The Desert as a Place of the World's Transformation According to Eastern Asceticism
Out of the Depths I Have Called unto You
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and the earth was waste and void" (Genesis 1.1). It was empty, a desert, dead.
The desert is a desolating place, awful, avoided because often it is synonymous with death. Often an adventure in the desert, wandering there, living there is an adventure of life and death. The risks are numerous and not minor. We think of wild animals, the lack of water and food, the burning sun, the devastating winds, the overwhelming solitude. To get lost in the desert is sure death. This is the place where monks and nuns with-drew to live. Curious and bizarre choice! As though they were looking for death at any cost!
However, they did not look for death, but for salvation. They were looking for purification,1 for God. They knew what they knew! Who taught them that the desert changes one so much? That it draws one so much nearer to God? Indeed, the man of the desert is different from the man of the world.
One of the starting points of monasticism, which is the way of the desert, was the wish to take the cross and to follow Christ in suffering and death, to actualize in another way the martyrical life from the time of persecution.
These people, who have shown the world that when the way seems impossible, the impossible is the way, as Paul Evdokimov said, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, these people of the impossible2 wanted to accomplish in their life the sixth beatitude of our Lord: "Blessed are those with pure hearts for they will see God" (Matthew 5,8). They wanted to achieve as much as possible purity of heart in order to acquire the vision of God. And for this aim they chose the desert.3 They decided to start a new life, to form a new identity, a new heart; and they needed a new place, too.
The desert produces a different type of man, a new way of being, it offers a special understanding of life, a different look at things. The desert spiritualizes one's being because here one must place oneself totally in the hands of God. The desert will pull one out of time. It is the spatial representation of kairos, while the world is the spatial representation of the chronos.
The chronos is program, schedule, occupation, division, fragmentation, spreading out, wasting, loss. Kairos is the appropriate moment, concentration, gathering, fulfillment, overflowing, continuation, permanence, lasting, durability. And, in spite of the fact that the desert, by its immensity, can appear a wasteland, suggesting disorientation, it brings together, helps one to find oneself, strengthens, facilitates communion, unity.
Through its stillness, the desert helps one to come "home", to concentrate on the higher values of life, to realize spiritual equilibrium. "Thus man, having entered wholly within himself, becomes aware of himself and awaits within himself the coming of God and the divine transformation."4 Did the Holy Fathers go into the desert to populate it and to introduce there the divisions of the chronos, of the world from which they came, or did they retreat to find there the spirit of immensity, of the infinite, thus responding to the human soul's eternal nostalgia for the infinite, the nostalgia for God?
In a way, they did both, but especially they populated the desert, thus taking it out of the limits of its definition as a place of death, of fear, of loss and giving it a new definition, transforming it into a place of spiritual warmth, of communion with God, of salvation. At the same time, they came there to look for God, to find God, to dedicate themselves to God.
And they did find God. The desert facilitated this encounter, because in the desert, one depends solely on God. In the world, too, one depends solely on God, but there one also has the impression of self-dependence in many ways, or one forgets on whom to depend, while the desert does not allow one to forget on whom one depends.
That is why the man of the desert is different. More mystical, more silent, more faithful, better able to meditate, and stronger. That is why Matthew Fox could say that "only mystics should teach in science labs. Awe and wonder need to return".5
That is the way we can understand how, sometimes, people with little instruction in the schools of this world, after a lifetime spent in the desert, wrote and left behind teachings which were not surpassed by any philosophy of the world, teachings that changed man's way of being, which were introduced in schools and daily practice, which were at the foundation of the spiritual structures of the world. These were the people of the desert, anonymous heroes, most of them!
They knew what the desert meant, that it was the place of demons, especially in the biblical under-standing of the term. The Old Testament clearly shows this, speaking, for instance, about Azazel (Leviticus) who was the demon of the desert or the place of demons in the desert.
They knew Jesus was tempted in the desert and people possessed by demons were often banished to the wilderness. However, this is the place where monks and nuns chose to live, to struggle, to better themselves, to create a new world. It was as if they wanted to chase the demons from earth completely. If the demons lived mostly in the desert, by populating the desert, the monks and nuns gave the demons no possibility to live anywhere in the world, and definitively forced them to leave it.
