Mystics and the Margins
Freedom in the Desert
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
When Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, something remarkable and strange took place. A whole set of people began to flock to the margins of the Empire to pursue God. They went to the deserts of Palestine, Cappadocia, Syria, and Egypt. This is the emergence of the ones we now call in a collective way the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These individuals in the desert sought to reflect more deeply on the Mystery of God and God’s will through work, prayer, and study of the Scriptures.
Thomas Merton (1915–1968) describes their movement this way:
Society—which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world”—was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual had to swim for their life. . . . These were people who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the “world” was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve. 
Benedictine Sister Laura Swan has written about the spirituality of the Desert Mothers, and describes the quest for wholeness and salvation for which these seekers thirsted and could find only outside the mainstream society:
Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity—simplicity grounded in the possession of little—and the abundance of God’s presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to the deepening of this relationship. Obstacles included unhelpful attitudes and motives, thoughts that stalled their pursuit of God, and emotional ties that complicated their inner journeys.
The desert ascetics’ relationships were nonpossessive: They cared for others while leaving them free. Concern for reputation was discarded. Feelings were acknowledged and listened to for their wisdom but were subjected to the discipline of the heart’s goal to seek God. The desert ascetics sought to mortify disordered passions that distracted them from their deepening relationship with God and actively to cultivate a burning love for God.
Although the journey began with giving away possessions, desert ascetics understood that what possessed them was greater than the sum of goods owned. All that owned them, all that possessed their minds and hearts, their attachments and compulsions, must be healed and reconciled. Desert ascetics called this process of moving toward inner freedom detachment. Detachment allows for greater direct experience of the Divine Presence as the seeker is attached to fewer distractions.
Desert ascetics understood that the cultivation of inner freedom was vital to the deepening of their experience of God. As they deepened their interior freedom, all aspects of their false self were removed and a clearer understanding of their truest self emerged. It is this true self that dwells deeply with God. In the abundant simplicity of our true self, we experience deepest joy. 
 Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (New Directions: 1970, ©1960) 3. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.
 Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (Paulist Press: 2001), 21–22. Italics in original.