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We often fail to do what we think or say we want to because we convince ourselves we will fail. ‘Not even worth trying’. Sometimes we justify this by blaming people or circumstances for making it impossible. ‘If I was able to live the easy life of a monk or live in a meditation centre, I’d meditate all day. If I had a degree in counselling, I could spend time with people in need of attention. If I wasn’t a monk in a community, I’d have time for lots of good works.’
We all do it. But the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century didn’t. They came from all levels of society and different cultures. In common, they simply shared an insatiable hunger for God, which they may have tried to suppress, and an awareness of their own limitations which made them leave everything in order make God the centre of their life. They had an air extremism about them, therefore, which made many put them on an unwanted pedestal. There are stories of monks running deeper into the desert solitude to avoid the tourists who came to have selfies with them. Some individual monks had exaggerated reputation for ascetical extremism – surviving on stale bread and water – which made them seem different from ordinary mortals to the to the point of being a bit insane.
In the collections of sayings and stories collected by genuine followers not mystical celebrity-hunters, we can see what they were really like: in fact how extremely moderate they were and how humanly approachable in their remoteness. Some stories instructively mock the monk who savours his reputation for self-denial and becomes a spiritual exhibitionist. They tell stories of genuine ascetics who without drawing attention to it, break their usual fast to dine with visitors who have come from afar to see them. Rowan Williams’ book on the desert wisdom, based on his John Main Seminar of that title, is called ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ – because sometimes the authentic life of the desert was lived in deep silence and sometimes they enjoyed desserts. The only absolute in their lives was God, not the means by which they prepared themselves to know and be known by Him. The stories that describe the monks who by faith and humility have entered into a luminously loving state capture the essence of the desert – for us in the future as well.
For the Christian of the future the wisdom of the Desert is essential inspiration. Karl Rahner, the great theologian of the 20th century, said that ‘the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not be a Christian anymore’. He describes a mystic simply as a person who has known  ‘genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence’. You don’t have to go the desert for that, and the fathers and mothers of the desert were the first to say so: ‘You can be a solitary in your mind even if you live in a crowd. And you can be solitary in the desert but still live in the crowd of your own thoughts’.
The desert is not a place but a state or direction of mind. Prayer is a gift we prepare ourselves for in the unique way best suited to ourselves.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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