Pure Heart and Dispassion
This heroism, courage, and struggle on the part of the monks and nuns, was undertaken on behalf of the whole of humanity. They humanized the wilderness and made it no longer the place of demons, but the place of God. The place where God speaks to man (Hosea 2,16); they made of their pure heart a desert6 in order to receive better the word of God and to let this word have a profound echo with a permanent reverberation in their lives. Meister Eckhart teaches that the detachment from the nothingness of all things leads to the purification of the heart,7 to the internalization of the desert.
Monasticism always made the connection between the incarnation of God, the pure human nature in Jesus Christ, and the childlikeness and the pure heart required for our deification.
The pure heart is a way of deification; it paves the way to God and makes one susceptible to the divine inflowing.8 The pure heart thus was understood by monastics to be a way of being in the world.
Liberation from sin and the achievement of purity of heart in monasticism are related to what is called "dispassion", which is freeing oneself from his or her compulsive self.9 Meister Eckhart writes that dispassion as well as dispossession consists of detachment and is a virtue above all virtues; it is the closest virtue to nothingness and in that, more than everything else, it brings us closer to God.10 Dispassion is the freedom from worldly passions - it is changing the object of passion. This is a passion for Christ in His pain and death and joy and glory of Resurrection; in this sense, dispassion, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says, will be just a re-channeling of the personal energies, of the spiritual and inner enthusiasm of the human being for new and saving values as he or she advances in the direction of God. Passion for Christ is love for Christ. In this case, dispassion is not equivalent with apathia, non-passion, but as we mentioned above, it is just a re-channeling of one's enthusiasm. In fact, dispassion, dispossession from the worldly things and empassion for Christ - as passion implies the natural enthusiasm of humans for something - is a re-establishment of the state of enthusiasm in its real and authentic condition: God in us.
It is to be possessed by God, to be in God, overwhelmed by God, overwhelmed by what you have holy in yourself, the image of God discovered in the depth of the person, even through the darkness of sin, of separation, as we sing in the Orthodox funeral service: "The image of your glory I am, o God, even if I carry the wounds of sin!"
This "even if" gives priority to the image of God in us indicating the real state and condition of man: God in us, which is enthusiasm. The Fathers and the Mothers of the desert really re-established the human being as an enthusiastic being. No enthusiasm means death. That is the light in which we must understand the answer given by St. Gregory Palamas to Barlaam, on dispassion, when Palamas specified that dispassion is not the death of passion but the conversion of passion from lower values to higher values,11 which, as Joseph Pieper says, is primarily a form of turning toward those values.12 It is all about internalizing.
"The ascetics interiorized the desert and for them this signified the concentration of a silent and recollected spirit. At this level, where the human being knows to keep silence, true prayer is fund and the being is mysteriously visited,"13 and taken into the "now of eternity" of God.14
Speak, God, Your servant is listening
Why did St. John the Baptist, and afterwards Jesus, often preach in the desert? To whom could they preach in the desert? They knew what they were doing. They pulled the world (people) out of the world and they talked to them in the wilderness, where the soul leaves chronos and comes into kairos, where the soul's preparation is accomplished by the place itself, a place which sensitized them, helped them to see more realistically their place before God.
The desert, a place of silence where man becomes so powerful, but also a place of confrontation: with evil, with wrong tendencies, with self. The desert is the place of self-verification, of self-proving. "The desert evokes man's latent capacity for initiative, exploration, evaluation. It interrupts his ordinary pattern of life. It intercepts the stultifying process of conventional, routine piety. It disengages him from the regular sound of respectable human activities. Man learns to be still, alert, perceptive, re-collected so that issues become clear, reality becomes recognizable and unambiguous. He knows God, not abstractions about God, not even the theology of God, but the much more mysterious and mighty God of theology – the God of Abraham, of Moses, of Elias, of Peter, Paul and John, of the fathers of the desert, the God of saints and the God of sinners. The words God spoke through Hosea are always significant: ‘I shall espouse you in faith, lead you into the desert and speak to your heart.' This desert tradition is a long one, stretching back into the Old Testament, and it is a wide one, spreading beyond the Christian tradition to wherever men seek God."15
The desert is the best place for humans to rebuild the world, the human life. "That is what God has in mind when God calls us into the desert."16 So, it is out of the world that the world can be restored.
But, for such a kind of toil, it is necessary to have a discipline of the desert, as the Holy Fathers mention. This discipline of the desert is, most of the time, rigorous and uncomfortable. One can feel it like the people of Israel felt it when they arrived in the desert after their release from Egyptian slavery; people felt uncomfortable and miserable, just as they came from another misery, that of slavery.
