After being in the Namibian desert last month, I am drawn to desert spirituality. I have known of the desert fathers and mothers of early Christian monasticism, and I occasionally read one of their brief sayings, but otherwise have paid little attention.
Yet while we are consumed with self-image and self-actualization, these desert monks found life-giving freedom in the desert that they experienced as harsh, fierce, and indifferent. When stripped of their egos, and facing the emptiness of their cell, they discovered a divine love beyond their imagining.
We often say too much about God as if we can capture the immensity of the divine. The danger of theology is that our analogies for God become concretized rather than leaving room for mystery and the gift of “unknowing” as some spiritual writers suggest.
I find myself draw to the nothingness, to the “nada, nada, nada” of God, as one mystic put it. Since returning from the desert I have been reading a fascinating book called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spiritualities. by Belden Lane. The author begins by quoting Thoreau: “we need the tonic of wildness.” The God of the desert is revealed in very different ways that most of us are used to.
Consider two kinds of prayer or spiritual experience. One delights in sacraments, images, symbols, and beauty, as reflected in Holy Trinity’s love for liturgy. This is called kataphatic prayer. The second arises out of desert spirituality is called apaphatic prayer and is more about dwelling in silence, solitude, absence and what we could call the nothingness of God. Contemplation, meditation, and centering prayer are contemporary expressions of apaphatic spirituality. To every yin there is a yang, and though I am most at home in multi-sensory worship, there is a fullness in emptiness that can be healing and restorative.
I am happy to let you know that there are over 25 persons participating in our monthly spirituality nights. I hope all of us will use these season of Lent to refocus our energy on what matters through weekly worship, generosity, spiritual disciplines, and acts of justice and service.
Whether it is a literal desert of an inner one, the season of Lent invites us to strip away everything that is nonessential, even our images of God that have become stale or stringent. The Lenten desert can be threatening and scary, but in the desolate places we learn how to “care less and care more,” as T.S. Eliot put it.
I have vivid memories of the desert that still linger in my memory. Yet they have awakened my curiosity for the gifts of a desert spirituality and the renewal it brings.