Learning from the Desert Elders: Taking Conversation to Heart
I wrote in the last post of the importance of earnest conversation with an elder as one of the central practices of the Desert Fathers. We learned of at least two Desert Elders who found that their scholarly search for truth was in vain when it came to grasping the secrets of Desert spirituality. Scholarship did not set them free. Instead, they found the key in honest conversation with a person who could discern their heart, and help them to see themselves.
This morning I would like each of us to begin a conversation, first an interior one, and then, eventually, with some trusted other. Let us start with Arsenius and Evagrius, the two scholar/monks. Both were persons of high station in the centers of civilization at the time, but found themselves driven to the desert to find wisdom. There, their scholarship not only provoked suspicion, it seemed to positively exclude them from understanding the wisdom of their Desert elders (Arsenius was a disciple of John the Dwarf, whom we earlier found watering a stick for 3 years).
Instead of looking for truth about things (even things of the spirit), they found that the important initial quest of the desert was truth about the self. And this could only be found in conversation with an Elder who challenged you to think about what you cherished, what you held dear, and what that meant for you. Here is evidence of this from another story of Arsenius:
Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him ‘Will you put into practice what I say to you?’ They promised him this. ‘If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.’
Oh my. The archbishop was indeed a holy man, and he greatly desired to hear a word from Arsenius; so intense was his desire that he tracked him down in the desert. The price was that he must promise to follow that word. He was then told to stay away from the very thing he sought. If this is about truth, it is tangled indeed! But if it is about how we relate, how we think about what we cherish, then we might see some light. Perhaps the good Archbishop was too attached to having a good word, to learning a bit of knowledge from the holy man, to being in the presence of the spiritually famous. Perhaps he was searching for the wrong thing. The Archbishop is not alone in this. There are many Desert stories of seekers, young and old, being turned away because they wanted to collect bits of wisdom the way a magpie collects shiny trinkets.
Thus, the truth the Archbishop learned was not a theological truth, it was a personal one. Here is the beginning of our conversation. Here we must be careful what we seek. We do not seek some external truth, but we seek instead to form and to re-form ourselves.
- Begin with a simple spiritual truth claim that means something to you. Say, God is love. Or any part of one of the Christian creeds, or the Jewish Shema or the Muslim Shahada.
- Study it for a bit with regard to what it means. What is it claiming?
- Now take a turn and ask “what does it mean for me?” What if it is really true? What if I were to “take it” as really true? Instead of my claiming it, what if it claimed me?
- How does this change your relation to this truth, and what window does it open up on what you most care about? This will be a much longer interior conversation. It could take your entire life.
I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let’s buy it.
- Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
That is the beginning. Take seriously some religious claim for you. Ask yourself, day and night; greatly desire what it means for you.
Then comes the second step, one recommended to us by the Desert Elders. Someday, when you have the courage, speak to someone about it. To someone you can trust to see your heart. Tell them your thoughts and your desire. Now your secret is out and you cannot run away. Listen to their response and ponder it with the same intense longing and discernment. Now you are on the Desert path.