Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, February 16, 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015 – A Pre-Lenten Reading
Introduction to “The Wisdom of the Wilderness”
by Jerry Webber

During Lent, I’ll provide daily meditations based on the stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (3rd – 5th centuries) on my Lenten blog ( I've posted this introductory material on that site . . . it is intended to give some basic background and context to the Desert Christians: Who were these men and women? How did they get to the desert? What did they do there?

In the years after Christ, followers of Jesus faced a number of challenges. For many decades, Christians were persecuted by a hostile Roman Empire, which viewed Christian faith as atheistic (Christians did not worship the gods of the Roman Empire, nor the Emperor as deity). Christians were imprisoned, tortured, or put to death, often for sport in the Roman Empire.

Another challenge arose about three centuries after Christ, when Constantine became Emperor of the once-hostile Roman Empire. The new Emperor declared that Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire. Suddenly, the hostile Romans became the Christian Romans. Everyone in the Empire was called a Christian.

From these two very diverse scenarios, a movement within Christianity arose in the wilderness areas of Egypt and the Middle East. Christians who were serious about deepening their life in God fled from the cities into the desert in order to seek a life of spiritual discipline, hoping to grow in their love for God (heart, mind, soul, strength) and others. These Christians, living mostly in wilderness communities, were the first monks (from, “monos”, meaning “one”).

The movement into the wilderness actually began around A.D. 269, when an eighteen-year-old Egyptian named Antony heard scripture read in the church. He listened to the Gospel story of the rich, young ruler with his heart, and when he heard Jesus tell the rich ruler, “Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me” (Mt. 19:21), Antony felt those words were spoken directly to him. He sold his property and gave away the proceeds, holding back only enough to care for his sister (the parents of Antony and his sister had died in an accident previously). He moved outside the city gates, befriending the religious men who sought lives of holiness by living outside the city walls. As he listened still more in the coming days, he was led further into the wilderness to take up the life of a Christian hermit.

Antony intended that he would live alone, allowing a life prayer, fasting, silence, and solitude in the wilderness to be the setting for his own purification. Over many years, he lived in complete solitude and endured terrible trials. When Antony emerged from his solitude, people recognized him as an authentically “healthy” person who had dealt with his own inner darkness in a whole and life-giving way.
Others began coming to him, urging him to help them come to a deeper sense of their own most authentic self. They sought healing from him, and wise counsel. Groups of disciples gathered around him, for whom Antony was a spiritual guide. Antony also made frequent forays back into the cities of Egypt, into the churches of the area, and before the bishops in Alexandria.

After Antony, a slow trickle of men and women entered the Egyptian desert in order to follow Christ more closely. These desert Christians found freedom to express their love for God through spiritual practice, both in solitude and in communities of seekers that sprung up in the wilderness. The first rule for these Desert Fathers and Mothers was charity toward all. Love and charity, for these Christians, seasoned every ascetic practice of the desert.

The wisdom of the wilderness actually grew up around these men and women who were seeking God and who, through their own spiritual practice, were attentive to their own interior shadows. They literally lived in the Egyptian desert. But metaphorically, they also lived in a spiritual desert, sensing that within their cultural milieu, they existed in an arid wilderness in which they needed to be spiritually lean and fit in order to survive. The desert was their place of their fitness, learning, and becoming . . . learning about God, self, others, and the created world (the four contexts of any wholistic spirituality) as they became the persons God created them to be.

It is important to know that the Desert Abbas and Ammas (Fathers and Mothers) were not ascetics for the sake of being ascetics. They did not strictly adhere to a code of spiritual discipline simply for the sake of being disciplined. They sought to be aware of their own internal darkness, to bring that darkness under the love of God, and then share their wisdom with others who would endeavor a similar spiritual journey.

For some today, their harsh asceticism seems outdated and irrelevant. They engaged in practices that seem extreme. Whether fasting food, sleep, sexual gratification, conversation, or the company of others, they could go to extremes. But always, asceticism was the means, not the goal. Their spiritual disciplines always pointed to a purpose beyond the practice. The spiritual practices were shaping them to be the kind of person who knew their own self and who knew what tripped up the self, in order that such a person could love God, self, and others more completely.

These Desert Fathers and Mothers – as they have come to be known – were shaped by love, but also by a desire for purity of heart, the purification of actions and motivations, in order not to drown in the world’s excesses. They chose to do this as best they could by living apart from the constant tugs and pulls of society. And paradoxically, by withdrawing from society, they were able to engage society and culture in an entirely different way, both through their prayer and with their wisdom.

Finally, a short word about how this wisdom was generally passed on. Usually, groups of disciples would gather around a certain Abba or Amma, living in close community with him or her in the Egyptian desert (generally in huts or caves, called “cells”). The mentoring would take the form of apprenticeship, in which the novice disciple would learn from the life, words, and actions of the Abba or Amma. Thus, there are a number of stories told about things the spiritual Fathers and Mothers did in interacting with others.

There are stories, too, that simply communicate the pithy sayings of these wisdom figures, told often as koans or paradoxical word riddles. Usually these wisdom sayings would be initiated by the disciple, who would approach the spiritual Father for instance, and say, “Father, give me a word.” The Father would offer a sentence that, then, the apprentice was invited to chew on for its meaning in his/her life.

The wisdom of the wilderness, then, is contained both in stories from the lives of these Desert Christians and in their sayings. We’ll explore their wisdom through the coming days of Lent. The daily posts will be available at

– Jerry Webber

No comments: