Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
The Desert Mystics
The Desert Mystics

The Desert Mystics: Weekly Summary

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Since the desert monks were often formally uneducated, they told stories, much as Jesus did, to teach about ego, love, virtue, surrender, peace, divine union, and inner freedom. It is a unique window into how Jesus was first understood, before the church became an imperial, highly organized, competitive religion.
—Richard Rohr 

When people say that contemplation or centering prayer is something new, just point them back to the desert traditions.
—Richard Rohr 

Today’s wilderness can be found in bustling suburban and urban centers, on death row, in homeless shelters in the middle of the night, in the eyes of a hospice patient, and in the desperation of AIDS orphans in Africa and around the world. Perhaps these are the postmodern desert mothers and fathers.
—Barbara Holmes 

The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God.
—John Chryssavgis 

The desert mystic’s cell was a sacred space, a place in which a woman could be with herself and the divine Presence and listen. The cell was a place of divine encounter and of ongoing, daily experience of being immersed in God’s presence.
—Mary Earle 

Jesus has gone into the desert for forty days for his own initiation, as it were, and the gospel story is a beautiful telling of the demons we all have to face to grow up, to become mature.
—Richard Rohr 

Chanting Psalms 

CAC faculty emerita Cynthia Bourgeault has long embraced chanting psalms as a powerful, embodied spiritual practice. She describes how this practice first emerged from the desert monks of early Christianity:  

The usual pattern was to recite the psalms (from memory, of course, since both texts and the ability to read them were the exception rather than the rule) interspersed with some simple work such as the plaiting of rope. Depending on the particular form of monastic organization (hermit, skete, or monastery), this solitary psalmody might be augmented by periodic community worship, where the psalms would again be proclaimed as part of the liturgical celebration. There is a strong living memory within later monastic tradition that these early monks recited all 150 psalms in a day. While this may be an exaggeration, it does suggest that the core spiritual practice was a more or less continuous recitation of the psalms during the waking hours. Reciting the psalms was almost as regular as breathing. We know that the manner of this recitation probably involved a form of chanting because of a specific comment made by the desert father Evagrius (345–400): “It is a great thing to pray without distraction but to chant psalms without distraction is even greater.” [1] …  

Within these earliest monastic traditions, then, the psalms—whether chanted alone or in the assembly—formed the basis not only for celebration and proclamation, but for an entrance into contemplative prayer and the work of inner transformation by focusing the mind within the words of the psalm. They became the chief building blocks through which anamnesis, living memory, was attained and maintained.  


[1] Evagrius, in The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 64.  

Cynthia Bourgeault, Chanting the Psalms (Boston, MA: New Seeds Books, 2006), 20–21. 

To learn about multiple ecumenical and contemporary forms of chant, visit  

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, Taos Snow. Benjamin Yazza, Untitled 2, used with permission. Les Argonauts, Camino de Santiago, Unsplash. Click here to enlarge image

In the midst of thorns, the mystic watches, waits and receives. 

Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.