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The Fruits of the Desert

Sometimes, we must step outside our culture to focus on God alone

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Whether priests abide with Jesus in a quiet place of their choosing or retire to the hermitage of their heart, they know that spending time with him in these desert spaces is not a luxury but a necessity. Tempting as it may be to neglect oasis experiences and times of Sabbath rest, priests know how important it is to follow the pattern set by Jesus of stepping aside in order to start again. He withdrew to a deserted place by himself and, thereafter, showed compassion for the people and ministered to them (see Mt 14:13-14).

Both in the Old and New Testaments there are unforgettable descriptions of desert experiences. Recall the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land and the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before the start of his public life. Notable, too, is the example given by the early Christians, appropriately named the Desert Fathers and Mothers, whose sayings still brighten the treasury of classical Church teachings.
 

Roots of This Tradition

The rapid spread of Christianity during the reign of Emperor Constantine (312-37) seemed to forecast a new era of peace, but the ravages of war and the lust for power, pleasure and possession persisted. At the same time, the hunger for pure Gospel living escalated to such a degree that hundreds of seekers fled to the deserts of Egypt and Syria and other remote places like Nitria, Scete and Gaza to find a way to live in fidelity to the teachings of Christ and the fellowship he blessed in the breaking of the bread. Was it possible amid empire building to choose the inner path of prayer and service to one’s neighbor?

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‘You, Too, Can Be Salt and Light’

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“Dear consecrated friends, resisting these temptations is not easy, but it is possible if we are grafted on to Jesus: ‘Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me’ (Jn 15:4). The more we are rooted in Christ, the more we are alive and fruitful! Only in this way can we preserve the wonder and the passion of our first encounter with God, and experience renewed excitement and gratitude in our life with God and in our mission. The quality of our consecration depends on the quality of our spiritual life.

“I urge you … to draw upon the example of St. Paul the Hermit, St. Anthony, the holy Desert Fathers and the countless monks and nuns who by their lives and example opened the gates of heaven to so many of our brothers and sisters. You, too, can be salt and light, and thus an occasion of salvation for yourselves and for all others, believers and nonbelievers alike, and especially for those who are poor, those in need, the abandoned and discarded.”

Pope Francis, to priests, religious and seminarians in Maadi, Egypt, on April 29, 2017

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An exemplary response to this soul-searching question came from the renowned St. Anthony the Great (350-75), who took to heart the words Jesus addressed to the rich young man: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). The story of how Anthony took these words literally, left his wealthy life in Egypt and fled to the desert is told by St. Athanasius, whose biography became a seminal text describing the rise of monasticism and its unifying effect in the Eastern and Western Church.

St. Anthony, and the countless desert dwellers who sought him for direction, chose to live a simple and sober style of life; they practiced the spiritual disciplines with moderation, modeled the compassion shown by Jesus for those sick in body and soul, and prayed without ceasing. For them, solitude did not mean isolation; it was the best bridge to solidarity with others. They did not flee to the desert out of hatred for the world but to live the words of truth taught by Jesus to transform the world into the house of God.
The two streams into which desert living flowed were the eremitical, or the hermit life, preferred by St. Anthony and the cenobitical community model pioneered by St. Pachominus (290-346). Both ways were incorporated into the history of the Church, in vocations to the monastic and apostolic life and in every contemplative and diocesan form of the priesthood.

In the desert — be it lived in a monk’s cell or in a room of the rectory — servants of God must learn from tradition and experience how to escape the traps of self-indulgence through abandonment to the mystery at the heart of their priestly call: “Lead her into the wilderness and speak persuasively to her. Then I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as on the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hos 2:16-17).

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Flee to Be Free

The Desert Fathers following St. Anthony exemplified the truth lived by all shepherds of the sacred: that the rejection of self-centeredness frees one to live in joyful obedience to the will of God and fulfills one’s deepest longings. In other words, a priest called, committed and consecrated to Christ models what it means to flee from illusory promises of fulfillment and to unite with God in poverty of spirit and purity of heart.

