This PS is an adaptation of an article published by Belfast Bible College and is used with permission (https://www.facebook.com/BelfastBibleCollege/photos/a.250728314988600/2933919253336146/).
In the late third century men and women chose the self-isolation of the Syrian and Egyptian deserts to devote themselves to exploring the spiritual life. Their spirituality was marked by a radical commitment to Christ’s call to poverty, humility and other virtues. It was also marked by separation from mainstream society in order to seek solitude.
As we are beginning to emerge from a period of enforced isolation (a desert as it were), either totally alone or in households, the desert tradition has wisdom to guide us.
A variety of motives led people to the desert. Many did it as a protest against a church that had lost its radical focus on discipleship after the conversion of the emperor. Given our current situation of being in lock-down, it is interesting to note that for others this lifestyle was not chosen quite so freely. Swan (2001, 7–11) records that some moved to the desert to avoid persecution, restrictive laws – and most relevant to us – epidemics.
Two aspects of the wisdom from this tradition may be instructive for us. First, the solitude of the desert is a place in which we get to know ourselves better. And in getting to know ourselves better, we get to know God better. In the desert our illusions about ourselves are stripped away. This is demonstrated in stories about some who sought to avoid the sin of anger by seeking complete solitude in the desert. However, they found that even without their annoying brothers and sisters around they still became angry when things did not go their way. The desert revealed to them that the fault was within, not with other people.
This process of dis-illusionment can be uncomfortable. The desert tradition often speaks of it in terms of battles with demons – the demons being what is within us. So, perhaps we should not be surprised if this period of isolation has caused us to face uncomfortable emotions and to learn things about ourselves. Recognising how difficult this process can be the desert fathers and mothers, although valuing solitude, also valued community and did not advocate solitariness. Bonhoeffer reflects this desert wisdom when he writes, ‘Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community … But the reverse is also true. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone’ (2004, 82–3).
The second thing the desert tradition teaches is that the desert is a place for the reordering of priorities. Indifference is not normally seen as a virtue, but the desert fathers and mothers actively practised it. They made a deliberate effort to be indifferent about things that, according to their reading of the gospels, did not matter in life. Such things included, wealth, prestige, reputation and success. On the other hand, they paid careful attention to what did matter: humility, non-judgementalism, poverty and the care of their souls.
As we are now beginning to emerge from our enforced desert experience of the lockdown it will take effort to notice and retain what the experience has taught us. The insights that we have gained into our hidden selves will have to be integrated into our lives as they return to some semblance of normality. And, paradoxically, the indifference toward things that have been shown to not matter will take a lot of effort to maintain as we engage with work, our social lives and living in a resurgent consumer society.
Bonhoeffer, D. et al. (2004) Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Swan, L. (2001) The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women. Paulist Press.
Peter McDowell is Lecturer in Missiology with Practical Theology at Belfast Bible College.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.