Strangers to the City

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2018 by citydesert

Michael Casey OCSO Strangers to the City. Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict Paraclete Press, 2005

Strangers to the City

“Michael Casey, a monk and scholar who has been publishing his wise teachings on the Rule of St. Benedict for decades, turns to the particular Benedictine values that he considers most urgent for Christians to incorporate into their lives today.

Eloquent and incisive, Casey invites readers to accept that gospel living – seen in the light of the Rule – involves accepting the challenge of being different from the secular culture around us. He encourages readers to set clear goals and objectives, to be honest about the practical ways in which priorities may have to change to meet these goals, and to have the courage to implement these changes both daily and for the future.

Fr. Michael Casey presents thoughtful reflections on the beliefs and values of asceticism, silence, leisure, reading, chastity, and poverty – putting these traditional Benedictine values into the context of modern life and the spiritual aspirations of people today. Strangers to the City is a book for all who are interested in learning more about the dynamics of spiritual growth from the monastic experience.”

Fr. Michael is the author of An Unexciting Life: Reflections on Benedictine Spirituality (2005), Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology (2004), A Guide to Living the Truth (2001), Return to the Heart (2001), Truthful Living (1998), Sacred Reading (1996), Toward God (1996), and other books and articles.

For an interview with Fr Michael, see:

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A not so

Dr Carmel Posa (ed) A Not-So-Unexciting Life: Essays on Benedictine History and Spirituality in Honour of Michael Casey, OCSO Cistercian Publications, 2017


Forty Years of Chewing Sand

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2018 by citydesert


St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow. Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

In American Nomads, my recent review of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”


Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending. Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 166.

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are. Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 London: Thames & Hudson, 1995, 54.

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you. Moses, 31.

Desert II

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence.

You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end. Ibid., 26.

Desert III

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.

From: “The religious imaginer. Where the fire and the rose are one”

See also:


Jessica Bruder Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century 1st Edition W. W. Norton & Company, 2017

 Meditations on the Sand

Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand Alba House, 1983

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Desert anthology

John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997

See also:


Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality New York: Oxford University Press, 1998

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Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 London: Thames & Hudson, 1995

Benedict of Nursia

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2018 by citydesert

March 21 is the Commemoration of Saint Benedict of Nursia.

Benedict 2

Benedict of Nursia (Latin: Benedictus de Nursia; Italian: Benedetto da Norcia; Vulgar Latin: Benedecto; Gothic: , Benedikt; c. 2 March 480 – 543 or 547 AD) is a Christian saint, who is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion and Old Catholic Churches. He is a patron saint of Europe.

Benedict founded twelve communities for monks at Subiaco, Lazio, Italy (about 40 miles (64 km) to the east of Rome), before moving to Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy. The Order of Saint Benedict is of later origin and, moreover, not an “order” as commonly understood but merely a confederation of autonomous congregations.

Benedict’s main achievement is his “Rule of Saint Benedict”, containing precepts for his monks. It is heavily influenced by the writings of John Cassian, and shows strong affinity with the Rule of the Master. But it also has a unique spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness (ἐπιείκεια, epieikeia), and this persuaded most religious communities founded throughout the Middle Ages to adopt it. As a result, his Rule became one of the most influential religious rules in Western Christendom. For this reason, Benedict is often called the founder of Western Christian monasticism.


Benedict 1

Benedict was sent to Rome to study, but was not satisfied by his studies or life in the city, so, one day, without telling anyone where he was going, he walked some thirty miles east of Rome into a remote area, where he found a cave overhung by a cliff, in which he lived for three years, alone. A monk from a neighbouring monastery supplied him with food which had to be lowered over the side of the cliff with a rope.

St Benedict compiled the Rule of Saint Benedict (Latin: Regula Benedicti), a book of precepts written for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot.

In the Rule, Benedict describes Hermits thus:

… the Anchorites, that is, the hermits; those, namely, who not in the first fervor of their conversion, but after long probation in the monastery, have long since learned by the help of many others to fight against the devil, and being well armed, are able to go forth from the ranks of their brethren to the singlehanded combat of the desert, safe now, even without the consolation of another, to fight with their own strength against the weaknesses of the flesh and their own evil thoughts, God alone aiding them.

The text of the Rule of St Benedict is available on-line at:

Eugene Stockton, Australian Hermit and Scholar

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2018 by citydesert

On March 8 this year, Father Eugene Stockton, an Australian Hermit and eminent scholar, celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination as a Priest. Catholic Outlook commented: “This Indiana Jones of the Catholic priesthood survived war zones, uncovered archaeological breakthroughs, tackled 14 languages, started the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and found time to complete two doctorates for his work as a seminary lecturer.” He also undertook further study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, completing a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture.

Eugene Stockton photo

Since 2001 Fr Eugene has lived as a hermit, consecrated by the Most Rev Kevin Manning, Emeritus Bishop of Parramatta, living a life of contemplation and solitude.

See also:

Eugene Stockton “Lay Hermits”  Compass Theology Review, vol. 34, no. 2, 2000, pages 46-50. The text of the article is available on-line at:

Saint Herbert of Derwentwater

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2018 by citydesert

March 20 is the Commemoration of Saint Herbert of Derwentwater.


“Saint Herbert of Derwentwater (died 20 March 687) was an Anglo-Saxon priest and hermit who lived on St Herbert’s Island, a small island in Derwentwater in Cumbria, England.

