age of forty, Fr. Lazarus was actually an atheist college professor who taught philosophy in Australia. One day, he came upon the book Seven Storey Mountain by Catholic author and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The book is Merton's autobiography written a few years after entering the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, and it was enough to convince the atheist professor. He eventually joined a community of monks, and after believing the Virgin Mary had appeared to him through a painting in his monastery, he left the monks and became a hermit, currently residing in the cave of St. Anthony the Great.[2]

All of this raises the question, then - why have all of these men and women chosen to go out into the desert or wilderness in order to encounter the Divine? Firstly, the intention was to seek God, who was easier to find, encounter and focus on outside of the business of the major cities. Around the advent of the hermit communities, Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity (AD 311) and a few decades later, Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). This meant that there was a vast influx of new converts from all across the known world at the time - which also forced more men and women who were living genuine, authentic spiritual lives to go outside of these major areas to seek God where there were less distractions and more of a personalized spirituality rather than an imperial-mandated Christianity.

One might also suggest that the other major reason for this kind of spirituality is the self. Perhaps these early Desert Mothers and Fathers sought God in the wilderness by also finding themselves, and saw the desert as a place of purification, of vulnerability and of nakedness. In other words, the desert has no preference about who or what you are, it will treat you just the same as anything or anyone else. By going into the wilderness, you are confronted by your true self and your false self. These men and women, in other words, were coming to the desert to deal with their demons. Now, the mythic association between deserts and demons can be found throughout the tradition - i
n Tobit 8:3, for example, we read that the "smell from the fish held the demon off, and he took flight into Upper Egypt; and Raphael instantly followed him there and bound him hand and foot." Egypt was known for witchcraft (cf. Exodus 7:11), and there was an ancient belief that demons were at home in deserted or far-away places (see Matthew 12:43; Luke 11:24; Revelation 10:2, for example). The stories of the early hermits are also riddled with hordes of demons roaming the barren desert landscape. The wilderness was believed be the dwelling place of the forsaken.

But on a more psychological, level, these men and women were going out not to face some personification of evil, but their inner demons, or as noted, their false self. When you are in the desert, you are tempted in the most difficult of ways - hunger, thirst, lack of power, cravings, desires, frustrations, anxieties. All of these things and more come to the forefront of one's mind. The hermits saw these inner demons as spiritual aids in their journey, because among all of the challenges and need for growth and change, they found the Divine. Developing a desert spirituality or a desert theology does not mean that you must go out and become a hermit in an actual cave or desert. We can find both literal places and inner sacred spaces where we encounter the Divine. For some people, this manifests itself in the form of centering prayer or a Welcoming prayer. For other people, they find their desert experience by going on a spiritual retreat, a pilgrimage, and what have you. Some delve into contemplative prayer.

Sometimes we choose not to spend time in quietude or silence because we are simply uncomfortable with being by ourselves. When we take time to be alone in silence and not confronted with so many distractions, we become so unsettled because we grow increasingly aware of our baggage, our stressors, anxieties, fears and insecurities. During the forty-day Christian season of Lent, many are encouraged to have their own "desert experience," modeled after that of Jesus. Jesus also had to undergo this period of trial and testing before he was ready to start his work. The desert may be brutal and unforgiving, but in the desert we can face our False Self in order to find and become our True Self.

Again, facing our False Self or our inner demons does not require a trip to the arid places of the world. Each person can develop a desert spirituality in a different way - sometimes our desert experiences are lived out as periods of spiritual dryness or aridity, of every kind of challenge - financial, social, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc. Sometimes we face difficulties that are so numbing, so painful and create so much suffering for us that we go through a negative desert experience and cannot seem to find a way out. Sometimes, our addictions lead us into the desert. In the desert we confront our fears, our loneliness, our own identity needs. Most times, we go out to the desert - to our own inner wilderness, perhaps - to rediscover ourselves. But even in the midst of chaos, their is still hope.

Consider the ancient words of Isaiah 35:1–2: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom... the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” Each of these places was known to its audience for being places of beauty and abundance. The desert, most known for being a barren wasteland, can still blossom, grow and teem with abundant life. The time we spend away from ourselves, when we detach and allow God to work within us and through us, can help us to blossom and grow and help us to enable others to do the same. Sometimes the best way for us to accomplish this is to simplify our lives - whether by ridding ourselves of "stuff" we do not need, or simply un-cluttering our heart and mind and making room for everything else. The desert can be the harshest teacher of all... but if you pay attention and you listen carefully, you may just find your True Self, move past your inner demons and encounter the Divine.

[1] In the Middle Ages, hermits often lived near major cities in order to work as ferry-men or gate keepers to earn wages, so that they could continue their lifestyle when and where possible.
[2] Magdy, Kero. "Fr. Lazarus Al-Anthony." YouTube. YouTube, 07 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 June 2016. .

No comments:

Post a Comment