(Shut Up, Already, and) Listen to the Desert

I recently read Listen to the Desert: Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Gregory Mayers.

I know it can appear stylish to read these ancient eremites (“Hey look at me. I’m not bound by evangelical sub-culture.”) But that’s not me. I’ve been driven to look more closely at models of Christian maturity that have been missing in my life.

When I read of what these ancient followers of Jesus thought and did, I am struck by the boring, tedious, shallowness of what I think and do.

No, speaking this way is not therapeutic self-flagellation, nor is it a transparent attempt at spiritual one-upmanship.  It’s just a fact that I have a thing or two to learn about all this following Jesus business. Facing the second half of life, I am looking for people who have something to say.

The first desert dwellers were in North Africa in the third century BC. These early efforts led to similar movements in the Mediterranean region and Europe.  They were driven by a desire for simplicity of life, an uncluttered mind, and a deep excavation of the soul–what Thomas Keating, a contemporary leader in the resurgence of contemplative Christianity, calls  “divine therapy.”

So, in the next few posts, I want to talk about what I learned from reading this book. In a nutshell, it amounts to,

Face yourself

Face all the junk in your life that you know about, and in time, with practice, all the junk you never noticed.  Allow God to direct you in exposing all those tricks you play on yourself, those childish games that pass for knowledge, the familiar false self that keeps true knowledge of self and knowledge of God at a distance.

This is no spiritual self-help program. This is real. In reading of these ancient masters, I have asked myself many times, “Where have these people been in my life, in my church? Why is this way of thinking, even in part, missing from how I have learned to think about the Gospel and communion with God?”

In my experience, the Protestant evangelical church does not teach us to face ourselves as a path to spiritual maturity. The short-answer reason for this is that the Protestant evangelical focus has been on protecting doctrine and then promoting that protected doctrine as the

key to spiritual maturity.

I am not against doctrine (so save your comments), but doctrine devoid of spiritual maturity–on the part of leaders and laity–is a like watching a long ugly train wreck.
The Gospel calls for deep and continual spiritual transformation. The desert fathers and mothers had a handle of some vital lessons about how that should be done.

For those of us tired of limping along in the pretend paradise of our own egos, it may be time to shut up, already, and listen to the desert.


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  • Thanks, Dr. Enns for this great post and encouragement towards a contemplative Christianity. I have not read the book to which you refer but will add it to my list.

    I think in our society we are afraid of three things that help us commune with God: silence, stillness and suffering. Regarding the latter, Victor Frankel once wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning” but it isn’t always fun to burn. Related Ken Wilbur describes this process beautifully stating, “Suffering smashes to pieces the complacency of our normal fictions about reality and forces us to become alive in a special sense – to see carefully, to feel deeply, to touch ourselves and our worlds in ways which we have heretofore avoided. It has been said, and I truly think, that suffering is the first grace” (In Singh, 1998, p.101).

    I am most definitely Christian so please don’t think me a heretic but I adore the poetry of the Sufi mystic Hafiz. So many of his poems echo your above statement about allowing God to direct us in exposing all the tricks we play on ourselves. One of my favorites alludes to this. It is called “Tired of Speaking Sweetly” and goes as follows:

    Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
    Break all our teacup talk of God.

    If you had the courage and could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
    He would just drag you around the room by your hair,
    Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
    That bring you no joy.

    Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
    And wants to rip to shreds
    All your erroneous notions of truth

    That make you fight within yourself, dear one, and with others,
    Causing the world to weep on too many fine days.

    God wants to manhandle us,
    Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself and practice His dropkick.

    The Beloved sometimes wants to do us a great favor:

    Hold us upside down and shake all the nonsense out.

    But when we hear He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
    Most everyone I know quickly packs their bags and hightails it out of town.

