27 October 2014

On Natural and Unnatural Deserts

[[Dear Sister Laurel, in your own life when you refer to "the desert" you are not referring to a geographical place then are you? I understand that Thomas Merton wrote about the unnatural solitudes of the slums. You have referred to that here several times. Did Thomas Merton also mean the desert of chronic illness? Is this a valid extrapolation from the Desert Fathers' and Mothers' flight to the physical or geographical desert? Shouldn't hermits be living in physical wildernesses like these hermits or like John the Baptist, Elijah, and others?]]

No, you are correct that I am not ordinarily referring to a geographical place when I speak of deserts though I must say that the geographical places we call deserts are wonderful symbols or paradigms of the internal realities associated with desert spirituality. Further, while I don't think Thomas Merton was referring to the desert of chronic illness with his comment about city slums, neither do I think he was necessarily excluding it. I am not sure he considered it directly. Merton's concern was the isolation brought about by poverty and the harsh landscape poverty created in terms of human potential, the need for distraction, and the yearning for meaning and a sense that one's life was of some real worth or value. He was concerned with contemporary environments which lead to boredom and futility (as well as enhancing our fear of these) and he was concerned with situating the hermit's life and witness in a central place where the terrors of desert existence defined in terms of these specific contemporary realities could be effectively dealt with. Chronic illness is one of those "desert experiences" which calls out in all of the ways any desert experience does. I don't recall Merton addressing this directly but I have no doubt he would have included it in his reference to the unnatural solitudes associated with urban slums and other settings as well had he considered it at all.

Your question about a valid extrapolation asks if it is alright to understand desert in this non-geographical way. This objection is one that some hermits today make regarding those of us who live in urban areas and not in a physical wilderness. There is some validity to their objection because the physical silence and external solitude of the physical desert is so very different from the relative solitude of an urban hermitage. When one visits the desert both the physical silence and external solitude are palpable realities. There is a depth to them which one can almost touch and taste and smell. They press on one's skin and call to one's heart seeking a response, an answering embrace of sorts. They constitute a living presence which is undisputed and awesome in and of itself. Further, these interlocking pieces of desert wilderness form a reality which only seems to deepen in the face of the odd noise, movement, or other distraction --- a characteristic which makes it not only awesome but terrifying to us. I can completely understand the objection of hermits who contend the unnatural solitudes of an urban area are discontinuous with the awesome natural solitudes of the desert. Still, I cannot completely agree with them, especially when they begin to argue urban hermits are not real hermits, or the unnatural solitudes of urban life and chronic illness, for instance are not real solitudes.

Because I have written about the nature of wilderness in the Scriptures I am going to refer you to one of those posts Hermits are desert Dwellers with the request that you check it and others under the label "desert spirituality".  In these posts I have pointed out that the real importance of the desert is as a place of meeting between a person whose poverty is writ large and the God whose merciful love transforms that poverty into the richness of adopted Sonship and Daughterhood. It is the place where one does battle with the demons of one's own heart and the world as well, the place where one consolidates the truth of one's identity in and for Love-in-Act --- or loses it entirely, whether in death or the various absurdities and insanities associated with human isolation.  If this understanding of wilderness or desert is the heart of the Scriptural understanding, and I have no doubt that it is, then geographical setting, while not unimportant, is not critical to our definition of "desert dweller". More important by far is the potential for meeting God created by an intense and profound experience of human poverty and impotence.

So, my answer to your last question is no, not necessarily. While physical solitude can help get us in touch with a sense of our smallness and need for God there are other situations and contexts which are every bit as huge and intransigent, every bit as humbling and existentially challenging, every bit as much authentic "deserts" as those the desert Fathers and Mothers fled to in order to really live an authentic  and edifying Christian life. In every case the stories of hermits' lives remind us that an external situation can allow and call for a response to the God who brings life out of death and meaning out of absurdity, but of itself it does not make one a hermit. Sometimes human poverty remains merely that. Sometimes the proffered grace of God remains unaccepted, unembraced, and rendered powerless to transform or make fruitful. Sometimes the desert crushes the would-be hermit and instead of an eremite we get a personally desiccated casualty of human weakness and the desert's inexorable power. Again, it is the heart of the notion of the eremite that they be desert flowers blooming in the midst of life's harshest realities through the grace of God. Wherever this happens we have authentic hermits and authentic desert spirituality.

I hope this is helpful.