Welcome to Desert Wisdom, a Patheos column where I’ll explore the contemplative tradition of the ancient Christian desert monastics. In particular, I will explore themes such as self-emptying (kenosis), recognizing our divinity (theosis or deification), silent prayer and meditation such as centering prayer, unitive or nondual awareness, and awakening to our True Self in Christ.
Desert wisdom refers to both our inner wisdom born of contemplation and to the tradition of the Desert Fathers beginning in the third century AD. Saint Anthony of the Desert, for example, was one of the first of the ancient hermits to venture into the deserts of Egypt. Anthony grew frustrated by the many distractions of the city and fled into the wilderness to find peace and union with God. What Anthony discovered to his dismay was that he brought many of his worst distractions with him in the form of inner demons: thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs, memories, and fantasies all conspiring to derail Anthony’s desire to surrender all to God.
The fruit of Anthony’s struggle and the similar struggle of other ancient hermits was the birth of Christian monasticism. This tradition guarded and disseminated the wisdom born of the desert. The earliest monks tended to group their teachings into three broad stages: Praktikos, Theoretikos, and Gnostikos. The written form of these teachings were most often in the form of short paragraphs meant for memorization called chapters (kephalaia in Greek), and collections referred to as Books of Chapters.
Here is an example chapter attributed to Diadochos of Photike as found in John McGuckin’s The Book of Mystical Chapters:
In the early stages, grace normally enlightens the soul in such a way that it has a deep sense of its own inner radiance, but as the soul is advanced along the difficult path of enlightenment, it normally communicates its many intimate mysteries in a manner transcending sensation.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers combined psychological and spiritual insights, guiding seekers in the search to abide in God’s Kingdom. The path included ascetic disciplines and prayer practices meant to encourage an inner journey, a purification of heart, and a participatory knowledge of a life in union with God. Of particular importance was the process of kenosis, or self-emptying. Following the way of Jesus by continually dying to our personal self we rise in Christ as our True Self. Anthony of the Desert once said, “The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer realizes himself or the fact that he is praying.”
The flip side of kenosis is theosis or deification, a doctrine most often found in Eastern Orthodox teachings. When we empty ourselves of all things, including our personal identity we encounter a Divine Emptiness in which we recognize our union with God. Theosis is a process by which the radical letting go of all attachments to worldly things results in a dramatic shift in our identity. We come to know our Trues Selves in Christ as a dance of Divine Emptiness sand Oneness.
It is important to understand that desert wisdom is not just theoretical. Having a dedicated spiritual practice is crucial to our journey in Christ. There were many practices common to the desert monastics, a very important one being the deceptively simple contemplative practice of contemplation. This is a time of silent prayer during which we simply consent to rest in God’s Presence as we practice letting go our attachments to anything entering into the silence which may distract us from simply resting. The ancient Hesychast monks, when asked how they prayed, responded “just resting.”
It is my hope that the words you find in this ongoing column find purchase in your heart and spirit, and that by God’s grace point you towards the Oneness in Christ you are.