The Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity have always intrigued me. Their book of sayings is filled with a consoling yet perplexing spiritual guidance – words I’ve never read a parallel to. Yet, those words from the desert are laden with meaning, especially today.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were prayerfully led to the desert right after the empiric absorption of Christianity into Rome (313 AD). Once being a faith who championed martyrs, Christianity was becoming a politically correct, polite, accommodation for the values and life of the average Roman citizen. Instead of the way of Jesus, the church became more concerned with the civic way and propagation of Rome.
Many feel a similar thing about today’s Church in American culture. I think this is why I’ve been seeing a few more writings of the desert fathers recently. There’s a reaction underway that is seeing the church as a voiceless entity when it comes to the way of Jesus; the reactors are looking for guidance from those who have experienced the necessary call to once again take Jesus seriously.
The problem Nouwen is addressing is the numbness we find ourselves in. “We must be made aware of the call to let our false, compulsive self be transformed into the new self of Jesus Christ.” p. 20.
Many rhythms we find ourselves in in the world are designed to get us to rely on compulsion and ego. We experience that with the bombardment of advertising and such things. We’ve become quite used to operating by those immediate compulsive acts and ideas. Change will be hard, but within it, we sense redemption.
Nouwen simplifies the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers into a threefold way of solitude, silence and prayer. These, he says, are steps of formation of the soul, seeing God work within us to set free Christ within us.
Nouwen summarizes these rhythms:
“Solitude shows us the way to let our behavior be shaped not by the compulsions of the world but by our own new mind, the mind of Christ. Silence prevents us from being suffocated by our wordy world and teaches us to speak the word of God. Finally, unceasing prayer gives solitude and silence their real meaning. In unceasing prayer, we descend with the mind into the heart. Thus we enter through our heart into the heart of God, who embraces all of history with his eternally creative and recreative love. … solitude, silence, and prayer allow us to save ourselves and others from the shipwreck of our self-destructive society.” p. 91.
As I closed the book, I began wondering how to help ordinary people embrace these ordinary, redemptive rhythms without mutating these simple rhythms into pietistic (in the negative sense) actions. As I re-read some highlights, Nouwen’s words provide that simple path.