Orthodox Theologian Speaks on Modern Deserts
We can only appreciate the mystical dimension of our world and our soul if we go through the stage of the desert, says Orthodox theologian, John Chryssavgis."I would say that the secret of the desert is learning to lose," he says.
Author of several books, husband and father of two, Doctor Chryssavgis has recently released "In the Heart of the Desert. The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers."
Q: Seeking God through silence and prayer like the 4th and 5th century Christian ascetics still has much to teach us now?
Chryssavgis: It is so easy today to consider silence and prayer as something historically outdated or merely as spiritual virtues. In fact, for the life of the early desert fathers and mothers in the fourth and fifth centuries, silence was a way of breathing, a way of going deep.
In a world, such as ours, where so much is determined by the immediate and the superficial, the desert elders teach us the importance of slowing down, the need to pay attention and to look more deeply. Silence is letting the world and yourself be what they are. And in that respect, silence is profoundly connected to the living God, "who is who he is." Silence and prayer mean creating space for those moments in our life where integrity and beauty and justice and righteousness reign. Of course, all this requires toil and tears, labor and love. It is the art of living simply, instead of simply living. It resembles the skill of gardening: you cannot plant unless, first, you cultivate. You cannot expect to sow unless you dig deep. And you certainly cannot expect fruit unless you wait. The search, then, is for what lies beneath the surface. Only in taking time and looking carefully can we realize just how much more there is to our world, our neighbor, and even ourselves than at first we notice or than we could ever imagine.
Q: Is there a secret to live a rich and healthy spiritual life?
Chryssavgis: In some ways, the secret to living a rich and healthy spiritual life may well be the fact that there is no secret. One of the problems along the spiritual way is that most of us seek -- or resort to -- magical solutions to profound issues. Reading the texts of the early ascetics, I have come to realize that perhaps the most essential lesson learned in life is the lesson of surrender, of letting go. It is a hard lesson, and one that is only reluctantly embraced by most of us. But I am convinced that this life is given to us in order to learn how to lose. We think that the purpose of a good spiritual life is to acquire virtues, or perhaps to lead a solid, productive, dignified, admirable, and even influential lifestyle. In fact, every detail -- whether seemingly important or insignificant, whether painful or joyful -- in the life of each one of us has but a single purpose, namely to prepare us for the ultimate act of sharing and sacrifice. I would say that the secret of the desert is learning to lose. When you know how to lose, you also know how to love! In some ways, every moment in our life is a gradual refinement so that we are prepared to encounter death, which is the ultimate loss.
Q: What unifies the desert fathers and mothers?
Chryssavgis: If there is one element that unites the desert fathers and mothers, in my mind it is their realism. The unpretentious dimension of their life and experience, of their practice as well as their preaching, is something they share with one another and with all the communion of saints through the centuries. And precisely because they are truthful and down-to-earth, the desert fathers and mothers are not afraid to be who they are. They do not endeavor to present a false image; and they do not accept any picture of themselves that does not reflect who they really are. "Stay in your cell," they advise us. Because so often we are tempted to move outside, to stray away from who and what we are. Learning to face who and what we are -- without any facade, without any make-up, without any false expectations -- is one of the hardest and at the same time, one of the finest lessons of the desert. Putting up with ourselves is the first and necessary step of learning to put up with others. And it is the basis for recognizing how all of us -- each of us and the entire world alike -- are unconditionally embraced and loved by God.
Q: Is there another kind of "desert" nowadays?
Chryssavgis: In our day, the desert is not necessarily to be found in the natural wilderness, although it may certainly be located there for some. The institutional church and the institutional parish have their place; and the natural desert has its place. But there is more to the spiritual life than these could ever provide alone. Alongside the institutional, there must be room for inspiration. The two are not necessarily opposed, but they must work together integrally if the Body of Christ is to function in all its fullness. We need to discern the mystery in life. And we can only appreciate the mystical dimension of our world and our soul if we go through the stage of the desert, if we experience that contemplative dimension of life. Yet the desert today is found in the marginal places of the world and the church, where the prophetic and critical word is spoken in response to the cry of suffering in human beings and in the natural environment. Those who put themselves on the edge of the conventional church or society in order to see clearly what is happening in our world are contemporary desert fathers and mothers.