10 Lessons from the 4th Century Desert Dwellers
The desert takes many forms: sandy wasteland, wooded wilderness, wide open seas. Those who venture there discover it is also a region of mind and soul, a liminal place embodying the boundary between civilization and wilderness, spirit and flesh, good and evil. Mohammed, Jesus, the Buddha, the Irish monks who wandered the ocean in open boats, Dakota medicine men and women, Elijah the Prophet—all experienced some kind of enlightenment through their desert sojourns.
In the fourth century of the Common Era, a number of pilgrims known as the Desert Dwellers followed this path into Lower Egypt, south of Alexandria in the eastern Sahara, a rocky, sun-baked desert separating North African from the more verdant reaches of the southern continent. At the time, the area they inhabited was known as Nitria, for the nitrate (saltpeter) mined there. But their presence gave the region a second name, Skete, which comes from the Greek askein, which means “to practice, to train.” Skete was the word the ancients used for athletes training for the Games, and which St. Paul had appropriated for the practices of the Christian life. For spiritual seekers Skete provided the toughest training known.
Why They Still Speak to Us
The Roman world the Desert Dwellers left behind was very much like our own. A single Western power dominated the world: Rome’s military might was unsurpassed (though scarcely insuperable, given the right circumstances); its organization vast and essentially efficient; its trade system vigorous, though stretched to worrisome limits. It was technologically advanced, with superb roads and highways, running water, internal plumbing, and effective urban planning. Materially and physically, many people were more comfortable than anyone had ever been before; reasonably well-off Romans enjoyed a quality of life surpassing earlier supreme monarchs like Darius, Nebuchadnezzaar, or the Pharaohs of Egypt. It was remarkably tolerant, with religions ranging from Judaism, and Christianity to Mithrasism and the Greco-Roman pantheon, as well as a similarly rich menu of philosophies.
But the times the Desert Dwellers lived in were also, in the words of historians, “an age of anxiety.” The security that comes from belonging to a tribe, state, or polis had evaporated; people had become cogs in the machine of empire. This anxiety intensified religious fervor and philosophical inquiry. The Desert Dwellers rejected this affluent but risky world, and judged it spiritually empty. They went into the desert seeking an alternative: a liminal region where they could live with undivided hearts, through the trial of the spirit.
A few dwelt in caves or holes in the rocky escarpments, but most built huts of reeds and silt, drawn from the Nile or oases. Hermits ever since have remembered them, which is why William Butler Yeats wanted a hut “of clay and wattles made.” They survived on a minimal diet: the legumes and fruits and vegetables they could grow in their gardens, and for some, occasional fish or game. The one commodity they did make sure to create or import was wine (as we can infer from the sayings, which mention it quite often). They drank it in moderation—which means not too much, but also not too little.
Antony, the great desert dweller prototype, is said to have tried repeatedly to find absolute solitude, but his genius inevitably inspired discipleship: men of all ages left civilization behind and sought him out in the wilds. Eventually he appreciated the fact that he was fated to mentor, lead, and teach. Pachomius, by contrast, decided that, in order to truly escape the flabbiness of civilization, a radically simple counterculture, a monastic “city” as an alternative to the secular cities of the Empire, was needed. And so he began to structure communities based on love and tolerance rather than power and competition. Thus he laid the foundation for what became the Benedictine community in the West, and the Hesychastic community in the East. In Genesis, afterall, God says that it is not good for the human being to live alone.
Almost nothing is known about the personal identities of this remarkable group of men and women. They sought anonymity, and they got what they were looking for. This wisdom that they discovered, either by chance or divine plan, was recorded by visitors, fellow spiritual explorers, and pilgrims.
Upon first encounter, they must have seemed strange—unkempt and outspoken eccentrics forsaking Roman civilization in all its richness, renouncing the classical Pantheon in all its loveliness, rejecting the newly respectable Christian Church in all its glory. And yet, there was a sense that they were uncovering valuable wisdom. Indeed, their clear words and remarkable insights remain strangely compelling across the centuries. They speak to us in our anxious, overscheduled, materially-pampered, technologically-charged lives. I have always found their words strengthening and soothing and enlivening in their simplicity, and I would like to share some of them with you.
Ten Lessons from the Desert Dwellers
1. Abba Shepherd says, “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
“Go sit in your cell.” This sounds like an order—or an invitation to sit alone, at home, in your room, in silence. It is a prescription for peace, a pure and simple counterweight to the cacophony of noises and voices that assault us every day and everywhere. And like most of the sayings of the Desert Dwellers, it continues to resonate, to release more and more meaning the longer we turn it over in our minds. “Teach us everything.” What will a half-hour’s silence in our private space teach us that our information-saturated techno-world will not? “Everything.”
2. Mother Matrona says, “Many people living the secluded life have died like worldly people. It is better to live in the world and long for solitude than to live in solitude and long for the world.”
The Desert Dwellers have a deserved reputation for extreme feats of world renunciation. The most famous (and probably most extreme) of these is Symeon Stylites, who spent decades living atop a pillar. This is hardly surprising; it is of the nature of explorers to test limits. But it is not representative of them. Mother Matrona, in her wise and witty way, recognizes the desert is no place for the person drawn to the ordinary and secular. On the other hand, the person who, for whatever reason, must remain in the crowd can carve out his or her own sacred solitude. As Yeats said, he could feel the hermit’s solitude in the city streets because he heard it “in the deep heart’s core.”