    Of course this is a playful poem with no mention of Christ but I think deep spiritual transformation requires us to deconstruct the ego in order to truly serve Him and others as He did us.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your post, Lise. At least one benefit of looking at Eastern religions is to remind us that the Bible is a Middle Eastern book with Middle Eastern (i.e., not Western) assumptions and wisdom. I am struck by how “Eastern” Jesus’ teachings sound when read through lenses other than the Western one I call my own.

  • Here’s my problem with the eremites and those like them. The road that Jesus followed did not lead into the desert, away from the habitations of men. Rather, it led to the highways and byways frequented by men, to their market places, into their homes, and ultimately to the site where men executed public enemies. The apostles followed that same road, criss-crossing the seas, trudging the Roman roads, in search of men–not of a simpler way of life.

    Let’s face it: involvement in the world of men will always complicate our lives, but that’s what Jesus called us to do. That world offers constant temptations to our egos; it is a cross as often as not. But it’s the path he chose and the one he calls us on. It is this path that leads to the perfection to which he calls us.

    That said, of course, it is always beneficial to withdraw for prayer and even for rest, as Jesus and the apostles did. But only in order to return to the world of men renewed.

    And I say this as a Catholic, whose traditions have glorified these men and women.

    • peteenns

      From what I understand, Mark, they were withdrawing in reacting to Xty becoming part of the establishment. That doesn’t cancel your point, of course, but there is a historical moment, where some felt that they and the church had become too comfortable and forgotten Jesus’ teachings.

      • Mark makes in interesting comment but think about this.

        The Apostles were bringing about the covenant transition. They were living in the “last days.” The Kingdom of Heaven started as a mustard seed and would grow to a tree where the birds of heaven would find their rest in, in that generation.

        Trying to recreate the 1st century Church is the same as trying to recreate the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Impossible and not a step forward.

        Paul is explicit that the Great Commission was fulfilled in the first century, therefore the end could come. The Kingdom of Heaven had been established and once the Covenant transition was fully completed the Kingdom would be consummated. (Destruction of Jerusalem.)

        Our perspective completely changes when we realize that as Christians we are living in the Consummated Kingdom. There is no more “work” to be done in preparation of the coming King. Now we can settle down and focus on the “Garden work” of producing fruit, i.e. love, joy, peace, etc.

        During the fulfilling of the Great Commission Kingdom ambassadors were going to the nations. After the Consummation the nations flow to the New Jerusalem because there the tree of life has leaves that will heal them.

        Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we do not evangelize but what I am saying is that evangelism looks a lot different when you change your perspective. I haven’t read the book Mr. Enn’s is recommending but I have a sneaking suspicion that they understood Kingdom living at a much deeper level than we modern Americans do.

        The Garden work that I have starts with myself, my family and my community. That is the light that shines into the darkness!


      • davey

        I’m inclined to go with Mark. How is ‘withdrawing in reacting to Xty becoming part of the establishment’ as they did supposed to be efficaceous? Isn’t what the hermits etc did ‘boring, tedious, shallow’? I’m inclined to think them psychologically ‘challenged’, especially are we seriously supposed to think of the likes of Simon Stylites as doing what God wanted?

  • Thanks for your kind response. I have always seen things through big picture lenses so sometimes fear my responses on blogs sound really out there. I also came to the table later in life and am only just discovering this terrain in seminary. But I agree with your point. The Bible is a Middle Eastern text. In fact there is a line in Job where Job feels as if God has grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. The image makes me think of the Hafiz line about the Beloved pulling us around by the hair. Oh how he loves us in both his gentleness and toughness. If only we just trusted him more.

  • jon hughes


    I’ve come to appreciate lately the saying, “The more I learn, the less I know.” A good grasp of doctrine is vital, especially for new believers – but as Christians mature in the faith, the ‘sectarian’ requirement of rigid (unimaginative) adherence to whatever particular expression of the evangelical faith they belong to can condemn them to what you rightly describe as the “boring, tedious, shallowness” of what they think and do.

    Many brethren are defined by what they are against, but end up with a stunted spirituality. I look forward to hearing what you have to share regarding the above.

