Monday, November 18, 2013

The Desert and the Real: Part 1

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality…When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve…The death by which we enter into life is not an escape from reality but a complete gift of ourselves which involves total commitment to reality. It begins by renouncing the illusory reality which created things acquire when they are seen only in their relation to our own selfish interests.
- from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude


I grew up as a protestant mainline evangelical. I am Christian, and to this day a practicing evangelical, but I am by no means completely sold out to my protestant evangelical roots. For a while now, I have been having an ongoing conversation with a very good friend of mine, who is much more evangelically evangelical than myself, on Catholicism. I’m not so sure he would say Catholics in general aren’t Christian, but his attitude towards Catholicism is much less amicable than mine. As part of that conversation, he sent me THIS LINK with a note saying he didn’t really get it. Upon questioning, he didn’t get why someone would isolate himself like that while waiting on God.

This blog post, then, serves as an attempt on my part to try to explain, as best I can, what Fr. Maxime was doing and why. That doesn’t mean I’m an expert. This is merely my attempt at an explanation. I have engaged in some study of the desert fathers and the ascetic life, and I have also practiced contemplative prayer, partially, and however distantly, based on the teachings of the desert fathers. That, by no means, then, makes me an expert or “master.” It does, though, mean that I feel like I, at least to a degree, “get” what Fr. Maxime is doing. It also gives me some means to begin to try to help pass what I got onto my very good friend. This, as the title indicates, is Part 1. Part 2, meant to be read as a continuation of Part 1, can be found HERE.

First, I am aware that Fr. Maxime is neither Catholic nor a desert monk. I think the spirit, purpose, and history of the ascetic life in the wilderness is the same, regardless. I have studied and been attracted to the theosis of the Eastern Orthodox churches (to which Fr. Maxime belongs), so I suspect there are differences between what Fr. Maxime is practicing and the ascetic life of a Catholic monk. My conversation with my friend, however, is on Catholicism, so I plan to use Fr. Maxime’s story as a springboard for discussing some of the extraordinarily rich historical corners of the high church in general and of Catholicism in particular.


The history of the Christian ascetic life as we think of it today goes back to the monastic desert fathers who fled the threat of becoming Saducees in the cities of Constantinism in the late 4th century to early 5th century A.D. They fled Constantinism for the desert to remind them of their true home.

The Saducees believed that partnering with the power of Rome would bring the Messiah more quickly. Their selfish interests, their desires for worldly power and gain, were interwoven into the very fabric of their eschatology. With Constantine, the church became Rome. Suddenly, some of the men who were serious about imitating Christ were afraid of becoming Saducees.

“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it has no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit…” – from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

*Note: from here on out, all quotes will be from Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, unless otherwise noted. Thomas Merton, by the way, was a Trappist monk in Kentucky in the mid to late 1900’s.

As part of the rejection of the teachings of the Saducees, the lifestyle of these men who fled to the desert around the time of Constantine became known as that of an ascetic, known primarily for austerity, discipline, regular daily rhythms in harmony with nature, continuous prayer and worship, and a particular kind of Christian prayer that might be termed “contemplation.”

Stylite was the name that came to be taken by one of the offshoots of this ascetic life. They took the ascetic life in a bit of a different direction from the desert fathers, but the general purpose was the same. Click HERE for more information from Wikipedia on the Stylites in general (the tradition in which Fr. Maxime is participating). Click HERE for similar information from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

That is the tradition in which Fr. Maxime entered when he left prison, made a decision to go in a new direction, and took the vows of a monk. Click HERE for a much less watered down and more informative reporter’s story on Fr. Maxime (as compared to the yahoo story linked above).


The original reasons for fleeing to the desert, so to speak, are present in contemporary life, but having put on a new mask.

“…totalitarianiam…the murderous din of materialism…has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person…It is all very well to insist that man is a ‘social animal’ – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine…since faith is a matter of freedom and self-determination – the free receiving of a freely given gift of grace – man cannot assent to a spiritual message as long as his mind and heart are enslaved by automatism.”

