The Desert Fathers and Mothers
Stages and States
Sunday, May 3, 2015
If I would be completely honest with you, I must say that there is much about the desert fathers and mothers that I do not find attractive or helpful. And it is important to share that here, or you might pick up one of the collections of their “sayings” and, after reading the first few pages, throw it out as unreal, dualistic, naïve, and pre-rational—all of which, I think, would be largely true. The desert mystics represent a level of human consciousness and historical development that we have collectively moved far beyond. And yet we, or at least I, still admire and even need them! Let me use the desert fathers and mothers to illustrate an important point for understanding many historical personages and traditions.
Ken Wilber offers a helpful distinction between stages and states. Your stage of human development has to do with your location in time, your culture, and your education. It has to do with your level of intellectual maturity, how much you’ve been able to integrate thought patterns in a consistent and informed way. Most of us in our lifetimes have grown through a few stages, eventually seeing the limits of each previous stage (both in our own lives and within history), and moving to the next: in general, the ideal tangent is pre-rational, through rational, and on to trans-rational. The trans-rational stage builds on the other two and thus has endless horizons. This is the full trajectory and direction of human growth, with many intermediate stops and starts in between.
Your state of consciousness is more about your level of inner awakening than mere correct information. How much do you live connected to self and others and the Whole? How much have you overcome your sense of separateness and superiority? How much do body, soul, and spirit work together as one? Have you moved beyond simply reacting? Can you act and think in pure inner freedom? In traditional religious language, how much do you live in union with God?
Your state is your inner aliveness. Your stage is your outer awareness. The goal is to be both—holy and whole, saintly and wise. But your state and stage don’t always coincide; many of us are stronger in one area than the other.
You can be a high level thinker and be quite astute about psychology, theology, history, or philosophy (a high stage), but you do it all from a perspective of individualism and arrogance about that very information (a low state)—because it is still all about “you.” Conversely, you could be quite unified within and with others, in a high state of loving consciousness, but be poorly informed, lacking in exposure and education to helpful and informative knowledge.
Perhaps you know people who are compassionate and kind, yet still reveal prejudicial attitudes. They may seem hypocritical but are simply at a high state and a low stage. Love will win out in them and goodness will flow through them, even if they don’t have the gift of teaching or of understanding complex or contradictory issues. They are holy but not whole, saintly but not smart, or would make, as Teresa of Ávila said, the kind of spiritual directors that “are not helpful.”
This describes many desert fathers and mothers: high states of union but low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. Enjoy them for their state, but do not hate them for their stage. Today we have large segments of the population with the opposite problem: high stages of intellectual exposure with very low levels of unitive consciousness—very smart but without awe, humility, or love, which the desert fathers and mothers have in spades! Many of the desert sayings may sound naïve, simplistic, and even dangerous. They are highly open to misinterpretation. Try to receive the simple wisdom of the desert mystics with an open heart and mind in the coming days and let it lead you to authentic joy. Perceive and enjoy their state of loving union, and do not hate them for living in pre-rational Egypt and Syria. This will help you understand many people in our own time as well.
Gateway to Silence:
Lead me into the wilderness of silence and simplicity.