In the timelessly true sayings, narratives and counsels generated in the deserts of the undivided Church, disciples of all ages learn that life in a dissipated, disbelieving world is like a shipwreck from which one must swim away to survive. Counsels for living that are held up as exemplary from a merely worldly point of view offer formulas of falsehood leading to spiritual, if not physical, death and disease.

‘The Fruits of Men’
“The fruits of the earth are not
brought to perfection immediately,
but by time, rain and care; similarly,
the fruits of men ripen through ascetic
practice, study, time, perseverance,
self-control and patience.”

— St. Anthony the Great

The flight from decadence to conversion may be long and arduous, but the rewards it reaps are beyond measure, because the freedom it grants enables one to be in communion with God and others. When Christ dwells in the heart of a priest through faith, when he is rooted and grounded in love, then, as St. Paul says, “[He] may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:18-19).

Many sayings from the literature of the desert teach disciples of Christ how to unlock the prison of pride and the immoral choices it spawns, and to grow instead in one’s person-to-person love relationship with the Lord. Here is a good example of how to move from behavior lacking compassion to a virtuous outreach to others in conformity to Christ.

Consider Abba Agathon, whose story is recounted in “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” (Liturgical Press, $15.95), translated by Beneditca Ward: “He once met a cripple on the roadside who asked him where he was going. When he learned of Agathon’s destination, he asked the old man in a rather rude way to carry him there, and so he did, but that was not the end of the story. Soon after the two of them arrived in town, the cripple said to him, ‘Put me down where you sell your wares.’ Agathon did so and then went to work. No sooner had he sold an article than the cripple asked, ‘What did you sell it for?’ The minute he knew the price, he insisted that Agathon buy him a cake, which he did. Then the Abba sold a second article. Again the beggar asked, ‘How much did you sell it for?’ Boldly, as before, he told Agathon to buy him something else, and he obliged. At sunset, when all this selling and buying had come to an end, Agathon, tired as he was, answered the cripple’s request to do him one last favor and carry him back to the place where he had been at the start of the day. Without any complaint, Agathon picked him up and set him down on the exact spot. Then the cripple said, ‘Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.’ Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man; it was an angel of the Lord, come to try him.”
 

Deepening of Faith

Desert days in a priest’s life can yield results as efficacious as those experienced in ancient times. The fruits of bowing in obedience to the will of the Father are lauded in this oft-quoted saying from the Desert Fathers:

“It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water until it bears fruit.’ Now, the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church, saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience’” (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”).

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Another fruit that grows in the desert is that of a heightened sense of repentance or compunction of heart. More than routine regret for this or that sin, penthos means profound sorrow for neglecting one’s prayer life, perhaps due to the fact that one has become so busy with administration that he neglects the need for ordinary ministry.

The stark reality of a desert day can reveal the truth that one’s priestly life may have become so distracted that one has no time for quiet contemplation. The pause that restores presence prevents the cauldron of busy work from boiling over and strikes a balance between worship and work, presence and participation, contemplation and action.

In the desert, there is no excuse for dishonesty or self-deception. Brought into the light of day are the blessings and burdens of the priestly life. Here one senses the need to let go of the safety nets of complacency, to embrace the cross and to accept with renewed fervor Christ’s commission to go forth and teach the nations (see Mt 28:19-20).

On their desert day, the Lord may ask priests a question they cannot ignore: Are you living your vocation from the center of your Eucharistic union with me, and is it from this center that you serve my people day by day? The answer does not come automatically; it invites appraisal of all facets of one’s priesthood. It cautions one to avoid the extremes of moving from perfectionistic models of spirituality to self-indulgent laxity, from shifting erratically from rigid disciplines to an anything-goes mentality. The solution is not to cultivate either extreme, but to practice prudence and compassion.