Herbert visited Cuthbert in Lindisfarne every year to receive spiritual direction. In AD 686, hearing that his friend was visiting Carlisle to give the veil to Queen Eormenburg, he went to see him there, instead of at Lindisfarne as was usual. After they had spoken together, St Cuthbert said, “Brother Herbert, tell to me now all that you have need to ask or speak, for never shall we see one another again in this world. For I know that the time of my decease is at hand.” Then Herbert fell weeping at his feet and begged that St Cuthbert would obtain for him the grace that they might both be admitted to praise God in heaven at the same time. And St Cuthbert prayed and then made answer, “Rise, my brother, weep not, but rejoice that the mercy of God has granted our desire.” Herbert, returning to his hermitage, fell ill of a long sickness, and, purified of his imperfections, passed to God on the same day, 20 March 687, on which St Cuthbert died on Holy Island.”


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St Herbert’s Island, Derwent Water, Above Derwent, Cumbria

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Saint Cuthbert

Posted in Uncategorized on March 19, 2018 by citydesert

March 20 is the Commemoration of Saint Cuthbert, Monk, Bishop and Hermit.

St Cuthbert 1

“Cuthbert (c. 634 – 20 March 687) is a saint of the early Northumbrian church in the Celtic tradition. He was a monk, bishop and hermit, associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne in what might loosely be termed the Kingdom of Northumbria in the North East of England and the South East of Scotland. After his death he became one of the most important medieval saints of Northern England, with a cult centred on his tomb at Durham Cathedral. Cuthbert is regarded as the patron saint of Northern England…

Cuthbert grew up near Melrose Abbey, a daughter-house of Lindisfarne, today in Scotland. He had decided to become a monk after seeing a vision on the night in 651 that St Aidan, the founder of Lindisfarne, died, but seems to have seen some military service first. He was quickly made guest-master at the new monastery at Ripon, soon after 655, but had to return with Eata to Melrose when Wilfrid was given the monastery instead. About 662 he was made prior at Melrose, and around 665 went as prior to Lindisfarne. In 684 he was made bishop of Lindisfarne but by late 686 resigned and returned to his hermitage as he felt he was about to die, although he was probably only in his early 50s.”


st cuthbert 3

Ernest-Ange Duez (1843-1896) Saint Cuthbert (1879) Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Meditating on the Word

Posted in Uncategorized on March 19, 2018 by citydesert

Meditating on the Word: a lesson from the Desert Fathers and Mothers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers lived lives of radical simplicity in order to be more attentive to God. They spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture so they would have it within them.

Internalizing Scripture is itself a form of prayer. This is different than reading it analytically or studying it.


“Meditatio Scripturarum” is simple, based on faith in the power and life of God’s Word. In this prayer we take a passage of Scripture we have memorized and hold it in our hearts, turning it over and over. We leave what it does up to God, whose Word never returns to Him void, but always does what He sends it to do. We silently “hear” it, and cherish it intentionally in our hearts as a communion with God.

“Ponder [the Word] without analyzing it. Give it space to speak.” (Christine Paintner)


We allow the Sower to sow the seed, prayerfully tending the soil to encourage deep roots.

Desert Father, Abba Poemen  said, “The nature of water is soft; that of stone is hard. But if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. ”


When we continually ponder the Word of God, it will surely soften and open our hearts to its mystery.

Choosing a Passage: To begin with, choose a passage you especially love, or feel drawn to, or one that seems to speak to your current life situation. Make it the average length of a Psalm or Canticle: not too short, not too long. If you are in crisis or in discernment about something, you may want to humbly ask someone else to prayerfully choose a passage for you:  a spiritual director, a priest or a friend, trusting in the Holy Spirit to work through that person. You may want to follow the Lectionary and let the Holy Spirit lead you in the daily Mass readings of the Liturgical Year. We should make sure we don’t habitually pick passages that suit our self will, but remain receptive so we can be good soul soil.

Memorizing: I like writing a passage out and keeping it in my pocket all day to read and go over again and again. You can take turns with a friend at work giving each other a passage now and then, quizzing each other when you have a chance, until it is memorized. Read it right before going to sleep and repeat it to yourself as you head into that twilight just before you slip into the unconscious. Sometimes the passage will go with you into sleep. Work on it when you’re filling the car with gas, standing in line at the grocery store, or at a boring meeting.

Lectio 2

Meditating: Set aside time to be alone with the passage once it is memorized well. Sit in a quiet, private place, in a position in which you can be both alert and relaxed. Once you are recollected, begin to go mentally over the passage very slowly- not too slowly but don’t rush through it, either. You will find your perfect pace and phrasing. “…He…humbled… himself…. taking the form… of a slave…. being born… in the likeness… of men… “

Let the phrases be like a string of rosary beads slipping slowly through your fingers. When you get to the end of your verse, phrase or passage, begin again.

If you are distracted just bring yourself gently back to the words. A small distraction merits gentle redirection. But if the mind has completely left the passage and is doing its own thing, patiently let it know that when it does this, you will be starting again at the beginning of the passage, and then do. The mind doesn’t like that but it won’t rebel too much. You will find it runs off much less often as you practice, once it learns you mean business.

This is time you spend in intimacy with God, attentive to His Word, quietly and tenderly abiding in Him and allowing Him to rest also in you.

Lectio 3

How much time you decide to spend on this prayer is up to you. Thirty minutes is customary but even five can do. The most important part is to do it and to practice it every day you can, for however long. Then His language will be your language and His thoughts will become your thoughts. When you call He will answer- often with the perfect verse.

When you are ready, move on to another passage. And another.

From: Shawn Rain Chapman “Meditating on the Word: a lesson from the Desert Fathers and Mothers” Text available on-line at:

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