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Center for Action and Contemplation
The Desert Mystics
The Desert Mystics

Recognizing Our Lost History

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

For too long, little or no honor has been paid to those who have laid the foundations in Africa for the preservation of Christianity throughout the world…. The roots and headwaters for this monastic flourishing had their source in African soil.  
—Paisius Altschul, An Unbroken Circle  

CAC teacher Barbara Holmes reminds us of the forgotten gifts of early Christianity, particularly from its African legacies: 

African participants in the early church remained in the shadows of the main theological discourse despite the scholarship of Tertullian, Augustine, Cyprian, and others of African descent who were instrumental in the expansion and theological grounding of the early church. Although initially the spread of Islam limited the expansion of North African Christian practices to sub-Saharan Africa, the trajectories of today’s Christian contemplative practices can be traced to early Christian communities in the Middle East and Africa. 

Some of these communities were led by women…. After Christianity became a state religion, the freedom that women found in Spirit-led Christian sects was foreclosed by an increasingly hierarchical religious structure. In response, many retreated to remote desert areas to continue their spiritual quests. 

This desert may initially seem barren, dull, and colorless, but eventually our perceptions start to change…. Here we empty ourselves of our own obstacles to God. In the space of this emptiness, we encounter the enormity of God’s presence…. The ammas [Desert Mothers] teach us that the desert becomes the place of a mature repentance and conversion toward transformation into true radical freedom. [1] 

If the desert is a place of renewal, transformation, and freedom, and if the heat and isolation served as a nurturing incubator for nascent monastic movements, one wonders if a desert experience is necessary to reclaim this legacy. 

One need not wonder long when there are so many deserts within reach. 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. Perhaps contemplative spaces can be found wherever people skirt the margins of inclusion. Perhaps those whom we value least have the most to teach. 

We are in need of those values central to African monasticism and early Christian hospitality; they include communal relationships, humility, and compassion. Laura Swan sums up these virtues in the word apatheia, defined as “a mature mindfulness, a grounded sensitivity, and a keen attention to one’s inner world as well as to the world in which one has journeyed.” [2] Inevitably, the journey takes each of us in different directions; however, by virtue of circumstances or choice, each of us will at some point in our lives find ourselves on the outskirts of society listening to the silence coming from within. During these times, we realize that contemplation is a destination as well as a practice.  


[1] Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), 168. 

[2] Swan, Forgotten Desert Mothers, 25. 

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 10–12. 

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. 

Story from Our Community:

As I read this morning’s Daily Meditation about desert ascetics, I imagined enjoying the luxury of drifting off to the desert to pursue God in the desolate quiet. As compelling as that scenario is, it isn’t possible for most of us. We simply can’t pull away because so many depend upon us. Most of us play the role of a spouse, parent, corporation president, teacher or caretaker of a loved one and it can be difficult to sneak off to that desert. But of course, we can find other ways to encounter God: in the midst of a diaper change or a corporate board meeting or while washing our loved one’s face.… While I appreciate the draw of the desert, I find God to be very much alive in the cacophony that is our lives. I am most grateful that God remains among us wherever we are. —Mary P. 

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