“Desert Wisdom”

Last Spring, at the beginning of my sabbatical, I spent a couple of weeks in the desert. I drove north out of the village of Abiquiu, NM, past Ghost Ranch, and toward the dirt land that leads to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert where I would spend a week in solitude and silence. The landscape captivated me completely—the deep red clay soil, the ancient sage bushes and the bold blue sky. Rock formations towered above the desert plains, layered and weathered works of art, brilliant with reds, oranges, yellows, and purples.

During my week at the monastery, I did a lot of reading. I chanted the psalms with the monks. I appreciated their warm hospitality at meals and I put up with their seemingly endless mealtime reading, which, to me was mired in bad and painful theology. And I wandered. It was a simple practice of walking and noticing. I would amble down the dusty, deserted road until a path would draw me in. I climbed into the hills. I explored rocky canyons. I hiked down dry creek beds that clearly raged with water during heavy rains. I studied rocks, collected rocks. I molded wet clay in my hands. I talked to myself. I sang. I listened to the birds and the wind.

This fall, I’ve been leading a couple of small groups about desert spirituality. The ancient desert mothers and fathers were women and men who chose to leave society and the church in order to live in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. This desert movement occurred at least partially in response to the co-option of Christianity as it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Mary Earle, Episcopal priest and author of The Desert Mothers, has been our conversation partner in these groups. She remarks:

The desert is not only a place, it is a way. . . . The desert is a way of living, of learning to be fully human, of learning to love. . . . In the desert tradition, the primordial sin is the sin of forgetting—forgetting that God brings us into being and that each life is a treasure, forgetting that at the end we return to God. (The Desert Mothers, Mary Earle, Chapter 2)

The desert way offers freedom—specifically the freedom to remember who we really are. The Exodus story reminds us that freedom is hard. In the desert, the people quickly grew hungry and thirsty. They lived with the constant stress of not knowing whether they would have food and water. Life was incredibly chaotic, as they made do without any of the possessions they had left behind. Again and again, amid the challenges of the desert, the people panicked. Exodus 16 says:

The whole congregation complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (verse 3)

In their desperation, the people retreated into self-delusion. They willfully forgot what slavery was really like. They buried their yearnings to be free. They turned away from God and God’s liberating presence. In Exodus 17, even after receiving the gift of manna and quails, they once again grew forgetful in the stress of not being able to find water. At that point, their complaining turned into quarrelling. It got so bad that Moses feared for his life, and he cried out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Likely, we have been led to believe that the book of Exodus is important as history. However, I think of the Israelites’ process of learning to live as free people over 40 years of wandering in the desert, as a kind of parable. In their self-delusion and forgetfulness I see us. In the complaint and even violent rage of people who are stressed out and afraid amid a chaotic and quickly changing world, I see us.

A few weeks ago I happened to sit down at a table of women after church. Somehow we began talking about the “#me too” campaign and the conversation quickly went deep. One of the women told us her story of experiencing sexual harassment at work. The headlines are continuing to pile up, as if some kind of dam has broken, releasing in great volume truth too long suppressed, flooding our minds and hearts with the all-pervasive nature of this abusive behavior. And then there’s last Sunday’s shooting and all the hundreds of mass shootings that have happened this year. With chilling regularity, men (particularly white men) are taking out their rage on large groups of innocent people. People of all genders are injured by our toxic way of constructing masculinity and femininity.

Even as the people of Israel succumbed to delusional thinking and violent rebellion, God’s presence and provision remained constant. God patiently taught them how to live as free people. God gave them a rhythm of life that anchored them and nourished them even in the stress and chaos of the desert. In the evening, quails. In the morning, manna. What the hell is this stuff? That’s the meaning of the name, “manna.” No wonder the people were puzzled, no wonder they didn’t recognize manna as bread right way, because it was much more than food; it was a spiritual teaching. They practiced gathering just enough and no more—enough and only enough for each day. When they tried to save some for tomorrow, it grew rotten and wormy. They learned to trust, day by day. But on the sixth day, they learned to gather extra manna. Because on the seventh day, they stopped and they rested. They came to know the practice of Sabbath as the ultimate experience of freedom.

My time in the desert is leading me to explore a form of contemplation known as centering prayer. Centering prayer, as I understand it, is grounded in the idea that God is within us. When we willingly let go of our ordinary awareness for a time—that constant stream of ego-driven thoughts—then we commune with our deeper self, our spiritual awareness, the part of ourselves that is intertwined with God. For me, centering prayer is becoming a structure and a rhythm of life that allows me a to receive the gift of manna in the desert, to dwell in the constancy of God’s presence and provision. Cynthia Bourgeault, author of Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, writes:

I enter the cave of my heart and discover there that God is alive and interpenetrating, in, of, and around, illumining and enflaming all. . . . This “in here” vision of God is not only closer to the vision of Jesus and the mystics; it is also increasingly confirmed by the discoveries of contemporary scientific understanding. . . . Contemplation…is not a special gift. It is simply seeing from the perspective of oneness, or in other words, from the level of our spiritual awareness. It can indeed be practiced, and over time, with sincerity and persistence, it becomes an abiding state of consciousness. (pp.76-77)

I believe that the oppressive and violent forces that shape us and our culture are both a cause and a sign of our spiritual alienation. Perpetrators and victims alike are adrift from our true selves, cut off from our spiritual awareness and from the abiding presence of God within us. The desert is not only a place, it is a way.

I believe that we, and our world, desperately need this way. Together let us be on the way to freedom. Let us come to trust day by day, that there is enough. Let us learn to stop and rest, to receive the gift of Sabbath. Let us place at the center of our lives the work that make us whole—loving ourselves, loving our neighbors, loving God.