In the late 3rd century the Spirit launched thousands of Christians into the wilderness. We call them the Desert Fathers. Why were they launched to the wilderness? It was actually simple. They went to the desert to devote themselves to prayer and fasting and to the cultivation of charity. We do these things during Lent, but these Christians embarked on a journey of self-denial for their entire lives. Why the desert? Why the wilderness?
The interesting part about the desert fathers is that they retreated to the wilderness when Christianity was on the up swing. Christianity was just on the verge of assuming political and social power. The emperor Constantine had just been converted and Christianity was going to become the official religion of the state. All the suffering was over and Christianity had become fashionable.
But that was precisely the problem. In the midst of the trend, God became harder to see. God was spoken about openly, but God was no longer followed. God was in the public, but God was no longer chosen. God was assumed and inherited; taken for granted. And so these desert fathers and mothers made a choice. They chose to go to the wilderness to find God once again. They became hermits, monks, and nuns and went to all extremes to find God. My favorite Desert Father might be Simeon the Stylites—who climbed upon a pillar 15 meters high—and lived there for 39 years. Now that is going to the wilderness.
These Christians could have lived comfortably within the confines of the empire, but they chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable. Going to the wilderness was not about the suffering for the sake of suffering, but it was about salvation. It was a quest to find their true self—made in the image of God and likeness of Christ
Over the years, the desert fathers compiled books of stories and sayings that are still read today and passed down. The desert offered something that these Christians could not find in the city.
The desert was a place of silence.
“It was said of Abbot Agathon that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”
The desert was a place of purification:
“Abbot Ammonas said that he had spent fourteen years praying to God day and night to be delivered from anger.”
The desert was a place of charity:
Abba Agathon once said, "If I could meet a leper, give him my body, and take his, I should be very happy." That indeed is perfect charity.
The desert was a place of simplicity:
When Macarius was living in Egypt, he came across a man who was at his cell and was stealing his possessions and loading them on his donkey. Macarius acted like he did not live there and helped the thief load the donkey. Macarius sent the thief peacefully on his way saying, “We brought nothing into this world, but the Lord gave as he willed, so it is done.”
The desert welcomed, invited, and used temptation as a way to grow.
Cyrus of Alexandria once said, “If you are not tempted, you have no hope; if you are not tempted, it is because you are already sinning.”
The desert was a place of community:
Two hermits lived together many years without fighting. One brother said to the other—“let’s have a fight with each other.” The other answered, “I don’t know how a fight starts.” The first brother said, “look I put a brick between us, and I’ll say that’s mine. Then you say, No, its mine. That is how a fight starts.” So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, it’s mine.” He answered, “Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.” They could not fight with each other.
Finally, the desert was a place of transformation.
“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph one day and said: Father, I keep my little rule, and I keep my little fast, my prayer, meditation and my contemplation. As I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts. Now, what else should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
The Spirit hurled Jesus to the wilderness, the Spirit hurled the Fathers to the wilderness, and maybe the Spirit will hurl us to the wilderness. The wilderness can certainly be a place of danger, but it’s also a place of solitude, reflection, purification, charity, and examination. I am hoping to do more of this during Lent.