Notably, when Paul said, “Give your all to what you do, as if working unto the Lord,” he was speaking to slaves. But, as I will touch on more, the ascetic life, if one chooses it, is one of penance. In other words, Merton is here taking the ascetic life to be a response to materialism, as opposed to working as a slave for the totalitarian machine. The monk’s vows, however, are not an angry rebellion against an inhuman, omnipresent materialistic Master. The ascetic is attempting to turn away, rather, from his own desire for the appeal for power that the totalitarian machine offers and presents to him.

“You look at the deserts today. What are they? The birthplace of a new and terrible creation, the testing-ground of the power by which man seeks to un-create what God has blessed. Today, in the century of man’s greatest technological achievement, the wilderness at last comes into its own. Man no longer needs God, and he can live in the desert on his own resources. He can build there his fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice. The glittering towns that spring up overnight in the desert are no longer images of the City of God, coming down from heaven to enlighten the world with the vision of peace….They are brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil upon the face of the wilderness, cities of secrecy…cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood, and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction.”

When Merton says “a new and terrible creation…by which man seeks to un-create what God has blessed,” he is referring to the nuclear bomb, which ended WWII. It was tested in the wilderness of the desert in the Western U.S. The “glittering towns” he refers to are ones like Las Vegas, whose growth into what we know it to be today WAS LARGELY DUE TO THE SCIENTISTS AND STAFF OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT.

These are the two indications of man’s completion of his modern project: his ability to create something out of nothing (so to speak), and his ability to destroy the entirety of his known world through one swift, powerful weapon of his own technological achievement. At the completion of the modern project, man and Satan have a meeting in the desert that is quite different from that of Christ and his adversary. Christ threw Satan into the wilderness to wander there then went there to overcome him. The ever-crafty Satan then used the allure man’s crafted images of his own power to lure man to the desert to become like him.

Having become like Satan, man, of his own resources and not only without God but in bold defiance of Him, “turned stones to bread” when he created his cities out of the nothing to him that was the desert. In my research on coming-to-fruition of the atomic bomb, I found that the scientists involved treated it with all the awe and veneration of a devoted worshipper taking a trip to the temple. Just as when Satan tempted Jesus with the idea of jumping off the roof of said temple, you get that feeling of a kid playing with fire for the first time. None of the scientists quite knew exactly what distance to keep between themselves and the bomb, and no one quite knew who would be how safe, or even what safety might mean in such circumstances. They knew they were playing with something that could rather swiftly wipe out all of creation as they knew it, and so it was treated, in kind, with appropriate awe and an air of mystery. But, from their confidence in their calculations, you also get the same sense of invincibility that Satan offered to Jesus, based on the scripture saying that not one of his bones will be broken. “’All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’”


“Can we watch the growth of these cities and not do something to purify our own hearts? When man and his money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere. Everywhere is desert. Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance and fight the adversary and purify his own heart in the grace of God.”

The ascetic life is like a continuous fast. Many men fast intermittently. If it is true, though, that the Devil was thrown into the desert, and that, by man’s own doing, the desert is now everywhere, then a continuously repentant life of thirsty fasting is appropriate. Extreme measures might sometimes be an appropriate response to extreme circumstances.

“That is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown into the ‘wilderness of upper Egypt’ to ‘wander in dry places.’ Thirst drives men mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence…So the man who wanders into the desert must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage.”

The madness of thirst makes the purpose of the choice to be in the desert explicitly obvious for the ascetic. He glimpses a taste of the madness of Satan in order to overcome him. The ascetic is driven to the desert, and the desert drives him to thirst. Our thirst becomes a question of where we quench it. And being driven to thirst means not asking where our thirst is quenched only when we chose to entertain the question. Our very bodies become a voice shouting in the wilderness. “Come, all who are thirsty…”

*Note: the image above is of the interior of the main chapel at ABBAYE DU THORONET (a former residence of Catholic monks who lead this ascetic life). There, THIS happened (enjoy the drink)…

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