Sand tunnels Sand tunnels

Seeking God in the Desert

Article by Sr Liz Rees OCR

The Church has seen many revolutions. People have heard God calling them, and have been led into an ever increasing variety of life-styles. In this way the Spirit is expressed in human lives more and more richly. Some three hundred years after the death of Jesus, a revolution happened in the Church: men and women began to leave civilized life and move into the Egyptian desert in an attempt to live a life focused on God. Gradually these hermits began to share their life with one another, in worship, fellowship and mutual guidance. From Egypt they spread abroad to Syria, Asia Minor, Italy, Ireland and Gaul. Their way of life became the foundation for the future development of Christian life-styles in the East and in the West.  Their pithy sayings were popular in The Middle Ages, and they are worth exam­ining today.

Prudent advice

First, each monk built his hut. This was the place where he would discover himself and dis­cover God: "A brother went to Father Moses and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: "Go, sit in your hut, and your hut will teach you everything." It was not a good idea to move house. An elder said: "Just as a tree cannot bear fruit if it is often transplanted, so neither can a monk bear fruit if he frequently changes his abode." If you stayed away from your hut, you would die like a fish out of water: "Father Anthony said, ' "Just as fish die if they remain on-dry land, so monks, remaining away from their huts, lose their determination to pray."

However, you had to learn more about your new lifestyle somehow. You had to go and ask advice from those older and wiser than you.

Dorotheus of Gaza said: "To stay in one's hut is one half; and to go and see the old men is the other half." It was a good idea to start off living as a disciple of one of them, so you could get a good grounding which would last a lifetime: "Father Isaiah said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy fathers, "As with purple dye, the first colouring is never lost." And later on, if you began to lose your sense of direction and became hardened, it was a good idea to go and join a wiser person than you: "A brother asked Father Paesios, "What should I do about my soul, because it is insensitive and does not fear God?" He replied, "Go and join a man who fears God, and live near him. He will teach you also to fear God."

But in general you should work out your own spiritual way, ascetic or less so, according to your temperament. "Father Mark once said to Father Arsenius, "It is good, is it not, to have nothing in your hut that gives you pleasure? For example,

I once knew a brother who had a little wild flower that came up in his hut and he pulled it out by the roots." "Well," said Father Arsenius, "That is all right. But each man should act according to his own spiritual way.

And if one were not able to get along without the flower, he should plant it again." Above all, you should trust your own judgement, and not let an unwise person harm you by his guidance: "A brother asked Father Poeman; "I am losing my soul, living near my father; should I go on living with him?" The old man knew that he was finding this harmful, and he was surprised that he even asked if he should stay there. So he said to him, "Stay if you want to." The brother left him, and stayed on. He came back again and said, "I am losing my soul." But the old man still did not tell him to leave. He came back a third time and said, "I really cannot stay there any longer." Then Father Poeman said, "Now you are saving yourself; go away and do not stay with him any longer." He added, "When someone sees that he is in danger of losing his soul, he does not need to ask advice."

Fraternal love

So one should make prudent decisions about people, but one should refuse to condemn them. Our own sin is all we are to condemn: "One of the brothers had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community. So then Father Bessarion got up and walked out with him saying. "I too am a sinner." We should love everyone as if they were saints: "Father Poeman said, "That man hates evil and who hates his own sins, and looks upon every brother as a saint and loves him as a saint." We should all think first of one another's needs: "A brother brought a bunch of grapes to Father Macarius, but he took it to another brother, who seemed sicker.

The sick man thanked God for his brother's kindness, but took it to someone else, and he did the same. So the bunch of grapes was passed all around the huts, scattered over the desert, until at last it reached Father Macarius again!"

Such generosity was not achieved without a struggle, and it was never achieved completely. "Father Abraham said: "The passions live. In the saints they are only to some extent bound." Struggle was constant, and to be expected." A brother who was disturbed in mind went to Father Theodore of Pherme and told him that he was troubled.

Father Theodore said, "Tell me now, how many years have you worn that habit?" The brother answered, "Eight." The old man replied, "Believe me, I have worn the habit seventy years, and have not yet found peace for a single day. Would you have peace in eight?"

Prayer vigil

You could best find peace if you remained silent and unknown: "Once the judge of the province came to see Father Simon. The old man took off his leather girdle, and climbed a palm tree and began to prune it. When the people came up to him they said, "Where is the old man who lives in solitude here?" Father Simon answered, "There is no solitary here." The judge went away. "It was better to be silent even than to discuss spiritual things: "Three fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year, and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent, and did not ask him anything.

After a long time, Father Anthony said to him, "You often come here to see me but you never ask me anything." He replied, "It is enough for me to see you, Father."

In your silence, prayer could flourish. Prayer would teach you everything: "One of the elders said, "Pray attentively, and you will soon straigh­ten out your thoughts." The more space you could create in your life for prayer, the better "It was also said of Father Arsenius that on Saturday evenings, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards heaven, till once again the sun shone on his face. Then he would sit down." But no one should be forced to stay awake and pray: "Some old men came to see Father Poeman and said to him, "When we see the brothers who are dozing at prayers, should we wake them up so they will be more watchful?" He replied, "Well, when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees, so he can rest."

In the end, love was the only thing that mattered, love from the heart: "Father Pambo said, "If you have a heart, you can be saved." Love knows no smallness, no half-measures: "Father Lot came to Father Joseph and said, "Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, my meditation and contemplative silence: and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?" The old man rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: "Why not be totally changed into fire?" We could never live like these fourth-century people of the desert, but let us aim like them, to be changed into fire.


The Desert Fathers: transl. Helen Waddell: Constable 1936

The Wisdom of the Desert: transl. T Merton: Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: transl. Benedicta Ward: Mowbray 1975

These wise sayings are still relevant for us today.   The monk’s hut was the place where he discovered God and himself.  It was a place of stability where he could engage in the spiritual battle without diversion or escape: a powerful challenge to the modern day Christian for whom there are so many distractions to a disciplined life of prayer.

The desert was an inhospitable environment: none of the mod cons that we rely on so much. 

Although, the fathers and mothers spent much time in solitude, one gets the impression that they also had mutually caring relationships; that they were generous towards each other as well as showing compassion in action to the sick and the poor.

 A person who was flagging spiritually would be encouraged to spend time in the presence of a “brother who fears God” – for he will teach you also to fear God.”  This seemed to be saying a lot about the attractiveness of holiness.  May this be our desire, as men and women who have given themselves to God through the vow of celibacy, to radiate God’s love in an infectious way. 

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