In his early days, Abba Euprepius went to see an old man and said to him, “Abba, give me a word so that I may be saved.” — from the “Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Fathers”
I’m dreaming of deserts these days, and of a cave tucked high into the sides of a dry river wadi, its entrance warmed by the sun, its depths all mystery. A rough and narrow path to the door clings to the cliff side, discouraging casual visitors.
I can’t be the only one dreaming of escaping to warmer places. Winter has worn out its welcome in so many ways. Most of my driveway is still covered in mounds of sooty snow. My teaching schedule is in disarray, and with two more storms on the horizon, I have little hope of getting it back on track soon.
Too, we’re sitting on the edge of Lent, with its images of the Israelites wandering in the desert and of Jesus, retreating to the desert to fast and to pray. But I suspect my desert imaginings are rooted more what I’ve been reading than the weather or the liturgical season — I’ve been soaking in the words of the men and women who came to the Egyptian desert in the third and fourth centuries, seeking God, the people we call the desert fathers and mothers.
We think of the desert as an inhospitable place, a place of privation, a place where nothing grows. But the desert’s vast horizons offer a certain safety, an ability to see clearly the dangers well before they arrive on your doorstep. There is also a certain extravagance in choosing the desert, in throwing caution to the wind, leaving nearly everything and everyone behind, and choosing to face God alone.
Visitors to Egypt at the time reported thousands of men and women, living as hermits in the desert outside the walls of the towns and cities. I wonder if this is what Isaiah meant when he prophesized that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly….” (Is 35:1-2a)
The fathers and mothers of the desert were not seeking to be mystics or sages, but to simply grow closer to God in the silence. They prayed, they fasted and they were famously hospitable to those who came to see them. People sought out these hermits, walking the dry riverbeds and clambering up the cliff sides, asking them for “a word,” that they might be saved.
Their short sayings were passed on, from brother to brother, from mothers to their sisters in Christ, and finally collected in written form so that 15 centuries later we, too, might have “a word” from the desert.
Lent is often called a desert time. What do I seek in the Lenten desert, a desert that God promises us will blossom abundantly? What words of salvation would the fathers and mothers of the desert have for me?
As Ash Wednesday approaches, I hear Abba Poemen’s extravagant advice: “Throw yourself before God, do not measure your progress, cast away your own will — these are the tools of the soul.” What would God make of me this Lent, if I walk out, alone and without expectations, into these desert days?
Praying, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional cornerstones of our Lenten practice. I invite you to join me this Lent in exploring what the desert fathers and mothers have to teach us about these ways of walking with God.
To read from Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-13
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. — St. Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe
“Silent , surrendered, calm and still,
Open to the word of God.
Heart humbled to his will.
Offered is the servant of God.” — Margaret Rizza