Spiritual desert dwelling emphasizes the kind of interior simplicity Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount–a freedom from being ruled by one’s body, one’s possessions, or one’s spiritual self-adulation. The goal for them, as for us, is to love others as God loves us.
If I want to learn to love, I try to act in loving ways, regardless of how I feel. My emotions are like the weather, but my deep desire to love creates a particular climate in my heart as it causes me to ask for the Lord to fill me with his love so that I might love others. There is nothing wrong with this picture. But it isn’t the only approach to this goal.
When I first began to read the Desert Fathers I was frequently confused at the seemingly over-emphasized issue of food in the “sayings” that have been preserved for us. Why is food such a big deal? And what does food have to do with loving others?
I have come to realize the goal of these fourth century “soul doctors.” They understand the soul’s motions, including its vulnerabilities to the multiple temptations that denied love. A very simple diet of bread and water could be the breeding ground for the whole range of temptations, depending on where the desert dweller was vulnerable at any particular time. In moments of hunger, one might dwell on all the favorite foods one had ever eaten, and struggle against the demon of gluttony. Or, one might spend hours imagining how good “full” might feel, and find oneself confronted by with the demon of discontent (a particular temptation to live “down and in”). But among these frequent temptations a person might also realize that his neighboring hermit has fresher bread that day, and be assailed with the dual demons of greed and envy. Now food has become about the possessiveness that squeezes out love of neighbor.
Yet the battle does not end even here. Suppose a monk overcomes these temptations, and is content to eat the little he has and is not swayed by what is on another’s plate. Now one’s deeper passions are susceptible to attack and can give way to the unlove we know as pride.
Once in the Valley of the Cells, a feast being celebrated, the brethren were eating together in the place of assembly. And there was a certain brother present, who said to the one waiting on table: I do not eat any cooked food, just a little salt. And the one waiting on table called another brother in the presence of the whole assembly saying: That brother does not eat cooked food. Just bring him some salt. One of the elders got up and said to the brother who wanted salt, “It would have been better had you eaten meat in your cell alone today, than to let this thing be heard in the presence of so many brethren” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, 39).
Here is the significant desert insight: self-control is not an end in itself. If we conquer the demons attacking our appetites, but value our victory more than we do the well-being of those around us, we have strained a gnat and swallowed a camel.
The desert elders did not talk much about love. Rather, they simply sought to be caught up in love. Their emphasis on internal simplicity was not an end in itself, but the cultivation of a space to hold God’s love for the world, and their love for God and for each other.
I will continue to choose to act as lovingly as I consciously can. But I will also learn from these desert Christians to confront the temptations that hound my thoughts, and learn how to fight the battle for love in my mind.