Desert Spirituality in Modern Times
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; … And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:16-17
Scripture is the cornerstone of the monastic movement begun in the 3rd century by Christian men and women who lived in the deserts of Egypt. These monastics were reading Scripture, holding it in memory and in the heart, using Scripture as a means of prayer, and meditating on and following scriptural precepts. The spirituality of the desert monastics came to be known in the West as desert spirituality. Christians who practice desert spirituality follow some of these different activities that characterize the relationship between the Christian and Scripture.
Take for example this desert teaching: Abba Poemen, a 4th-century desert father, said, “The nature of water is soft, that of the 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. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.”
Though a single word of Scripture is powerful enough to transform, most people need more than one reading. Accordingly, reading Scripture often is crucial. The ceaseless reading of Scripture acts as a constant reminder until the words of God can be engraved in our memories, thoughts and hearts. The constant reading of Scripture acts like a mental Post-It note.
On another occasion, a monk asked Abba Sisoes the Theban for a word of advice. Abba Sisoes answered, “I read the New Testament, and I turn to the old.”
Abba Sisoes’ spiritual practice was to read Scripture from beginning to end, then start again with Genesis. The best advice he could give a newcomer to the desert was to read Scripture. Scripture will teach you everything.
Alexandra was a hermit and ascetic woman who spent her time in seclusion dividing it between prayer and manual work. From morning till three in the afternoon — the usual time for ascetics’ first meal of the day — she would weave linen while praying and contemplating on the Psalms. Alexandra contemplated not only on Bible verses, but also on the lives of the biblical figures, whether ascetics such as Elijah, John the Baptist or Anna the daughter of Phanuel, whom she would emulate, or other prophets and apostles whom she could take as role models.
Close reflection on the lives of the biblical figures gave desert fathers and mothers a special spiritual bond with these figures, who influenced them in some of their spiritual practices.
By reading Scripture constantly and dwelling on some verses for contemplation, these men and women engraved Bible verses in their memories. One of the aims of the spiritual exercise of memorizing scriptural verses is to reach the point where, in the words of Song of Solomon 5:2, “I slept, but my heart was awake.” Thus, one’s inner thoughts are constantly contemplating on God and God’s words as a means to attain purity of thought. It is a way to fulfill the command “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).
The desert fathers and mothers understood “I slept, but my heart was awake” as the total devotion of the heart to God. One of the means to achieve this level of devotion was through constant contemplation on Scripture. Many of us wake up with the last thoughts we go to sleep with or with the topic that most worries us. Sleeping and waking up with thoughts of resentment, worry, dissatisfaction or frustration will render a person exhausted and depleted, without any positive outlook on the world for the coming day. If the last thoughts are words of Scripture or thoughts of the Divine, then this is what we will subconsciously think of during our sleep and when we first wake up. This first thought can set the mood for the day.
The desert fathers and mothers encourage all who read Scriptures but do not understand a verse or a passage to first implore God to reveal the meaning of that portion of Scripture. This does not mean one does not refer to commentaries, but the inner and deep meaning of a verse or passage might not be understood in any way other than prayer.
The desert fathers and mothers were very careful to assert that reading Scripture was primarily for the reader’s edification and spiritual growth and not for boasting about one’s knowledge or intellectual abilities.
The following saying indicates the anxiety that arises when reading Scripture shifts from personal edification to other uses. Ammon of Raithu brought this question to Sisois: “When I read Scripture, I am tempted to make elaborate commentaries and prepare myself to answer questions on it.” Sisois replied, “You don’t need to do that. It is better to speak simply, with good conscience and a pure mind.”
This shift affects the mode of reading and one’s approach toward Scripture. Many church leaders who have to prepare for Sunday sermons, Bible studies, or talks might become so consumed with preparations for a successful presentation or sermon that they overlook their own benefit from the biblical text. There is no doubt that the person who prepares for any type of church service reaps some benefit, but this might be a benefit that satisfies the intellect rather than enriches the spirit.
The desert fathers and mothers memorized Scriptures as an integral part of their spiritual life. Given modern technology one might ask, Why memorize Scripture at all? Now, with our devices that render literally the whole of Scripture digitally at our fingertips, why memorize?
Memorization is still important for the spiritual endeavor. “Smart” phones and other devices provide Scripture on demand, but that was not what the fathers and mothers were doing. Memorization internalizes the biblical message in the heart, soul, and mind of the person endeavoring to live a spiritual life. Technology cannot internalize Scripture; it makes it available, but we have to do the inner work of interacting with the biblical verses or figures and meditating on them.
Visual media enhanced by modern technology might facilitate our memorization, since we are becoming more and more of a visual culture, but we still have to inwardly interact with the word in whatever form we receive it. The main goal is internalizing Scripture so that our heart, soul, and mind conform to God’s words so that we are in the constant presence of God. Scripture provides words for us to pray, bless, praise, and give glory to God when we are in God’s presence.
Is this even possible in today’s busy, distracted life? Yes. It is difficult, and we will never attain the level of focus displayed by the desert fathers and mothers. Nevertheless, we can regularly present ourselves humbly before God’s presence. This requires some de-cluttering of our lives, which the desert fathers called renunciation.
The more we simplify our lives, the more we are able to have inner quietness, the more our heart has the space to praise, bless and feel God and enjoy being in God’s presence. This de-cluttering and quietness should be accompanied by memorization of Scripture, whether it’s a verse a day, a verse a week or even a verse a month. The focus on and meditating on one verse for some time quiets the heart and focuses the mind and helps prayer and praise.”
From: Lois Farag “Desert Spirituality in Modern Times” – full text available on-line at: https://www.enterthebible.org/blog.aspx?m=3783&post=3481
See further: Lois Farag “Balance of the Heart; Desert Spirituality for Twenty-First-Century Christians” [Cascade Publishing, 2012]
Lois Farag is associate professor of Early Church History, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.