St. Gregory of Nyssa gives a very nice metaphorical explanation for living in the desert, speaking about the story with the bitter waters of Mara (Exodus 15, 23); he says the monk may feel uncomfortable and in pain when he leaves the world with all its sweetness, but, in fact, he is freed from slavery. Coming into the desert, into solitude, he will have the bitter taste of this kind of life. But if he will put the wood in the waters, as God revealed, the waters will become good and will make life possible. This wood with which he has sweetened the waters is the wood of Resurrection because the Resurrection began on and with the wood.17
Since the desert is the place where one stands before God and is alone with God, one can hear God in humility, as the prophets of the Old Testament said: "Speak, God, your servant is listening!" One receives the word of God, builds his or her life on this word and lets the word of God work on one's spirit, to change the person, to renew the mind, to deepen the understanding so that one can see exactly where he or she is and where God is.
That is why God brings man into the desert. Because this is the place of discovery. And in these new circumstances, when humans speak to God, they will be transfigured by faith, by the consciousness of God's presence. That makes the word of prayer become a true and living word: "Out of the depths I cried to you, o God, listen to the voice of my prayer."18
Silence as the Home of Being
To speak of silence is a hard task. Probably in order to do it well one would have to abide by the exhortation implied in the Latin proverb: si tacuisses philosophus mansisses. Silence relates us to everything and first of all to the great silence before creation; in that case silence in ourselves is an anamnesis, a recapitulation of this great silence; at the same time our silence will create a bridge between us and the silence existent in all things.
Through the recapitulation of things in our own silence, we will create the opportunity for things to capitulate. To capitulate is to leave any kind of ambition and to obey God - in this case. It is the right position coram Deo, the position which God assigned to everything He created. This is a participative and integrative position which is supposed to be man's normal being in the world.19
If, through sin, human nature was corrupted and lost the right position before God, since man is part of creation, all creation lost its right position before God. That is why human beings through their silence, participating through grace and faith in the silence of God, while also being in communion with the silence in things, bring them into the space of the human silence and re-capitulates them. Man gives them the opportunity of capitulation again and again simultaneously with man's own capitulation because his or her silence became the place of his or her own self-capitulation. In this way, man, through the renunciation of ambitions and arrogance, will come back to the due obedience and so will regain the right position coram Deo.
This process of reconciliation with God and with the cosmos, by the overcoming of the separation introduced by sin between humans and things and God, is man's duty, a duty which he or she accomplishes by the grace of the loving God.
Since silence as renunciation of arrogance facilitates the exclusion of separation, reconciliation, recapitulation, it also makes possible anamnesis. To remember all things is like giving them a name again, like rebaptizing the whole creation, like repeating the work of Adam. To give a name again is to know, to recognize, to confirm into existence, to rearrange in the right place.
Silence as anamnesis is the place and the circumstance which again situates a human being at the heart of creation in order that he or she may dominate it in the most creative, loving and saving way, as Pico della Mirandola says: "I placed you in the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you could with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains."20
The overcoming through silence of the separations present within human nature and also between human nature and God and things, confers onto the silence a perichoretical dimension, in this precise sense that we enter, through our silence, in communion, in a kind of interpenetration with all other silences in the universe, in things. This is because the nature of silence is the same anywhere and anytime; therefore, entering into communion with things themselves, we realize consciously and mystically the unity of the whole creation and communion with God.
But, if in the mystical space of silence, this recapitulation is achieved, the aim of this achievement is related to the future. In silence, the past and the future merge in this sense that the past is worked in view of another future state or condition. This future, as Fr. Staniloae states, "is never closed back in on itself."21 On the contrary, in God, all dimensions of time are bound together.22
This training of the past in a dynamic way toward the future, in the "space" of silence, gives to silence a holistic, efficient and eschatological dimension. The unity of creation, the communion with God, is a goal to be fulfilled; through our silence, we are on our way to this accomplishment, but always being in the grace of God, assisted all the time by the Holy Spirit at work in us.
We are in this holy journey at work in collab-oration with God, even if it is the duty of humans to restore what they themselves destroyed! Being helped by the grace of God through our willingness to receive it, this silent openness will be like a permanent prayer for God's collaboration through the Holy Spirit in our work. This is what makes silence to have an epiclectical dimension as well; silence will be a continuing personal epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit to come and to sanctify our intentions, our work, our life, our world.
