#6: The Desert Mothers and Process

#6: The Desert Mothers and Process


18 September, 2018

I went out to the desert for the first time last month. 

High desert in Utah, already marked as a holy land, canyons and rock formations and arroyos, the silence of a red-rimmed valley, Mars rising over the mesa, the smell of ozone at dawn, sagebrush and nopal and juniper. It's a place that fills your eyes, where you're at once hemmed in and bare under the sky. 

In the second and third centuries, the Desert Mothers walked out into the wilderness.
I think about the landscape of this a lot. Thanks to the Nile's yearly flooding, the line between desert and not-desert in Egypt is a hard and narrow one, and it was often possible to walk from a city straight into blowing sands. The Desert Mothers--at least the ones that we know of--were often wealthier women, who found themselves unshackled by marriage or child-rearing (or, sometimes, unshackled themselves). The work they were doing in the desert was the work of building a faith: devoted to asceticism and the pursuit of mystical experiences, the desert hermit communities were among the first examples of a Christian monastic tradition. 

The desert is a place that makes you see processes: the tracks of a small creature, preserved in sand, interrupted by what can only be a bird, swooping in. Water and wind against rock, sediment in riverbeds, rippling waves on the surfaces of rocks that haven't seen an ocean for millennia. Twisted roots of a tree exposed by a flash flood washing the ground out from beneath it. You become complicit in your own survival in a way I never have before--30 minutes, sitting under the sun, will have you parched, longing for water, your skin covered in salt scurf from your own sweat, thinking about evaporation or sublimation. You're pinned not to the center of the wheel of the world but the outsides of it, surrounded by and subject to forces greater than you are. All of the big things you can usually avoid thinking about are all collapsed into watching the sun move across stone: death, and landscape, and time, in the biggest sense possible. 

Because of this, the desert can feel like a cathedral.

We know very little about the Desert Mothers today--a few names and stories are passed down, a slim volume of their sayings. We have much more information, of course, about the Desert Fathers, the men engaged in similar work, and we still have the desert. Thomas Merton writes that "the climate in which monastic prayer flowers is that of the desert, where the comfort of man is absent, where the secure routines of man's city offer no support, and where prayer must be sustained by God in the purity of faith." The desert, beyond the solitude that Merton describes here, provides a sense of place: that you exist in a fraction of the landscape, in a fraction of time, and that you are held on to the skin of the earth nearly by accident.

The desert also provides moments of grace: winds hurtling down-valley, bringing with them a thunderstorm, an unobstructed view of stars, the bright-blue tails of little lizards, deer delicately picking their way along the riverbanks. For this, you need silence.