I have just returned from hiking Camelback Mountain, what I affectionately call My Holy Mountain. I wrote about prayer and stillness on Camelback here. Normally, in the summer, I begin my hike at 5 a.m. when it can still be as warms as 90 degrees. By 5:15 a.m.the parking lot at the trailhead for Echo Canyon can be full. But today I began at 2:30 p.m. (and yes, I had a much easier time parking) I was in a funk and knew that a little heat might gets things moving in the inspiration direction.
While hiking I found myself thinking about the earliest Christian men and women who in the 4th century left the cities and headed out into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia. They left the cities to seek a closer communion with God and to commit themselves to a life of martyrdom. By the 4th century Christianity had received a most favored religion status in Constantine’s Byzantium. The persecutions had therefore ended and these men and women ran to the desert to try to radically live out the gospel. If you were to find the one verse that sums them up it would be the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
There were three great centers of monastic activity in Egypt around 400 A.D. Each with a different kind of life going on. Some lived as hermits like Saint Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism. One day in church he heard the verse, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and come and follow me,” as a personal commandment. He withdrew from society in 269 and went to live in solitude in the desert. He died in 356 at the age of 105. Some of the other desert fathers and mothers lived a more organized form of community life. But maybe I will save all of that for another entry at another time.
“The desert is much better than inhabited places for one who is seeking the glory of God, and the mountains are indeed preferable to cities for anyone aware of the grace of God given him.” Saint Ephraim of Syria (Sermon on Monks, 3 Lamy 4,150)
These men and women went out to become martyrs by living without distraction and calling on the Name of the Lord day and night. The desert fathers and mothers rejected all domestication to live the height of freedom in Christ by relying on Him solely. But even though they left the world, the worldly distraction could be alive and well in their hearts and minds.
Saint Anthony himself said, “He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony 8.)
Amma Syncletica said, “Many live on the mountains and behave as if they were living amidst the uproar of the city, and they are lost. It is possible while living amongst a crowd to be inwardly solitary, and while living alone to inwardly beset by the crowd.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Syncletica, 1)
The real desert is within. We can become prayer in the mountains, the deserts or at our jobs and in our marriages and the raising of our children. As Olivier Clement has said, “The human being becomes capable of extending liturgy into culture and society.” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, New City Press, page 212) We all need to try to live out the Gospel in a more radical way. But most of us cannot make a run for the deserts. Some of us can go for afternoon hikes to jump start things. But the true desert is within.
“He prays unceasingly who combines prayer with necessary duties and duties with prayer. Only in this way can we find it practicable to fulfill the commandment to pray always. It consists in regarding the whole of Christian existence as a single great prayer. What we are accustomed to call prayer is only part of it.” Origen (On Prayer, 12)