Again, from “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”:

“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren, and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied, ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure, they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words, the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”
 

Finding the Balance

By honoring Christ’s call to come away and be with him a while, priests may find themselves becoming more prayerful. As one pastor told me, “Being faithful to my Sabbath day has led me to celebrate the Eucharist not only liturgically but in the midst of everyday tasks and tribulations.” Priests also report that they are less likely to fly off the handle when things do not go their way; they are more inclined to be patient and to operate on God’s timetable; they trust totally in his providential plan. Rather than swim in rushing streams of labor without leisure, they seek a more balanced life that integrates sanctity and service. The desert demands that they slow down to enjoy the bread of daily living and the wine of divine guidance.

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The pain of feeling deserted might be unavoidable at times, but, much to one’s amazement, God’s apparent absence might evoke in one’s heart an astonishing sense of his awesome presence. One comes to see that the self-emptying and detachment characteristic of the desert experience are part of the process of ongoing purification a priest is bound to undergo. A priestly soul, transformed by grace, receives the inner illumination never to lose hope. God’s purpose, expressed so beautifully by the prophet Isaiah, is so that “wilderness and the parched land will exult; the Arabah will rejoice and bloom” (Is 35:1).

In these spaces of grace, priests risk to enter into solitary encounters with God without trying to predict the outcome. The beneficial results of these days may reveal themselves in the context of ordinary ministry: by anointing the sick, by helping a homeless person find shelter, by counseling a lost soul. One learns that expressions of Christian care and compassion call for discretion and dedication.

“One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way, for it was nighttime. So the brothers said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?’ The old man said to them, ‘If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk anymore; then we can stay here till the dawn.’ This he did. The others said, ‘We will not go on either, but we will stay with you.’ They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother” (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”).
 

Deeper Union with the Lord

The desert teaches those courageous enough to go there how to advance in union with the Lord by casting out in faith the demons of doubt; by replacing harsh winds of distrust by the cooling breezes of hope; and by letting the light of liberating love beckon one to press on through the dark nights of sense and spirit to the dawning of the light.

The desert is the site of the metanoia that may be granted by the grace of God when priests reach that place of radical aloneness that only God can relieve. The intensity of this conversion may last only for a brief duration, but its transforming traces can be felt until one’s dying day.

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Altered during desert days may be one’s customary perception of life. Mysteriously, in the darkness of unknowing and in the throes of aridity, one may sense that one is being moved by the Lord to new layers of self-awareness in regard to one’s call, vocation and avocation. Questions arise spontaneously: “Where have I come from? Where am I now? Where does God want me to go? How can I really give my life to him in service of all those entrusted to my care?”

Such questions asked in the desert are inevitably answered there. The living water of God’s word quenches the thirst that drove one to the desert to know God more, to make no compromise with evil and to embody in one’s whole personhood the powerful truths Christ teaches, and none more so than that of forgiveness.

“A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind one, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him” (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”).
 

In Conclusion

Having relinquished under the desert sun all remnants of vainglory, God’s priests give the Spirit free reign to teach them the truth that their faith does not “rest on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:5). The desert experiences they have undergone grant them a peace and a joy the world does not know.

‘A Deepening of the Present’
“Solitude is not something you must
hope for in the future. Rather, it is a
deepening of the present, and unless
you look for it in the present you will
never find it.”

— Thomas Merton

“When Abba Marcarius was asked, ‘How should we pray?’ the old man replied, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer say, “Lord, help!” He knows very well what we need, and he shows us his mercy’” (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”).

Desert days in the life of a priest offer him an occasion to ready a place in his heart to wait patiently upon the Lord and to let go of any distracting attachments or demands that lessen his zeal or evoke abnormal stress and fatigue. Reversed is the burn-out phenomena that destroys the balance of contemplation and action.

These days, alone with the Alone, lead paradoxically to deeper union and communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They restore a priest’s original aspiration to serve the Lord with gladness in all situations. As with the psalmist, he prays:
 

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“I bless the Lord who give me counsel; / in the night also my heart instructs me / I keep the Lord always before me; / because he is at my right hand. I shall not be moved. / Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; / my body also rests secure, / For you do not give me up to Sheol, / or let your faithful one see the Pit. / You show me the path of life / In your presence there is fullness of joy; / in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 15:7-11).

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh. For more, visit epiphanyassociation.org.