Abbot Philip is a Benedictine monk who lives in the New Mexico desert at Christ in the Desert monastery. I find his reflections honest and clear. Here’s an excerpt from The Abbot’s Notebook (24 April 2013):
“For the past 50 years, there has been a movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the Church, bringing new ways of thinking, new ways of relating, new ways of dreaming.
This happens at times in the history of the Church and we should not be afraid of it. Not everything that happens in such movements is of lasting value. Not every road that is chosen leads directly to the Lord. Always there is enthusiasm and always there is resistance. The early monastic movement was in the midst of this kind of movement as well. What is important in our spiritual lives is seeking to choose the Lord Jesus and His ways. It is a personal encounter with the Lord that draws us to Him. I can sit here in my cell and spend time being still and listening. I can read Holy Scripture and understand what has been written.
“The Necessary Truth of Deserts” is a lovely short essay by Joseph Ross about Palm Canyon and Andreas Canyon in Southern California, which the Agua Caliente Band of California’s Cahuilla Indians offer as a place for hiking.
Joe, author of the amazing collection of poems Meeting Bone Man, has a clarion-clear voice for human mystery.
While in the desert, you can see and feel the distinction between necessities and extras. You see your place in the world, our wonderful human smallness. The perspective the desert offers is brutal but real. We are small. We control very little. We are only part of a larger, sometimes cruelly connected web of life. In these things, the desert teaches us lessons nearly impossible to learn elsewhere. The desert’s lessons are inescapable while you are in it.
Interestingly, in the early years of Christianity, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, many Christians, certain that official acceptance would dilute the radicality of their faith, fled to the deserts around the Mediterranean where they sought to maintain a more pure form of Christianity. Because the desert allows for few flourishes and extras, the Desert Tradition kept Christianity’s basics alive in its monks and nuns: silence, simplicity, prayer, hospitality, love of neighbor.
There is an inevitability in deserts as well. In Joshua Tree National Park, huge and curious rock formations, which I loved to climb and explore, shot out from the desert floor. These wild rock formations jutted up out of the sand at angles that amazed me as a young boy. You could see too that the desert’s sand, was just a broken version of these huge rock formations. This was not the fine and drifting sand of an ancient desert. These huge rocks were always and slowly becoming the desert’s sand. One could say every stone’s future is a desert. Everything breaks down, including us, into a sort of desert.
I remember also, as a boy, my parents’ book called The Living Desert. I loved the photographs and drawings of terrifying rattlesnakes, elaborate cactus blossoms, the odd plants like yucca and jumping cactus. Clearly this place called the desert is not an easy place to be, but it is a fascinating one. When we see life at its most basic levels, what we truly need becomes far more clear.–Joseph Ross
The real plot of the Bible is about the liberation of both humanity and nature from our folly. God’s voice does not come through the centre of civil power but from an imperial defector in Moses, through a burning bush and from a dissident prophet Elijah in the wilderness. These ancient traditions portray a God who needs to be encountered through nature. The Bible also offers numerous peons to creation as a mirror of the creator’s glory. There is a lot of talk these days about our need to rediscover enchantment in nature. Let us take Abraham’s first encounter
with God which occurred under the oak tree of Moreh, an “oracle giver” which taps into an apparently universal tradition of the Tree of Life. Then God appears to Abraham as certain strangers under the oaks of Mamre; and later in Judges, the warrior Gideon is given courage by an angel under the oak at Ophrah.
At Christ in the Desert monastery the electricity and water-pumping at the monastery is solar-powered, as sunshine is plentiful throughout the year.
The mural art reflects a tradition now set in the context of the Chama Canyon wilderness in northwestern New Mexico, but the monks whose quiet cenobitic lives are shaped daily by the art also vitalize the mural through their own daily desert encounters with angels, trees, rivers, saints, bread, wine, work, and surprise.
Ched Myers is the best “Bible animator” I know. Here’s a short reflection from him on Exodus 17 that combines attentive listening to the text and deep earth wisdom.
Exodus 17:8-13 is a venerable old tale, if not a nonviolent one. Freshly liberated by YHWH (with an assist from nature) from Pharaoh’s imperial straightjacket, Moses and his refugee community have commenced their wilderness sojourn. They are having to re-learn primal lessons of subsistence gathering and dependence upon God’s creation (the “bread and water miracles” of Ex. 16-17 are old Bedouin tricks). Amidst this comes the very first resistance to their journey, as they are attacked by Amalekites, a contemporaneous nomadic tribe of raiders that was presumably far more adept at desert skirmishing than the Israelites. So commences the first of what will be innumerable battles with various inhospitable groups in the course of Israel’s liberation struggle.–Ched Myers