In our intentions to work for the restoration and transfiguration of the world, silence then, is a keystone. It is in the depth of this silence that we become, it is through these intensions, our inner tensions that form our new identity that we can reach deep within ourselves to our inner energies and strength; silence is then power, decision and enthusiasm. With these tools we can start any action with all chances of fulfillment.
Silence is such a powerful tool in moments of indecision, doubt, fear and crisis because it is self-collection. St. Symeon the New Theologian speaks about the mystery of self-collection23 and relates it to solitude. Self-collection is understood as silence (hesycheia).24 In this sense, silence is again an anamnesis, a recapitulation.
Indeed, solitude facilitates self-collection, the collection from the wasting or spreading in many things, the realization of a person's unity. This is why for Meister Eckhart the practice of the solitude of the spirit is a "must".25 This comes through detachment as the fourth century Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom exhorts: "Let us put away all earthly care," in order to prepare to enter the great silence of The Crucified.
We do not know exactly how this silence operates in ourselves, how this "recueillement" brings us home from our personal diaspora. But, what is certain is the fact that it helps us to come "home" to dwell in our spirit and this is the way we become powerful, with a strength and a new sense of our personality and identity. Silence as "home" is the answer we give to God when, as we distance ourselves from Him, He calls us asking: Quo vadis Homo?
Fr. Dr. Theodor Damian
1. Archim. Ioanichie Balan, Shepherd of Souls: the Life and Teachings of Elder Cleopa, Master of Inner Prayer and Spiritual Father of Romania (1912-1998), St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000, p. 54.
2. Emilianos Timiadis, Le monachisme orthodoxe hier-demain, Ed. Buchet/Chastel, Paris, 1981, p. 14.
3. F. Vanderbrouke, Le moine dans l'Eglise du Christ, Ed. du Mont César, Louvain, 1947, p. 20.
4. Georgios Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1984, p. 85.
5. Matthew Fox, "Biophilia or Necrophilia? The Most Important Spiritual Question of our Time", Spiritual Questions for the Twenty First Century, edited by Mary Hembrow Snyder, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001, p. 144.
6. St. John Cassian, "The Third Conference on the Relaxation during the Fifty Days", ch. 28, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, XI, Ed. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, W.B. Eerdman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1955, p. 515.
7. Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, Transl. and Introd. by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, Preface by Huston Smith, Paulist Press, New York, 1981, pp. 285-294.
8. Ibidem, p. 293.
9. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Desert Wisdom; Sayings from the Desert Fathers, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001, p. XV.
10. Meister Eckhart, op. cit., p. 286.
11. St. Gregory Palamas, "Defense of the Hesychasts", see Georgios Mantzaridis, op. cit., p. 79.
12. Joseph Pieper, The Concept of Sin, St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2001, p. 57.
13. Paul Evdokimov, Les Ages de la Vie Spirituelle, Ed. Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1964, p. 171.
14. Meister Eckhart, op. cit., p. 76.
15. William McNamara, "The Prolonged Retreat; A Contemplative Experience", in Call to Adventure, Ed. by Raymond J. Magee, Abingdon Press, New York, 1967, p. 95.
17. Gregory of Nyssa, From Glory to Glory, Transl. by H. Musurillo, Introd. by J. Daniélou, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1961, p. 92.
18. Verse from Psalms sung in the Vesper Office in Eastern Orthodox Church.
19.Theodor Damian, Theological and Spiritual Dimensions of Icons According to St. Theodore of Studion, The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, 2002, p. 20.
20. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, Gateway Edition, Chicago, 1956, p. 7.
21.Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brooklyne, Mass. 2000, p. 196.
22.Megan McKenna, Christ All Merciful, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2002, p. 27.
23. Symeon le Nouveau Theologien, Traités Théologiques et Ethiques II, ch. XIV, 135, trad. par J. Darrouzes, Ed. du Cerf, Paris, 1967, p. 455.
24. The word "hesycheia" is translated in French by J. Darrouzes A.A. by "recueillement". In English "recueillement" would be self-collection as moment in the spiritual life; it is to collect oneself, to collect one's thoughts. It is interesting to notice here the similarity between the very meaning of the word "intelligo" which through the Greek lego, means separation of something in many pieces, but also the recollection, the bringing together of these many pieces, and the word "silence" in its connotation as "recueillment", self-collection from a waste, a separation, spreading, dispersion. Is silence intelligence? Maybe this is the reason for which si tacuisses philosophus mansisses!
25. Meister Eckhart, op. cit., p. 253.