The Desert Mystics

January 20th, 2020 by JDVaughn Leave a reply »

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The Desert Mystics
Monday, January 20, 2020

Though I deeply admire the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I must be completely honest with you. There is much about them that I do not find attractive or helpful. And it is important to share that here, or you might pick up one of the collections of their “sayings” and throw it out as unreal, dualistic, naïve, and pre-rational—all of which, I think, would be largely true. The desert mystics represent a level of human consciousness and historical development that we have collectively moved far beyond. And yet, I still admire and even need to learn from them! Let me use the desert abbas and ammas to illustrate an important point for understanding many historical personages and traditions (and even the Scriptures themselves). 

Contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber offers a helpful distinction between stages and states. [1] Your stage is your outer awareness. Your state is your inner aliveness. The goal is to be both holy and whole, saintly and wise. But your state and stage don’t always coincide; many of us are stronger in one area than another. 

You can be a high–level thinker and be quite astute about psychology, theology, history, or philosophy (a high stage), but do it all from a perspective of individualism and arrogance about that very information (a low state)—because it is still all about “you.” Conversely, you could be quite unified within and with others, in a high state of loving consciousness, but be poorly informed, lacking in exposure and education to helpful and informative knowledge. 

Perhaps you know people who are compassionate and kind yet still reveal prejudicial attitudes. They may seem hypocritical but are simply at a high state and a low stage. Love will win out in them and goodness will flow through them, even if they don’t have the gift of teaching or of understanding complex or contradictory issues. They are holy but not whole, saintly but not “smart.” 

This describes many Desert Fathers and Mothers: having high states of union but by today’s standards low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. Enjoy them for their state, but do not hate them for their stage! Today we have large segments of the population with the opposite problem: high stages of intellectual exposure with very low levels of unitive consciousness—very smart but without awe, humility, or love, which the Desert Fathers and Mothers had in spades!  

Many of the desert sayings may sound naïve, simplistic, and even dangerous, but try to receive the simple wisdom of the desert mystics with an open heart and mind in the coming days and let it lead you to authentic joy. Perceive and enjoy their state of loving union; don’t dismiss them for living in a pre-rational society. Perhaps holding this tension compassionately for them will help us do the same for people in our own time.  

Contemplative Consciousness
Sunday, January 19, 2020

I’ve heard some concerns over the years that contemplation is a practice of “Eastern” meditation wrapped in a Christian disguise. Some Christians have even been taught that seeking union with God through silence makes room for the “devil” to get in. While understandable, these apprehensions are based on a lack of knowledge about Christian heritage. In addition to Jesus’ own practice of prayerful solitude, we also have the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Starting with Anthony the Great in 270 CE, thousands of Christians moved to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to form alternative Christian communities. These brave souls were on fire with love for Jesus and sought to become more like him through a disciplined rhythm of life and prayer.   

The desert mystics focused much more on the how than the what, which is very different from Christianity’s primary emphasis on beliefs and doctrines in recent centuries. The desert tradition offers a rich teaching of surrender, through contemplation, to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. Some have said that the Desert Fathers (abbas) and Mothers (ammas) are like the Zen Buddhist monks of Christianity. Their koan-like sayings cannot usually be understood with the rational, logical mind, which is perhaps why their teachings fell out of favor during the Enlightenment. 

Above all, the desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) helped modern Christianity recover an awareness of contemplative practice, in part inspired by his reading of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Merton wrote: “All through the Verba Seniorum [Latin for Words of the Elders] we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.” [1]  

The Desert Fathers and Mothers focused on these primary practices in their search for God: 1) leaving, to some extent, the systems of the world; 2) a degree of solitude to break from the maddening crowd; 3) times of silence to break from the maddening mind; and 4) “technologies” for controlling the compulsivity of mind and the emotions. All of this was for the sake of growing a person capable of love and community.   

Contemplation became a solid foundation for building a civilization and human community—not just in the wilderness centuries ago but in the world today. Contemplative consciousness labels things less easily and does not attach itself to one solitary definitive meaning. In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.  

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Summary: Sunday, January 12—Friday, January 17, 2020

In order to become truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach and learn ways to integrate needed engagement with a truly contemplative mind and heart. (Sunday)

The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God. (Monday)

Contemplation helps us discern what is truly important in the largest, most spacious frame of reality and to know what is ours to do in the face of “evil” and injustice. (Tuesday)

A contemplative lens is the only frame through which we can recognize and address the three sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Wednesday)

Jesus’ social program was a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. Jesus chose a very simple lifestyle which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which we can call the sin system. (Thursday)

God’s intention is never to shame the individual (which actually disempowers), but solidarity with and universal responsibility for the whole (which creates healthy people). (Friday)

Practice: All Senses Meditation

Our human senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching are five distinct ways of knowing or experiencing the same thing, but in very different “languages.” True spirituality always brings us back to the original bodily knowing that is unitive experience. We cannot do all our thinking with our minds! During times of stress, remembering how to come back to our bodies can be tremendously beneficial. The following practice from meditation teacher Lorin Roche helps us connect with each of our senses and encounter something through each. Roche explains:

What happens is that your primary perceptions, unsocialized, get a chance to come out without editing. This trains you to let yourself be surprised by perception, to let new and fresh perceptions emerge.

This exercise also lets you practice giving speech to your immediate perceptions. Since childhood, you may not have had a chance to speak freely without editing first.

Set aside ten or so minutes to “play” with all your senses following Roche’s simple guide:

  1. Sit or stand anywhere you like and let yourself get settled for a minute. Do any settling-down movements you want. Stretch or yawn. Then notice the ebb and flow of your breathing.
  2. Begin to speak softly saying, “Now I am aware of seeing. . . .” Continue by saying whatever comes to mind that is visual, whether it is in the outer world or a mental image. The sentence can be said very slowly. Go on like this for a minute or so, just speaking the sentence, “Now I am aware of seeing. . . .”
  3. When you get to the word seeing, say whatever image your mind or eyes are on at that exact moment. As in, “I am aware of seeing the rain.”
  4. Switch to another sensory mode, “Now I am aware of smelling . . .” and say whatever you are smelling.
  5. Continue this way, starting each sentence with “Now I am aware of . . .” and then choosing another sense. Improvise off your immediate perceptions. . . .

Move through the senses in any order you wish:

Now I am aware of seeing. . . .

Now I am aware of smelling. . . .

Now I am aware of hearing. . . .

Now I am aware of tasting. . . .

Now I am aware of touching. . . .

Now I am aware of moving (fast, slow, being still, etc.). . . . [1]


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