The early Christian desert hermits said very little about the desert as geography or physical locale. The physical context of solitude and a sense of the absolute described briefly by writer Paul Bowles (previous entry) is the setting, but the setting is seldom discussed or described by them. Rather, the desert setting establishes the maximum psychological parameters of the human mind and soul, beyond which there is no further going, an infinite presentation into which all finds its place but which restlessly continues onward and inward. Thus the hermit Macarius, called the Great, one day tells his brothers to flee. “Where could we flee beyond this desert?” they ask. “Macarius put his fingers to his lips and said, ‘Flee that,’ and he went into his cell, shut the door and sat down.” For the vast infinitude of the desert is but a microcosm of the hermit’s cell.
Desert spirituality is well explained by Belden Lane in his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, reviewed here. As he puts it:
Why do people choose to live in such a landscape, poised, as it is, on the edge of nothingness? “Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity,” says Ed Abbey. It touches our extremities. The desert fathers and mothers chose their barren locale because its values matched their own. They, too, opted to thrive on the boundary where life and death meet, living as simply as possible, with as few words as necessary, separated from the fragile anxieties of the world they had left behind.
Thus the true hermit understands that the emptying of self must resemble the earth’s emptying of itself. The choices of desert and mountain examined by Lane differ both in quality and style. Historically, mountains have represented the dwelling-places of gods and enlightened beings, while deserts have been depicted as the dwelling places of demons and malevolent spirits. Perhaps they represent the psychology of Frost’s famous little poem:
Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Here the fire and ice are within, just as the desert and mountain must be. But Frost sees both as inevitable extremes in human beings, with ice as coldness and hatred, with fire as war and destruction. These emotional opposites at play within the human mind are both destructive. Yet at the same time, they destroy one another if the mind simply watches, allows them to pass, to disintegrate for lack of an anchoring place. The mind must let go of desires, emotions, entanglements. This will happen when we “perish twice,” when we end both and come into being with a receptive and solitary heart. It is then that the desert and mountain compliment our inner being. Until then, both places seem forbidding, and indeed are destructive and intolerant of human life.
If the desert is the test of physical and psychological tenacity, then old age and death test psychological and spiritual tenacity. Old age and infirmity haunts everyone, including the hermit. Old age is not merely the transition to death but the end of autonomy. Physical and spiritual liberty is found in the desert, the silence and solitude of desert life, the life one carries about within oneself every moment. Desert life (the inner desert) envelopes and nurtures the mind and heart. Everything else is the world. Can we carry our desert into that final house of physical dependency and personal loss?
In the case of the ancient desert hermit, who was to pass his last days with monks, he grieved nevertheless for the lost days of inner life dissipated by even the presence of others. How much more so the modern hermit can expect the faceless treatment of bureaucracy and of the well-intentioned — or the less so. The infinity of the desert carried within the self is, like the natural desert, a fragile environment honed over much time.
When a certain elder had to leave the desert for the city because of his infirmity and age, a visitor saw him and asked why he grieved. “What would you do in the desert, now that you are so old?” The old man looked at him and pondered sorrowfully. “Was not the mere liberty of my soul enough for me in the desert?”
The Vitam Patrum records another passage about the physical desert. This passage, like the anecdotes above, quickly translate the physical desert into the state of solitude and equanimity constantly nurtured in the self. And it accepts the challenge of death.
There is another place in the inner desert …. To this spot those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live a remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbour, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them. Only on the Saturday and on the Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven. If by chance any one is missing in that gathering, straightway they understand he has been detained by some unevenness of his body, and they all go to visit him, not indeed all of them together but at different times and each carrying with him whatever he may have by him at home that might seem grateful to the sick. But for no other use dare any disturb the silence of his neighbor …
So the cell modeled the desert for not only the hermit in his tiny dwelling, but later for the monks who sought in vain to adequately reproduce this desert in a communitarian setting. The lifeline of community in the like-minded hermits was undoubtedly precious to each of them, though we have stories of hermits dying alone. So the hermits developed a kind and circumscribed routine of taking care of one another, of setting a day when each would appear not for social conviviality but for the higher liturgy that merely served as a social device for confirming one another’s physical needs. This model was reproduced among the Carthusians, and every order calling itself a hermit order in the West. In the east, the hermit would more likely disappear into forest or mountain (as prescribed in Hindu asrama, for example), there to be delivered to whatever fate was wisest. But the East Asian examples in the Japanese Buddhist hijiri and wanderers requires an essay of its own.
So the Christian desert hermits developed a silent and tacit system of checking upon one another. But even then, it was met with a mix of relief andreluctance. This was the constant psychological dilemma of, for example, the French hermit Charles de Foucauld, revolving around the extreme desire of solitude.
In some ways, the issue of solitude versus helo will resonate with hermits of any age or state of health. Even when put in spiritual terms, though, the psychological simmers somewhere below, in the subconscious. When the abbot Marcus visited Arsenius, Arsensius was not pleased. Marcus said to Arsenius: “Why do you flee from us?” The old man replied: “God knows I love you, but I cannot be with both God and men.”