Last week I began a course on spirituality entitled 'The Heart of the Divine - Christian Spiritual Formation For Today' at Sarum Theological College, Salisbury, along with 29 others from far and wide. One lady was from Devon (perhaps staying overnight at the College)and another came from the Isle of Wight, while others could walk to the College. I had to leave home at 7.30am in order to catch the 8 o'clock train to Basingstoke, where I changed into a train for Salisbury. Then I enjoyed the walk along the canal, which was full of ducks, to arrive at the College in the Cathedral Close just in time for the 10am introductions.
This was the first of the six days making up the course, one each month until March, and was called 'The Desert and The Call'. We began by looking at how the tradition has understood the call of God arising within the desert of the heart and examined the tradition in scripture and the first Christian fathers and mothers. I had never heard of St. Antony of Egypt who died in 356 and therefore I had not heard of the hermit monasticism that he began in the Egyptian desert, from which we have the Sayings of the Fathers. Again, I had not previously heard of these sayings, many of which came from lower Egypt. Silence played a big part in our day at the College - in our study sessions and in the experiential session when, in small groups, we experienced a Quaker Bible reading session.
'If a man cannot understand my silence, he will never understand my words.'
(A Desert Father)
We spent time considering the When? Where? Who? How? What? and Why? of this desert spirituality and discovered that these hermits met together from time to time and changed the world through their holiness. The desert was a place of recovery, the edge of the known world and the place of meeting with God. In silence, facing the demons and the darkness, the cell was a place of battle; conflict was a sign of God. The desert was not a place of escape - rather the opposite. In silence, facing the barrenness, there were no distractions, but manual work to survive, minimum nourishment and no change of scenery. With no church and no status, just you and God, the odd visitor and the creatures of the desert, the questions are 'Who are you?' and 'What are you looking for?'
In silence, facing the times in which they lived, the Desert Fathers and Mothers became a bridge between empires, prophetic voices proclaiming the narrow way, seeking perspective on the disintegration of society, treasuring the seeds for the conversion of Europe and beyond. I had no idea how much we owe to them and it was good to reflect on their desert spirituality in relation to our lives today.