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The Desert Mystics
The Desert Mystics

The Wise Storytellers 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts.
—Amma Syncletica, Life of Blessed Syncletica 

Father Richard considers the Desert Mystics foundational contributors to his lineage of faith:  

The period of early Christianity, one of the key building blocks in my lineage of faith, is largely unknown to many Western Christians. It is an overlooked area for much of the Roman Church and its child, Protestantism. With the self-sufficiency and arrogance that has often characterized the West, we have proceeded as if the first centuries of Christianity were unimportant, or not part of the essential Christ Mystery. The very things the early Christians emphasized—such as the prayer of quiet, the Trinity, divinization, universal restoration, and the importance of practice—are some of the most neglected parts of the Western Church. 

After the legitimation and, some would say, the co-opting of Christianity by Constantine in 313, many Christians fled to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Cappadocia (Eastern Turkey). We call these men and women the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and most of their names would be unknown to Western Christians. The desert Christians emphasized lifestyle practice, an alternative to empires and their economies, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple spirituality of transformation into Christ. The desert communities grew out of informal gatherings of monastics and functioned much like families. This tradition preceded the emergence of systematic theology and the later Church Councils. 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.  

Early Christianity set the foundation for what we would now call contemplation. Both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen recognized the importance of this early, desert form of Christianity. It is a unique window into how Jesus was first understood, before the church became an imperial, highly organized, competitive religion.  

Eastern Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis writes of the powerful stories shared by desert Christians in their spiritual teaching: 

The Fathers and Mothers who lived in the desert of Egypt remind us of the importance of story-telling, which we have for the most part forgotten in our age. Listening to their stories and sayings, meditating on them in silence and subsequently telling them to others, helped our ancestors to live humanely, to be more human, to remain truly alive.… The stories from the Egyptian desert are more than just a part of the Christian past. They are a part of our human heritage: they communicate eternal values, spiritual truths. Theirs is a silence of the deep heart and of intense prayer, a silence that cuts through centuries and cultures. We should stop to hear that heartbeat. [1] 


[1] John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, rev. ed.(Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008), 2.  

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church,” The Mendicant 5, no. 2 (March 2015): 1.  

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:

I feel like I’ve come home by practicing contemplative prayer. Raised Catholic, I loved prayer as a child. I later rebelled, became an atheist, returned to God and attended mass almost every day. Attending mass, I became caught up in the guilt and fear of God. Over the last 10 years, I found God within by exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, and the work of the mystics: first Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and then Richard Rohr. Recently, I have been praying for a community that reflects my Christian way but I had never found one until now. CAC’s videos, contemplative prayers, and newsletters deeply resonate with me. I now know I am not alone. —Mary-Clare B. 

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