    • peteenns

      Very well put, Jon. Thanks for posting this comment.

  • How is ‘withdrawing in reacting to Xty becoming part of the establishment’ as they did supposed to be efficaceous? … I’m inclined to think them psychologically ‘challenged’, especially are we seriously supposed to think of the likes of Simon Stylites as doing what God wanted?

    Another way of looking at it is from the standpoint of “enculteration” (the spelling I got from googling). We’re used to thinking of, say, Mexican Christians’ celebration of the Day of the Dead as “baptizing” “pagan” practices or beliefs. If we think in those terms with regard to Western practices we tend to think of them as neutrally normative, or innocuous, like the Christmas tree, etc. However, what we need to do more often is to consider how much Neoplatonic and even Gnostic/Manichaean influence was absorbed by the early Church and handed down as Christian. I would certainly place the Stylite in that category. I’m not opposed to religious communities per se at all, but there are certain dangers that are all too often missed.

    • peteenns

      You’re not suggesting desert practices are Gnostic, are you?

  • Mark Leberfinger


    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

    You’re right in diagnosing the tendency of protecting doctrine, but I also think there is the tendency of promoting being “saved” as the begin-all and end-all.

    The Church needs to realize that living beyond that “saved” moment is just as important as the saved moment. The Kingdom is here, not just somewhere else — as is promoted in some circles.

    To me, this is why what you’re saying is so important.

  • For those opposed to the desert father’s way of life, this sort of thinking is analogous to Shane Claiborne implying the monastic life should be for EVERYONE.

    If you talk to monks, monastics, ascetics, etc, most all of them will tell you that this sort of life ISN’T FOR EVERYONE. But it’s for some people. Evangelicalism tends to emphasize evangelism ABOVE ALL ELSE. And while this can be a good thing (sometimes us Eastern Orthodox don’t emphasize evangelism enough), it’s not the way early Christianity worked.

    There are different types of saints. Many are evangelists and martyrs and others are miracle workers, ascetics and monastics. In my church today, Daniel the Stylite was honored. This type of saint usually stays on a rock, pole or pillar for most of their life in prayer.

    Certainly Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness is a model for the monastic and ascetic tradition. It wasn’t part of Christ’s mission to stay there forever but that doesn’t mean it can’t be someone else’s mission.

    Besides, the Church desperately needs prayer. And that’s what monks and nuns do. They pray for the church. They hold things together. In fact, I absolutely believe that evangelism was made MORE successful because of the prayers of monks, nuns and ascetics. They are just another part of the body of Christ and they serve an absolutely essential purpose.

    Other ascetics like Saint Seraphim of Sarov end their life by coming back into a community. Having purified their life for decades, they are able to offer wonderful spiritual treasures to others.

  • But of course, there is also St. Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor and others who Saints FOR PROTECTING DOCTRINE.

  • You’re not suggesting desert practices are Gnostic, are you?

    I’m suggesting that practices that presume that matter is evil, that hold–implicitly or explicitly–that sanctity is gained by renouncing the material world, are gnostic. I have in mind the contrasting example of Jesus’ life: changing wine to water at a wedding, multiplying the loaves and the fishes (rather than sending the crowds off fasting), defending the woman who anointed his feet, eating and drinking with sinners, etc. Yes, I also recall that there is a time for fasting, and I embrace that, too. There’s a balance to be found and, yes, I’m suggesting that many of these desert fathers went over the line in the direction of gnosticism. I find it significant that, to the best of my knowledge, neither in the gospels, nor in the other New Testament writings, nor in other early Christian writings of the first two centuries or so do we find recommendations of such extreme practices. Rather, we find an emphasis on the goodness of God’s creation.

    • peteenns

      “Matter is evil” does not represent the church fathers/mothers, rather possessions should be renounced, in direct obedience to Jesus. I also see in the Gospels and Paul an renunciation of self, which I think contemporary expressions of Protestant evangelicalism could learn from, which is beholden to another evil: materialism and focus on self. Having said that, of course, some of them were a bit odd.