3. Zeno, Disciple of Silvanus, says, “Never stay in a well-known place nor sit with a
famous person nor lay foundation for building a cell someday.”
We know from the poetry of Martial and Petronius that there was a cult of celebrity in fourth-century Rome that resembled the twenty-first-century version: everybody loved to be seen with a famous senator, or poet, or gladiator; everyone wanted to haunt the places where one would “be seen.” Zeno counsels against such superficial behavior. And further, he warns against approaching a project you intend to finish with a lackadaisical attitude (“someday”).
At first, those two bits of advice do not seem to go together. But once again, if you allow the message to settle and resonate, you begin to appreciate that the kind of superficial soul that craves status by association is very likely to be the sort who starts a project but fails to finish it—wasting materials and time in the process.
4. One of the hermits says, “To prepare for tomorrow means to cut away the fruit of the spirit and dry one self up.”
This comment stands in stark contrast to our own cultural assumptions that material security is a necessity and an unqualified virtue. So much more palatable than the pious bromide, “Let go and let God,” this has the power to compel us to reach for what lies beyond the material world, in the world of absolute presence and radical spontaneity. As a Zen Master named Nansen once said, “If you want true security, allow yourself the freedom of the sky.”
5. Mother Syncletice says, “Never be sated with bread, and never run out of wine.”
Stay hungry but stay happy. The Desert Dwellers sometimes fasted, a practice common to most spiritual traditions. Fasting is, in fact, at the opposite pole from under- or overeating: it is controlled deprivation, not neurotic self-punishment. The Desert Mother also says wine is good for you: do not run out of it. The Desert life was an adventure, not a sentence.
6. Abba Poemen says, “Teach your heart to follow what your tongue tells others.”
This is not just a suggestion to “practice what you preach,” but something deeper. The Desert Dwellers aimed for what they called “purity of heart,” which does not mean pure of “dirty thoughts.” A “pure” heart is one that is undivided and unpolluted by everything external to it. In contemporary psychological terms, it means having an integrated personality, where head, heart, and body are in harmony rather than at war with one another. Listening to the advice we give others, then following it ourselves, is actually an ingenious step in that very direction.
7. Abba Shepherd says, “Just as smoke drives out bees, and takes their honey away from them, so a life of ease drives God from our souls and cancels our good deeds.”
The Desert Dwellers were not dainty souls fleeing corruption and worldiness. They were rugged souls, fleeing the life of ease (smoke) for the treasure of simplicity, freedom, and challenge (honey). We have elevated sheer ease to the highest status, demanding that our entire environment be “climate controlled.” We feel deprived, even violated, when our comfort systems break down. When our computers, or other kinds of “mechanical slaves” malfunction, even for a few hours, we panic. This level of ease can itself be enslaving. The Desert Dwellers stood at the opposite pole: having made a deliberate choice to renounce all kinds of artificial convenience, they knew firsthand the exhilaration of simplicity.
8. One of the old men says, “Never judge a fornicator. The person who said not to fornicate also said not to judge.”
The Desert Mothers and Fathers were “theologically nonspecific.” They were nominally Christian, occasionally gathering for worship (presumably the Christian Eucharist, though we have no facts on this). Their spiritual exploration was by no means “about” Christianity which, as a religion, was still at that time defining itself through passionate theological debate. They don’t comment on this debate, although they do allude to Christ, God, Scriptures. As this aphorism illustrates, however, their teachings come from “one of the old men,” not the Church. The wisdom in this saying is applicable to anyone: it is about hypocrisy, not about Christianity, and its wisdom is universal.
9. Serapion sold his Gospel Book and gave the money to the hungry. When we asked him why, he said that he sold the book that told him to feed the hungry.
The Desert Dwellers were actually opposed to the institutional Church. Once the Emperor Constantine had had his dream vision of Christ’s initials in the sky and subsequently defeated his rival for the Imperium, the institutional Church was bound to lose in fervor and strength as much as it was certain to gain in numbers and respectability. The Desert Dwellers, and other serious spiritual aspirants, had no further use for it.
Serapion’s words are also about caritas, self-giving love. For some modern-day Christians, this is closer to the heart of their religion than theories about salvation. It certainly is universal—or should be.
10. One of the mothers says, “The hen who stops sitting on the eggs will hatch no chicks; you, too, should stay where you are.”
This final bit of advice provides another valuable cultural counterweight to our times. In good ways as well as bad, modern Western culture has reinforced the notion that we are always free to go somewhere else. This is a mixed blessing. The sense of freedom and limitless possibility can itself be a trap: for the young person who cannot choose among twenty alluring alternative careers; for the spouse in a so-so relationship; for the woman in a stalled job; for the man in a barren stretch in his religion. Such situations need to be worked at and tended to, not necessarily abandoned. The lesson, or the reward, in them cannot be drawn out otherwise. More time sitting on the eggs.
Clair W. McPherson, Ph.D., has a doctorate in medieval studies, is an associate priest at the Church of the Transfiguration, Manhattan, and is the author of three books on Christian spirituality: Understanding Faith, Grace at this Time and Keeping Silence.He is now a teacher at Fordham University, Gallatin School, New York University, and the General Theological Seminary.