Desert spirituality today

I was emailed an interview with a Greek Orthodox theologian by a friend yesterday and it was a beautiful piece of spiritual reading, perfectly timed to find me sitting at the kitchen table contemplating some apple and cinnamon muffins warm from the oven.

Healthy ascetism and fresh apple muffins can pair really well, believe me.

Apparently this was published by Zenit, but I since can’t find the original article on the website to link to here’s a good section of it:


Boston, July 18, 2006 ( — Interview With 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.

Chryssavgis: It is so easy today to consider silence and prayer as something historically outdated or merely as spiritual virtues.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, labour 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 realise just how much more there is to our world, our neighbour, 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.

That was not too heavy but enough for me to chew over this weekend as our family gets ready to emerge from two weeks of self-isolation or home quarantine.

It’s been busy, but simple. Some days all I could do was clean, serve meals, play games with the younger kids and take phone calls. We were forced to stay at home out of the blue, but our wonderful friends and family never let us feel forgotten for a second, which I think is key to happily getting through a period of confinement – even a brief one.

I’m getting plenty of opportunities to be grateful – we get to isolate with family at home, where everyone gets along pretty well and we know we’re safe, than alone or in a hotel.

Given the coronavirus pandemic many people are probably going through a kind of desert experience at the moment whether they recognise it or not. Pope Francis explains it as a global crisis from which the world will emerge either better or worse. I want the whole to become better, but I’ll happily settle for some improvement for myself out of any of the inconveniences or terrors of 2020!

  • Since the muffins lasted mere seconds, the feature photo is of some of the stash of treats friends brought us the last two weeks.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jenny says:

    Oh my goodness, Marilyn. How beautiful. In particular, thank you for this reminder; to be ourselves, our true selves. Jenny.


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