  • possessions should be renounced, in direct obedience to Jesus.

    I’m not convinced that that accurately reflects Jesus’ teaching/practice. While Jesus certainly spoke of detachment from possessions, for Catholics a spirit of detachment is not the same thing as renunciation. The reason for that distinction can be found in the gospel narratives: Jesus’ reliance upon wealthy women to finance his travels–supporting thirteen men for an extended period (however it is calculated) was not inexpensive–and other examples could be given. That isn’t renunciation. The most explicit sayings that seem to point toward renunciation I take to be directed toward those who are designated for missionary work. I think the same picture, implying this distinction between detachment and renunciation, emerges from Acts and Paul’s letters. Jesus, in my view, is a model of moderation, of humanity if you will, unlike so many of these eremites.

    I think contemporary expressions of Protestant evangelicalism could learn from, which is beholden to another evil: materialism and focus on self.

    Of course, I agree with this, and I would also suggest that Catholics too would do well to be aware of the danger of focusing on self–the constant temptation of life in the therapeutic society. However, too often among Christians–IMO under Platonic or gnostic influences–“self” appears to be equated with “soul,” and the body is regarded as merely the “prison” of the self/soul. For example, in the new translation of our liturgy, at the Domine non sum dignus, we once again say, Speak but the word and my soul will be healed (I think the new official text may begin along the lines of, But only say the word, but I’m quoting from my altar boy days under the Tridentine liturgy). Yes, that bit about the soul is a correct translation of the Latin, but to me it reflects a dualism that was not found in early Christianity–at least not during the first few generations. In fact, the first generations of Christians insisted that Man is an intimate unity of body and soul, in opposition to some of the philosophers and gnostic thinkers. It seems clear that this distinctively Christian anthropology–which reached its maturity in the thought of Aquinas–was inspired by the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the promise that we will all rise bodily. Thus, an exaggerated denigration of the material world has no place, IMO, in Christianity. It’s a temptation to react against the sensuality of our modern culture in the direction of hyper spirituality and asceticism, but I think Christians need to strive for balance. Detachment, not renunciation.

    some of them were a bit odd.

    Yep. That’s one way to put it. 🙂

    • peteenns

      Ah, I see. Your beef seems to be with Catholicism.

  • davey

    Micah Martin: I have a sneaking suspicion that they understood Kingdom living at a much deeper level

    What deeper level? It would be helpful if you could give us some aspects to consider.

    Mark Chenoweth: this sort of life ISN’T FOR EVERYONE. But it’s for some people … wonderful spiritual treasures … They pray for the church. They hold things together … they serve an absolutely essential purpose

    I would say it isn’t for anyone. It would be helpful if you could say who it is for, and what good it does. What are the ‘wonderful spiritual treasures’? Supposed (often or even mostly ritualised) prayer taking up much of every day for decades looks to me like it would be better done by a wind powered prayer wheel, ie not done.

    Pete Enns: possessions should be renounced, in direct obedience to Jesus … focus on self … a bit odd

    I think Mark Wauck answers these things ok. Except he could more explicitly reject ‘a bit odd’, which is an unacceptable way of characterising those psychologically damaged and mistaken people.

    Pete Enns: Your beef seems to be with Catholicism

    This is a very bad, mistaken, comment to make on what Mark says, Peter.

    • peteenns

      Davey, you seem quite certain about this. I will leave it to others to respond. I might suggest, though, that you read the book I reference in this post.

    • You should really read through the lives of the saints. The Prologue of Ohrid is great, although some of the stories are certainly embellished lovingly and aren’t to be believed at face value.

      And it was obviously FOR Jesus for at least 40 days (although the number 40 is probably not to be taken literally).

      And doesn’t the church need prayer? It’s the bride of Christ for goodness sake! It doesn’t seem odd at all that some would devote their entire lives to praying for it and dispelling the passions simultaneously.

