Saturday, May 12, 2012

"In the Deserts of the Heart, Let the Healing Fountain Start": From the Desert Sands of Egypt to the Desert Within

In one of the comments on a previous post, a reader asks: “How do you think those of us living in this world with our many and various responsibilities can access/simulate the experience of the hermits?”  Certainly, the question can be approached in a number of ways and I tried to address it in some measure in my initial response to the comment.  But I have continued to think about this question throughout the past few days and in my own studies I came across what I think is a good starting point for further discussion on the matter.  I am currently reading John Chryssavgis’ book “In the Heart of the Desert”.  The question he asks is “Why the desert?”  Why did the elders choose to go there in the first place and what significance does it have in its own right and for those of us who live in the city?

Please forgive the long series of quotes, but in them Chryssavgis captures so beautifully how the desert suggests something both deeply spiritual and personal.  Each paragraph is worthy of our reflection as we begin our approach to the Fathers.  Chryssavgis writes: 

“‘Desert’ (eremos) literally means ‘abandonment’; it is the term from which we derive ‘hermit’.  The areas of desertedness were where the demons bred. . .There is no water in the desert, and in the mind of the Jews that was the ultimate curse.  No water also meant no life.  The desert signified death; nothing grows in the desert.  Your very existence is, therefore, threatened.  In the desert you will find no one and no thing.  In the desert you can only face up to yourself and to every aspect of your self, to your temptations, and to your reality.  You confront your own heart, and your heart’s deepest desires, without any scapegoat, without any hiding place.”

“Yet the desert was also endowed with sacred significance for Jews and Christians alike.  The Israelites had wandered in the desert for forty years.  It was there that Moses saw God.  It was there that John the Baptist preached the coming of the Messiah.  Indeed, it was in the desert that Jesus Himself began His ministry; it was in the wilderness that He was first tempted by the demons. . .  .”  

“So the desert, while accursed, was never seen as an empty region.  It was a place that was full of action.  It was a space that provided an opportunity, and even a calling, for divine vision.  In the desert, you were invited to shake off all forms of idolatry, all kinds of earthly limitations, in order to behold - or rather, to be held before - an image of the heavenly God.  There, you were confronted with another reality, with the presence of a boundless God, whose grace was without any limits at all.”

“The desert is an attraction beyond oneself; it is an invitation to transfiguration.  It was neither a better way, nor an easier way.  The desert elders were not out to prove a point; they were there to prove themselves. . . Nothing should be held back in this surrender.  It is all or nothing.  The abandonment to God is absolute.”  

“The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat.  It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace.  It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape.  It is a place of repentance, not recuperation.  Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God.  Anthony and the other desert dwellers never forgot this.  They never sought to cut off their connections to other people instantly.  They rather sought to refine these relationships increasingly.”  

However, Chrssavgis is quick to point out that the meaning of the desert extends far beyond the sands of Egypt.  It speaks of a personal way applicable to each of our lives.  It is a “spiritual way that was present everywhere, including the large and busy cities.  ‘It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was someone who was his equal in the city.  He was a doctor by profession.  Whatever he had beyond his needs, he would give to the poor; and every day he sang hymns with the angels.’ 

“It is the clear understanding of these elders that one does not have to move to the geographical location of the wilderness in order to find God.  Yet, if you do not have to go to the desert, you do have to go through the desert. . . Everyone does go through the desert in one shape or another.  it may be in the form of suffering or emptiness, or breakdown or any other kind of trauma that occurs in our life.  Dressing this desert up through our addictions or attachments . . . will delay the utter loneliness and inner fearfulness of the desert experience.  If we go through this experience involuntarily, then it can be both overwhelming and crushing.  If, however, we accept to undergo this experience voluntarily, then it can prove both constructive and liberating.  The physical setting of the desert is a symbol, a powerful reminder of a spiritual space that is within us all.”

The deserts of Egypt and the experiences of the elders may seem far removed from those who live many centuries later, but in reality they speak of that which is closest to us - to the desert within the human heart, the place where we too must make the ultimate surrender to God and abandon ourselves to Him, the place where we must fight the good fight of faith, struggle with our own inner demons and wait for God in the silence of prayer.

****All quotes taken from “In the Heart of the Desert” by John Chryssavgis, World Wisdom, Inc. 2003,  pp. 33-36