Last Thursday we met the Desert Mothers and Fathers and this week we will look at some of their practices that may help us on our spiritual journey.
Each month on Thursdays, I plan to write about a specific theme that helps us discover and explore people and practices that tend the holy. Spending several weeks on a topic will add depth to our spiritual walk.
Just as a reminder the Desert Mothers and Fathers lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. As Christianity became accepted as an approved faith and no longer opposed by the governments, Christians continued to hunger for a deeper relationship with God. Groups of men and women lived in the desert or just outside of the cities in the Middle East and became known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Many of them lived like hermits, living in caves but did gather into communities periodically. Others sought them out to learn from them so many of them were rarely alone. The lived a humble, simple existence.
We can gather ideas from how they practiced and lived their faith. A word of caution: some of the practices were pretty extreme so I am not going to mention or delve into all of their habits, but many practices are pertinent to our faith walk today.
The Desert Mothers and Father called silence “hesychia” which means inner quiet, rest, and stillness. Silence helped them with discernment and to hear God. We let go of all the external and internal chatter to draw near the whisper of God and discover the space between words. In practicing silence I am learning to be more selective in my words and often choosing not to speak just to make my opinion known. Silnce helps us to intentionally create a space to surrender to the unknown and to hear what another Voice has to say.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers faced their “demons,” their shadow side, their fears and doubts when they live in solitude. Richard Rohr writes that “solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real selves, in the presence of pure love.” Anthony the Great wrote: “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles: those of hearing, speech, and sight, Then he will have but one battle to fight – the battle of the heart.”
We run from facing our darker selves through numbing ourselves with busyness, noise, food, alcohol, shopping or whatever distract us from befriending, talking and managing with our own “demons.” We flee but we can’t hide. Meeting God in solitude and in his tender, accepting embrace, we can openly address our sins and imperfections and become shaped by his presence. I value more than ever the practice of retreat and morning private prayer.
“The monastic path of simplicity isn’t just about relinquishing physical belongings. It also invites a holding loosely of our habits and patterns in life, which weigh us down. It calls us to release our expectations of what we want to have happen and yield to what actually arrives.” – Christine Valters Paintner
The Desert Mothers and Fathers remind us to travel light. Let go of our burdens, anger and bitterness that block us from God. Focus only on carrying the essentials. This one is hard for me and I am learning that what served me in the past, no longer fits in this season of my life. Setting aside desires, a former strength that used to serve me well, and even my self-identity and grasping only the hand of God makes this part of my journey simpler. Less stuff, more spirit in my satchel.
The heart of the desert life included both vocal prayer and contemplation. Prayer was primary for the Desert Mothers and Fathers and they spoke continually with him. They were deeply connected to Jesus teaching and hungered to be close to God. To pray always – this is the real purpose of the desert life. Theophan the Recluse wrote, “to pray is to descend with the mind into the heart and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you.” Many of their prayers were wordless; but being with God in their daily activities. Words were lifted up sparingly. Prayer was not complicated but a way of life. I am learning not so much to “do” prayer but to be in prayer.
A Beginners Mind
“We always begin again.” I am always learning and believe in seeking wisdom throughout life. Sometimes we have to unlearn too and be willing to let go of outdated, narrow thinking. The Desert Mothers and Fathers teach us to be open to new insights and to practice lifelong learning.
These wise men and women remind us that the love of God and of our neighbor should rule our heart, mind and actions. Be charitable. Daily finding ways to love and to be love is how we become fully human. I missed a chance this morning to be love to someone and this has haunted me all day. One thing I do know, next time I will take action sooner and without hesitation.
The word humility comes from the root word, hummus, meaning of the earth or earthiness. To remember we are NOT God and our faith isn’t in ourselves but in God. Take ourselves lightly. This is not humiliation, not being worthless but acknowledging we are created in love by God. It’s about God, not us.
If you want to get an “infographic” of the Desert Mothers and Fathers practice, click below. It is my gift to you for this journey together.
Which of these practices invite you closer to God?