Camping with the Desert Fathers
For 20 years now, I have been heading from my native Vermont to the American West—Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Southern California—to hike and camp in the desert. Or, as the New Testament would have it, the eremos. That is the ancient Greek word for wilderness, a lonely place of naked rock, blazing sun and humming silence. And maybe, if you pray and pray, if you genuinely open yourself, it is a place of divine presence, too.
The English word “hermit” derives from eremos, which is to say it derives from the early Chistian contemplatives, theabbas and ammas (fathers and mothers) who traded civilized life beside the Nile River for the enormous austerity of Egypt’s parched hinterlands. In Thomas Merton’s introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings of the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, he describesthese radical spiritual adventurers as “men 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.” (Note that scholarship on the desert mothers has improved since Merton brought out his book in 1970.)
The wilderness is a lonely place of naked rock, blazing sun and, if you open yourself to it, divine presence, too.
I am fascinated by the discipline and freedom of monastic practice, but that is not to imply that I am a hardcore desert hermit en route to salvation. The home I share with a girlfriend, a loud stereo system and a decent amount of junk food wrappers and beer cans (weekends) is in the heart of a busy village, and the busy village is in the heart of a forested mountain range, and the forested mountain range is often soggy with rain and snow.
I attend Mass infrequently at best, despite having been confirmed in the Catholic Church. If anything, I am a kind of wannabe John Muir, a guy who enters the backcountry in order to immerse himself in creation, to revel in the beauty of a mysterious whole, to be humbled by the power of an ultimate something.
On a recent solo, two-phase trip—first a visit to the least-populated region of the Great Basin (Esmeralda County, Nev.), second an exploration of the labyrinthine canyons that enclose the Escalante River (Garfield County, Utah)—I carried The Wisdom of the Desert in my backpack. It was nestled there with the crusty cookpot, headlamp, sleeping bag, topographic maps, thermal undies and duct-tape-patched tent. Basically, I went rambling with the abbas as companions.
The fathers demonstrated how to cultivate attunement and receptivity to a place that is gritty and brittle and sharp and spare.
Arsenius, pass the salt, please. Poemen, do you think this is a promising spot to search for Ancestral Puebloan pictographs? John the Dwarf, stop hogging the foot room, dang.
Each evening before bed, the old words and stories—the old themes of fortitude, non-judgement, patience and compunction—rang in my ears. More importantly, though, they fadedfrom my ears, subtly, bell-like, and in doing so drew me deeper into the desert quiet, the elemental scene. I was surprised to discover (I should not have been, given the etymology of the word “hermit”) that these men knew a heck of a lot about camping in the wilderness.
Did they refer to their experiments in solitude as camping? No. Did they intend for their famous “sayings” on contemplation and asceticism and God to be reinterpreted by a 21st-century wilderness buff? Doubtful.Nevertheless, the desert fathers became for me guides of a sort. They demonstrated how to cultivate attunement and receptivity to a place that is gritty and brittle and sharp and spare, alien and off-putting, difficult to engage and inhabit.
Our task is muting the inner voice that wants to constantly comment, question, argue, elaborate, dissect.
Here is what I mean: It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.
My gloss: Rejecting the noise of your phone in favor of the zero-cell-tower back country is just a start. The next task is more important: muting the inner voice that wants to constantly comment, question, argue, elaborate, dissect. Our mouths are prone to blather, but so too are our minds. We have to hush mouth and mind alike to hear the raven’s wingbeat, the cottonwood’s rustling leaves, the cliff’s slowmo erosion.
Yet another elder said: If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him.
People increasingly treat the desert as a recreational space—this objective, that objective, bag the peak, run the river, do it in record time, snap a thousand photos, go, go, go. But striving and rushing reduces the terrain to a mere human agenda, a limited and limiting itinerary. Instead, abandon destinations. Set aside goals. Resist self-directed action and let the self be acted upon.
If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground.
One of the elders said: If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out, as one who has not borne its fruit.
You will have a horrible experience if you fight the flora and fauna and topography and climate, if you refuse to meet the landscape on its own idiosyncratic terms. The scorpions, cactus spines and vicious heat are the desert’s very essence. Work and play with them. Respect and honor them.
An elder said: A man who keeps death before his eyes will at all times overcome his cowardice.
Rattlesnakes, flash floods, broken legs, dehydration—the desert is undeniably dangerous, but the danger has a clarifying, vivifying effect. It focuses us, strengthens us. Risk can serve as a portal, a passageway through fear to an appreciation of the present moment, whatever it might hold.
You will have a horrible experience if you fight the flora and fauna and topography and climate.
Abbot Bessarion, dying, said: The monk should be all eyes, like the cherubim and seraphim.
Deserts are big, long, wide, vast. Ditto the skies overhead. Meditate on the distant horizon, the unimaginable scale of geology and weather, then zoom in on the pebbles at your feet, the beetle’s shiny black carapace, the mouse’s paw print, the trembling shapes of shadows. Look closely. Look until you have forgotten that you are looking, until you have forgotten that you are you. Visions need not involve burning bushes.
And finally: A certain philosopher asked St. Anthony: Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of books? Anthony replied: My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.
Ha! For all the wisdom of the desert crammed into The Wisdom of the Desert—for all the companionship and guidance this slim text offers—eventually we have to leave behind instruction, forego the established trail, and wander off alone, allowing the earth to speak through the soles of our boots.
The desert as a place of divine presence? A place of ecological presence? A place of indefinable presence? The abbas and ammas were aware that at a point language collapses and what we are left with is creation—that mysterious whole, that ultimate something. Ounce-counting backpackers with blistered heels and sore shoulders will assure you: going light is paramount.
And going empty—empty so you can be filled—is even better.