Seeking God in the Desert…

In the IV century A.D., the deserts of Syria were descended upon by people who went „hunting for God“.[1]  Asceticism and monastic life, in solitude, were the ways of faith. These are the years of early Christianity, when faith had to be lived before it could become a philosophical topic.

sant'antonio di tebeSt. Anthony the Great (Coma AD 251 – † AD 356 Mount Colzim), guardian of his sister, swineherd, Abbot and the Father of all Monks, centenarian; He was a religious figure who lived between 251 and 356 A.D., was the first to initiate a solitary desertification and an ascetical lifestyle. The desert being a difficult place to live and filled with many demons. St. Athanasius in his „Life of St. Anthony“ wrote, praising the saint for his great capacity to resist the seductions of demons who hounded him unceasingly. Anthony had been able to confront both the deceptions of demons, when one appeared as an emissary of the faith, and the assaults that the demons reigned upon him at night.[2]

Jesus is tested in the Desert

And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert,  For the space of forty days; and was tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.“ Luke 4:1-2

gesu nel deserto

And when Jesus left Jordan, He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which guided Him into the desert, staying for over a month, he was constantly tempted by the devil and his minions, but the angels had taken care of Him. He had had nothing to eat during this period, but when it was over, he was extremely hungry. The devil tempting Him again said: „If thou be the Son of God, say to this stone that it be made bread.“ (Luke 4:3) Jesus replied to him: „It is written, that Man liveth not by bread alone, but by every word of God.“(Luke 4:4).[3]

In this article we used the Gospel according to Luke, yet we will also find these narrations made by both the apostles Matthew and Mark.

The places mentioned in the Bible are not just beautiful and arid landscapes that fill our minds eye, but important intersections that are very significant.

The shades below tremble, the waters and their inhabitants.  Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering.  He stretches out Zaphon [Or the North] over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing.[4]

The words of Job (26:7) are an example of the literature within the Old Testament that reserve unpropitious attributes to the sea. This place, in fact, is believed to be inhabited by dragons, a place of evil and before being „liberated“ by Biblical judgments, the waters are considered as evil by those who, in the Bible, had faith, one such example is Augustine.[5]

I do not intend to discuss the significance of the sites inside the Bible here, because the Old and New Testaments have already been subjected to exegetical and in-depth studies for many centuries, therefore inserting any explanations or afterthoughts at this point and would prove to be purposeless. In fact, what I am focused upon is to make particular observations of the Biblical desert and to the lives that have developed here through the practice of monasticism from the 4th to the 6th century and endeavour to comprehend it on a purely anthropological level.

Savage nature often appears within the Bible, yet among all the diversity that can be visualised, the desert remains the most recondite. To determine the value of this place and its perplexing character as a space where both God and demons intervene.[6]

It is precisely this force which has guided the history of ancient Christianity, groups of faithful interested in discovering and meeting God, yet far from societal life. The monks were the main performers of this trend. Their faith projected clear coordinates in the empty environment of the desert, both good and evil appeared distinctly clear in their characteristics.[7]

To be extraordinary is the will that the faithful have to get away from everything they know to embrace dangerous and unknown ways, escape from the familiar and insert themselves in a new fathomless place, to lose themselves.[8]

It can be said that we know a place when we have established a connection with it; a place is first and foremost a relationship between two actors: that is us and the landscape. When this element disappears, or when we are faced with something that escapes our interconnection, when it apparently either rejects or cannot be integrated into bonds, then we can say that, we are lost.[9]

One of the most natural consequence is to be afraid of that which we do not know, of the relationships we cannot develop. Precisely for this reason that which is unknown is usually confined and the processes that disconnect that which is familiar, our home, from that which is not, the way out, are guarded, just like a surveillance camera or an alarm which protect our exits.[10]

We cannot know whether the monks and hermits were afraid of the unknown or not, but we can be sure of their desire to discover closeness to God. Precisely for this reason they are willing to undergo the difficulties ascended in the desert.

What matters is that, thanks to faith, the desert place could be put in order, it could become familiar. Thanks to faith it is possible to sleep on the stone and to fast becauseil deserto these practices contribute to defining the experience of faith. Scanning religious action, ensuring that this impregnates every aspect of one’s life, is the way to live God and make the desert their own.

The narrow space that becomes a habitable place seems to undergo a direct passage that changes its situation under the desire for sanctity by an individual. In reality, things are more complex as they are based on the idea of transforming the unknown into known through relations and especially intentionality.

The monk who chooses to live in the desert is the one who takes an ambiguous and almost unknown biblical element, to then project his wills and desires into it. Wanting to move to a place to find God is not very different from changing one’s state or to try one’s luck: once inserted into the new environment in which we have already envisaged the success we are hoping for, we will work harder and we will be more careful to see it happen.[11]

It is the same mechanism that underlies a magical ritual, such as for example the blessing of soil before its cultivation. Without speculating on the authenticity or effectiveness of ritual and displacement, the acts, the movements that we are going to carry out will for us cover special meanings and will be catalysts of our intentionality.[12]

Living in the desert will be a way of focusing our activity in our search for God and this activity will allow us to show our purpose as we move upon the landscape.

The ascetic life is the pre-eminent mechanism that is used to make the unfamiliar known by inserting it into the familiar, incorporating it. Faith will be the frame and mechanism that the monk uses to narrate and to give meaning to the unknown.

For this reason the monastic surge which from the 4th to the 6th centuries will invade the narrow places can count on a simple and strong faith and will at the same time be feared by the authority for its independence.[13]

Sources

[1] Wilken, R.L., 2013. The First Thousand Years: a Global History of Christianity, London: Yale University Press. p. 116.

[2] di Nola, A.M., 1980. Il diavolo. Le manifestazioni del demoniaco nella storia fino ai nostri giorni, Valle Dell’Aia, VT: Scipioni Editori. pp. 186-1944

[3] Luke 4:4., The Holy Bible (Douay Rheims Version). 1889; [The Temptation of Jesus]

[4] Job 26:5-7., The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition), [Job Replies: God’s Majesty Is Unsearchable]

[5] McGinn, B., 1994. The Journal of Religion Vol. 74 No. 2., “Ocean and Desert as Symbols of Mystical Absorption in the Christian Tradition” p. 158., Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

[6] Williams, G.H., 1985. Wilderness and paradise in Christian thought: the Biblical experience of the desert in the history of Christianity and the paradise theme in the theological idea of the university; p. 4, Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. Microfilms Internat.

[7] Wilken, R.L., 2013. The First Thousand Years: a Global History of Christianity, London: Yale University Press., chap. 10

[8] La Cecla, F., 2011. Losing Oneself. Man without environment (Original Title: Perdersi. L’uomo senza ambiente) Chap. 3;  Ed. 2011 № 4., Roma, RM: Editori Laterza.

[9] Ibid, pp. 88-89

[10] Ibid, Chap. 3

[11] Douglas, M., 2008. Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, London: Routledge. Chap. III 

[12] Wilken, R.L., 2013. The First Thousand Years: a Global History of Christianity, London: Yale University Press.,