“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender oneself to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes the work fruitful.” Thomas Merton
Monasticism and spirituality is no stranger to the desert. In the 3rd and 4th Century AD, pilgrims would travel to the desert to see some of the first Christian monastics living their solitary lives mostly in silence. It is here that the pilgrims would find an Amma (Mother) or Abba (Father), fall to the ground at their feet and exclaim: “Amma! Give me a word.” These desert monastics left the world to seek wisdom, parted ways from the lives they had in order to give their lives to prayer, and seekers fled to them in order to find strength and wisdom of their own.
There’s a modern day desert that is not the desert of the past. A place in which we are so consumed with commitment and busyness that we lose touch with ourselves and the ancient rhythms of our lives. This desert of loneliness is perhaps one of the farthest things from the desert experience where we can truly get in touch with ourselves.
Many of us have moments where we recognize this desperation for solitude: we begin to look at our schedules to see where we can say no, we consider the idea that over commitment is committing less and less to ourselves and ultimately loved ones. Yet, even after we’ve taken back ourselves, we once again get caught up in modern-day society’s exclamation that busyness is productivity, that socializing is a necessity, that new classes and skills are just what we all need to be happy.
There’s nothing so certain as the falsehood of society’s claims. Until we realize what is right for our individual lives and adhere to that, we’ll always be clawing for more – more lessons or classes, more free time, more me-time, more work, more play, more. For most of us, going off into the desert isn’t an option. Yet, also for most of us, gaining access to that interior desert wisdom is a simple matter of intention with what few minutes we have; seeing where we can expand spaciousness and freedom for ourselves. Where is the desert of my life that I need to go to and explore; what is the ancient rhythm of balance that is appropriate for me?
“To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out