Why did these elders choose the desert in the first place? What was the significance of the desert? What is the power of its suggestion?
“Desert” (eremos, epnpos) literally means “abandonment”; it is the term from which we derive the word “hermit”. The areas of desertedness were where the demons bred. In the Book of Leviticus, the desert is the place that is accursed (Lev.16.21). There is no water in the desert, and in the mind of the Jews that was the ultimate curse. No water also meant no life. The desert signified death: nothing grows in the desert. Your very existence is, therefore, threatened. In the desert you will find no one and no thing. In the desert, you can only face up to yourself and to every aspect of your self, to your temptations, and to your reality. You confront your own heart, and your heart’s deepest desires, without any scapegoat, without any hiding place. It is in the desert that Jacob battled; and it is in the desert that you do battle with the unruly forces of your nature within and without. The desert was filled with the presence of the demonic.
Abba Elias said: “An old man was living in a temple of the desert, and the demons came to him, saying: ‘Leave this place; it belongs to us.'”1
Yet, the desert was also endowed with sacred significance for Jews and Christians alike. The Israelites had wandered in the desert for forty years. It was there that Moses saw God. It was there that John the Baptist preached the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, it was in the desert that Jesus Himself began His ministry; it was in the wilderness that He was first tempted by the demons (Matt. 4.1-10); and it was in the craggy areas of the Judaean mountains that He periodically withdrew to be alone and to pray (Matt. 14.23). In fact, the early monks believed that a reference in the Letter to the Galatians may also imply a brief sojourn by Paul in the desert of Arabia immediately following his conversion.
When God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, so that I might proclaim Him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus. (Gal. 1.15-17)
So the desert, while accursed, was never seen as an empty region. It was a place that was full of action. It was not an area of scenic views, in the modern sense of a tourist attraction. It was a space that provided an opportunity, and even a calling, for divine vision. In the desert, you were invited to shake off all forms of idolatry, all kinds of earthly limitations, in order to behold—or, rather, to be held before—an image of the heavenly God. There, you were confronted with another reality, with the presence of a boundless God, whose grace was without any limits at all. You could never avoid that perspective of revelation. After all, you cannot hide in the desert; there is no room for lying or deceit there. Your very self is reflected in the dry desert, and you are obliged to face up to this self. Anything else would constitute a dangerous illusion, not a divine icon. Abba Alonios states this quite simply:
Abba Alonios said: “If one does not say in one’s heart, that in the world there is only myself and God, then one will simply not gain peace.”2
The desert is an attraction beyond oneself; it is an invitation to transfiguration. It was neither a better way, nor an easier way. The desert elders were not out to prove a point; they were there to prove themselves. Antony advises complete renunciation in this effort to hold God before one’s eyes at all times:
Abba Antony also said: “Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember Him who gives death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God. Remember what you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the Day of Judgment. Suffer hunger; suffer thirst; suffer nakedness; be watchful and sorrowful; weep and groan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may preserve your souls.”3
Nothing should be held back in this surrender. It is all or nothing. The abandonment to God is absolute. As a result, the rewards are either fruitful or else frightening.
A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor. However, he kept back just a little for his personal expenses and needs. He went to see Abba Antony. When he told him of this, the old man said to him: “If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with this meat, and then come here like that.” The brother did so. And the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back, the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. The brother simply showed Antony his wounded body. Saint Antony said: “Those who renounce the world but choose to keep back even a little for themselves are torn in this way by the demons.”4
The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God. Antony and the other desert dwellers never forgot this. They never sought to cut off their connections to other people instantly. They sought rather to refine these relationships increasingly.
Of course, the desert was, on a deeper level, always more than simply a place. It was a way. And it was not the desert that made the Desert Fathers and Mothers, any more than it was the lion that made the martyrs.5 The Sayings contain many stories that reveal the desert as a spiritual way that was present everywhere, including the large and busy cities.
It was revealed to Abba Antony in his desert that there was someone who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession. Whatever he had beyond his needs, he would give to the poor; and every day he sang hymns with the angels.6
It is the clear understanding of these elders that one does not have to move to the geographical location of the wilderness in order to find God. Yet, if you do not have to go to the desert, you do have to go through the desert. The Desert Fathers and Mothers always speak from their experience of the desert, even if they do not actually come out of that desert. The desert is a necessary stage on the spiritual journey. To avoid it would be harmful. To dress it up or conceal it may be tempting; but it also proves destructive in the spiritual path.
Ironically, you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another. It may be in the form of some suffering, or emptiness, or breakdown, or breakup, or divorce, or any kind of trauma that occurs in our life. Dressing this desert up through our addictions or attachments—to material goods, or money, or food, or drink, or success, or obsessions, or anything else we may care to turn toward or may find available to depend upon—will delay the utter loneliness and the inner fearfulness of the desert experience. If we go through this experience involuntarily, then it can be both overwhelming and crushing. If, however, we accept to undergo this experience voluntarily, then it can prove both constructive and liberating.
The physical setting of the desert is a symbol, a powerful reminder of a spiritual space that is within us all. In the United States, the grand desert of Arizona can assist us in recalling that inner space where we yearn for God. In Australia, the frightening outback can also guide us in our search for that heavenly “dream-time.” In Egypt, the sandy dunes of the desert resembled the unending search of these abbas and ammas for “abundant life” (John 10.10) and “a living spring of water” (John 4.14).
1. Elias 7.
2. Alonios 1.
3. Antony 33.
4. Antony 20.
5. Cf. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, ed. Β Ward (Oxford: SLG Press, 1975), p. vii (Foreword by Anthony Bloom).
6. Antony 24. See also K. Ware, “The Monk and the Married Christian,” Eastern Churches Review & (1974): 72-83.