      And it’s FOR these people as well. A surprisingly good documentary by 60 Minutes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxATVCWNQNw

  • Your beef seems to be with Catholicism.

    That’s a bit simplistic. My beef is not with Catholicism, per se, but rather with what you could call associated phenomena–teachings and practices that are associated with the Faith but which, in various ways, fall outside orthodoxy or tend in that direction. Let me give you an example.

    In Pope Benedicts famous Regensburg address, Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization, Benedict criticizes the thought of Blessed John Duns Scotus, even comparing Scotus’ thought to that of Muslim thinkers:

    In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy…

    So, here, Benedict clearly, and rightly, contrasts Scotus’ teaching with “the faith of the Church.” However, Wikipedia rightly notes that

    Blessed John (Johannes) Duns Scotus, O.F.M. (c. 1265 – November 8, 1308) was one of the more important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. He was nicknamed Doctor Subtilis for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought.

    Scotus has had considerable influence on Roman Catholic thought.

    It’s also worth noting that Scotus’ teaching remains the semi-official thought of the Franciscan Order. Benedict, to his great credit, didn’t let the matter drop after Regensburg. At a celebration in Rome marking some anniversary of Scotus and sponsored by the Franciscans, Benedict again forthrightly criticized this aspect of Scotus’ thought.

    So, my beef isn’t really with the Catholic faith, but rather with “associated phenomena” which are not in accord with that faith. I am of the opinion that the Church needs to follow Benedict’s example in a more thoroughgoing manner, and make more clear just what falls within “the faith of the Church” and what does not.

    Anyone interested in my rather lengthy critique of Benedict’s address can read Benedict at Regensburg.

    Also, for the record, I agree with Eric Voegelin’s (a Lutheran) characterization of Protestantism as marking “the successful invasion of Western institutions by Gnostic movements (The New Science of Politics, p. 134). However, I would qualify that characterization by noting that the ground had long been prepared by platonizing and gnostic influences within the Church, especially as mediated by Augustinian thought (regarding which, generally, cf. McCullough’s The Reformation and more technically Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience).

    • peteenns

      Mark, the reason I responded as I did was because in a post on desert fathers/mothers, you quoted me twice and focused your comments on Catholicism.

  • @davey

    My response to Peter re “those psychologically damaged and mistaken people” was intended to be tongue in cheek–an indication that I thought Peter’s comment was, well, understated and probably humorously intended. I do agree with your characterization, and some of their behavior definitely speaks for itself.

    • peteenns

      I took it as tongue in cheek, too.

  • No problem, Peter. I wasn’t offended or anything like that. I just tend to be a bit prolix.

    • peteenns

      I noticed 🙂

  • j. johnson

    I am a Catholic most of my friends are Protestent. I find that as a Catholic we through our church calendar have a few different periods through out the “church year” where we stop and reflect on ourselves as a whole body, spirit, and soul. We take time to reflect on how we are responding to God’s call or will in our personal lives. It is a time to get rid of the things that pull us away and distract us from God and the gifts he gives us and time to add what pulls us in to a deeper relationship with God. We stop to see how well we are obeying the call. I don’t see that happenning in my friends lives or their churches. Perhaps that is what pulls you in about this book. It is very healing to reflect and “take out the trash”. Also I would say that Jesus does indeed call us to a simple life free of “stuff”. It is though very important to understand what that means. It doesn’t at all mean to get rid of every thing, or that you can’t have “things”. In a nut shell Jesus said that every thing we have is a gift and should be used for the kingdom and glory of God. He also warned not to let ANY THING phsyical or not to come between us and him. If “stuff” trips you up then get rid of it. Like He said if your hand causes you to sin cut it off. Just do it with reason. obviously my hand helps me to sin and it is still attached. Extremeisiom in any thing isn’t good. A simple life living out Gods will with or with out “stuff” but for sure with self reflection on how the “simple” life is going is key to a great and healthy relationship with God and I can see how that is attractive. The key to a simple life is obedience to Christ. Happy Living