Desert Spirituality

Desert Spirituality

-The Rev. Paul J. Kowalewski, Ph.D.


The Desert Mothers and Fathers


In the first few centuries after the resurrection of Christ, the newly emerging Christian church might best be described as a “movement” rather than a formal, institutionalized organization. Many of those first Christians lived together in a community, sharing a common life which was guided by the teaching and example of Jesus. They “pooled” their resources and generously gave what they had for those who were in need. They committed themselves to a life of compassion, kindness and forgiveness. They devoted themselves to building up the welfare of the “common good,” believing that every human should be assured of an equal place of dignity and respect at the table of life.


By the fourth century, this early Christian “movement” of Jesus’ followers (once persecuted by the empire) had become the official religion of the state. Christianity had become an organized institution with a defined hierarchy, prescribed ritual and formalized laws by which to judge who was acceptable to God and who “belonged” in the church - a far cry from the original Jesus’ movement of the first few centuries.


In response to the growing “institutionalization” of the church, a group of faithful men and women left the cities and moved out into the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Gaza where they established little “Christian communities” much like those initial communities of the first Christians.  In essence, they moved into the desert in order to revive the earlier Jesus’ movement.  These 4th century desert dwellers came to be known as the “Desert Monks” or the “Desert Mothers and Fathers.”


The Desert Mothers and Fathers lived in caves in the open wilderness – much like the wilderness of our own Coachella Valley. Inspired and influenced by the awesome experience of living in the silence of a vast desert, the monks spent hours in quiet contemplation.  They also shared a common life, prayed together, worked together, and did their best to treat one another with compassion. Everyone was valued with equal respect and the monks were known for the generous hospitality they would show to any who might come to visit or seek to seek their counsel.   


These ancient desert monks served as a model for subsequent “monastic movements” in the church and to this day, their example and teaching serve aa a guide for contemporary Christians who wish to live a life of “desert spirituality” on their own journey of faith.


The “Sayings” of the early Desert Monks:


While there is not an extensive body of literature written by the Desert Mothers and Fathers,  they did pass down a number of  pithy “sayings” (words of wisdom) that continue to inform our own contemporary Christian experience.


Here is a brief sampling of some of these “Sayings:”


-          When Macarius was living in Egypt, one day he came across a stranger who had brought a donkey to his cave and was stealing his possessions. As though he were a passer-by who did not live there, Macarius went up to the thief, helped him load the beast, and sent him on his way.


-          When the old abbot was asked how he dealt with any brother who fell asleep during public prayer, he replied, ‘I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest.’


-          Evagrius said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind from being dispersed and your stillness lost.


-          Go sit alone in your cave and your cave will teach you everything.


-          Poeman said, ‘If you shut a snake or a scorpion in a box in the end it will die. Wicked thoughts slowly lose their power if the victim has endurance.’


-          Poeman also said, ‘Evil cannot drive out evil. If anyone hurts you, do good to him and your good will destroy his evil.’


-          A hermit said, ‘All chatter is unnecessary. Nowadays everyone talks but what is needed is action, this is what God wants, not useless talking.’


-          Abba Zosimas always liked to say, ‘It’s not possessing something that is harmful, but being attached to it.


-          An old monk was asked, ‘What is humility?’ he said. ‘It is forgiving a brother who has wronged you before he is sorry.’


-          Another brother spoke with Theodore, and he began to talk about matters of which he had no experience. Theodore said to him, ‘You’ve not yet found a ship to sail in, nor put your luggage aboard, nor put out to sea, and you are already acting as if you were in the city you mean to reach.’


-          Once some brothers came to visit Antony and Joseph was with them.  Abba Antony, wanting to test them, began to speak about Holy Scripture. He asked the younger monks first to speak about the meaning of text after text, and each of them answered as well as he could. To each he said, ‘You have not yet found the right answer.’ Then he said to Joseph, ‘What do you think is the meaning of this word?’ Joseph replied, ‘I don’t know.’ Abba Antony said, ‘Indeed Joseph alone has found the true way, for he said he did not know.’


