The Desert Fathers and Mothers
A Search for God
Monday, May 4, 2015
The desert tradition offers a rich teaching of surrender, through contemplation, to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. The desert fathers and mothers are like the Zen Buddhist monks of Christianity; their sayings are often like koans that cannot be understood with the rational, logical mind. The desert mystics focused much more on the how than the what. Note that this is very different from the primary emphasis of Christianity in recent centuries—the what of beliefs and doctrine.
Thomas Merton observed that the Western church had largely neglected the teaching of contemplation for at least the last 500 years. He helped modern Christianity recover an awareness of contemplative practice, in part from his reading of the desert fathers and mothers. They were surely bona fide Christians and yet knew none of the doctrines which many of us today take as essential orthodoxy, such as the two natures of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the inerrancy of the Bible, and on and on. This early period is a clearing house for essential Christianity.
The desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. Merton writes: “All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love, in fact, is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.”
The desert fathers and mothers focused on these primary practices in their search for God: 1) leaving, to some extent, the systems of the world; 2) some degree of solitude to break from the maddening crowd; 3) silence to break from the maddening mind; and 4) some “technologies” for controlling the compulsivity of mind and the emotions. All of this was for the sake of growing a person capable of love and community.
Contemplation became a solid foundation for building a civilization and human community. Contemplative consciousness labels things less easily and does not attach itself to one solitary definitive meaning. In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.
Gateway to Silence:
Lead me into the wilderness of silence and simplicity.
 Thomas Merton, trans., The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions: 1960), 17.