-Outside the Desert Retreat House-
Back in the 4th century, Christianity had become the established, official religion of the empire. It was an era that saw the advent of magnificent cathedrals being erected, doctrine, dogma, ritual, and creeds were formulated for determining orthodoxy, and a delineated hierarchy of importance for popes and cardinals, bishops and priests was developed and firmly put into place.
The 4th century was also an era in which a group of men and women, discouraged by what was happening as Christianity became institutionalized, moved away from the cities and from the established church. They fled out into the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine where, keeping with the teaching of Jesus, they practiced compassion as they lived in community with one another. Their life was simple; mountain caves were their dwelling places, and their cathedral was the vast empty spaces of the untamed wilderness.
Since I live in a desert that looks very similar to the wilderness of those ancient monks, I often think about their life together.
The temperatures in these summer months hit well above 100 degrees, the tourists have all gone away to take refuge form the baking sun, and the wildflowers of spring have given way to dry sagebrush, making the desert around my house seem even more bare and empty than usual. For me, this season offers so many abundant opportunities for deep and rich spiritual fulfillment.
They tell a story of an ancient monk who was asked why he and his brethren moved out into caves in a barren empty wilderness - living in the unforgiving oppressive heat of the day. His response:
Because this place has nothing whatsoever to offer
That one simple statement pretty much captures the essence of "desert wisdom."
The wilderness is not a place that can be cultivated or farmed - used for personal gain or self satisfaction. The wilderness is not a place that offers the cool comfort of a gilded cathedral or the easy answers of doctrine, creed or established hierarchy. The desert has nothing to offer. It is a place of barren emptiness, and herein is the gift.
The ancient monks didn't move out to the wilderness to fill themselves up but to be emptied out - empty of status, empty of answers, empty of ambition. They sat in the barren emptiness in the heat of the day and they listened, waited, watched, and mindfully paid attention. In doing so their spiritual senses were awakened and they were able to encounter a Holy Presence that went far beyond anything they might ever ask or imagine.
Every day when I walk outside my front door I am literally "confronted" by the sight of wilderness caves dotting the mountains around my house. They seem to be calling me to go to a deeper place in my spirit.
Most of my earlier life was spent getting filled up - filled up with theology and doctrine, filled up with the sights and sounds of magnificent churches and cathedral choirs, glorious ritual, stained glass and vestments. I was filled up with my status in the hierarchy of church importance and always looking for ways to move up a few rungs on the ladder. And while I certainly believe there is a place for being "filled up" on the spiritual journey, I have come to realize that it is now time for me to be emptied out.
Every day, the open mouths of those wilderness caves outside my house call me to align myself with my ancient monastic ancestors - to enter into a place that has nothing whatsoever to offer, where only "God" remains.