Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:
What about the Desert Fathers?
I know, my knowledge of them is basic, wiki basic, even, and my nondenominational background certainly made no reference to any kind of history between A.D. 33 and 1970. But, still: a group of beards move out to the Egyptian desert to figure out this whole faith thing. It was escapist in the way that one escapes death–the sense that continuing to live in contemporary society was threatening their intuition as well as their jugular.
They were separatists and individualists. If this happened today, you’d call them un-churched, and tell them that they are “missing out on God’s blessings.” Instead, because it’s ancient history, you call them saints, and place them in prominence in many of your established traditions.
I’ve never been to the desert. I imagine it hurts your calves, almost sinking with each step, leaving a depression that is not so much a footprint as it is a failed attempt at leaving one’s subjective mark on the landscape–concave scoops of would-be wells that are filled in by the erasure of hot wind.
But maybe that’s what they wanted–the parched reminder that it’s not about becoming a better person so that you can leave tracks for others to follow. Paradoxically, this kind of self-denying lesson only arrives via periods of seclusion.
Here’s an easy-to-find quote from one of your most respected DFs, that predates the Pascal idea I’ve discussed previously: Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you all.
So, perhaps my Sort-of-Sahara isn’t the period of dryness you think. A cell doesn’t have to mean enclosed imprisonment. Only in the absence of sheet rock and stone can one be knocked over by unending sky.