-          Two monks lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.’ The other answered, ‘I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us and say, “That’s mine.” Then you say, “No, it’s mine.”  That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them. And one of them said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, it’s mine.”  He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’  They were unable to argue with each other.



Desert Spirituality


Living out here in the desert of the Coachella Valley can provide us all with a powerful motivation to learn from the teachings and the experiences of our early Christian ancestors - those ancient, 4th century desert monks.


The vast desert wilderness of this valley, with miles of uncharted emptiness and thundering silence is a perfect setting for deeper contemplation, prayer and meditation. The awesome desert landscapes with spectacular sunrises and sunsets offer us a daily invitation to bask in the transcendent beauty of creation.


Even the “sometimes unbearable” desert heat can be a source of greater spiritual depth. A while back, as the summer heat was setting into the valley, I published these few thoughts in my blog, “The Desert Retreat House.”  I hope it may offer a useful summary of what a “desert spirituality” is all about:


A Spirituality of Resilience


The afternoon temperature in the desert where we live soared to well over 100 degrees today.


Ever since moving out here to the Coachella Valley, I have had many friends ask why on earth we would ever choose to live in such a desolate place -  at least why not “get out of town” for the summer months?


In fact, many people go away when it starts to hit the triple digits here.  Our summertime is more like our wintertime - the height of the tourist season is now over, the festivals are finished and you can get a really good deal on a hotel because no one wants to be in the desert at this time of year. And yet, many of us year-long residents choose to remain here to enjoy the stillness and the silence that settles in when all the tourists go away and the “snowbirds” return to their permanent residences in cooler climates. A lot of people, like me, actually think that this is perhaps the very best time of the year.


It’s true that there are no soothing beaches for lounging in the sun or green forests with lush meadows for afternoon strolls. In fact, when the daytime temperatures hit the triple digits it becomes virtually impossible to even go outside during the afternoon hours and the stark desert terrain seems even drier than ever.


But as I think about it, this silent emptiness and utter starkness is precisely why the desert is such a powerful place to live, such an abundant source of spiritual vitality.


When you are able to endure the challenges of living in a desert at this time of year, you learn to develop a sense of “resilience.”  Living here I have learned a life-lesson that you can survive whatever comes along and, in fact, you can thrive and grow even in the emptiest of places.


It seems to me that “resilience” is perhaps the great spiritual gift the desert has to offer. In the midst of the emptiness I have learned to discover abundance. In the places where it seems that I am most alone I have experienced a powerful truth that I am never abandoned – there is a Holy Presence here that never lets me go.


I used to read about “desert spirituality” but I never understood what this meant until we moved out here. A profound wisdom emerges out of living in a hot, often-uncomfortable, empty place. One of my desert spirituality books suggests that, paradoxically, a desert is a place for developing a “wintery spiritualty:”



The desert reminds people of things they would rather forget,

taking them to the edges.

The desert has nothing to do with comfort.

It is a place of ‘wintery spirituality’ with its shrill cry of absence,

contrasting with a ‘summery spirituality’

of easy exuberance and glib certainty of the divine presence.


The desert experience is a ‘wintery phenomenon’

more given to being emptied than filled – harsh and lean in its imagery.

Yet, no love is greater than desert love.


The more I think about it, living in a desert especially in the hottest and driest time of year may in fact be quite iconic of the routine, everyday life we all live- perhaps far more iconic than living on a beautiful beach or in a lush green mountain forest. For the most part life is a wilderness, life is difficult, life is a place where there aren’t a lot of glib easy answers, much of the time we all may feel more empty than full, and many times “God” seems distant and we are filled with more doubt than certainty.  


Someone once said;


Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.


I think there is great wisdom in this observation.


Everyone we meet is in the midst of the fray, struggling to make it though the wilderness; and yet the lesson we learn from our struggles is that we are not alone in it all- we have one another, and a Holy Presence abides.  Even when we only feel absence, Love abides: 


No love is greater than desert love.




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