Wisdom in the Desert
February 7-9, 2003 Cynthia Bourgeault
Glenairley, Sooke, BC

Christianity is a rags to riches story.

From its poor beginning the church came to embody the imperial religion entering into an alliance with the state.

The desert monastics were drawn to the desert, not so much to make a political statement as to  seek an authentic encounter with God.

You will forget your causes quickly when you go to the desert or you will not survive in the desert. If you have gone to the desert to make a statement, it won’t work.

The call to the desert comes as a response to an attraction from above which is as real as gravity. This is “the hanged man” (Meditations on Tarot, p. 306) which is a symbol of the gravitational pull from above.

There is no plan when you go to the desert. The desert is the place we give up our plans.

The attraction to solitude means giving up all for God in order to remember ourselves and God.

Remembrance in the Last Supper is pulling us over to the real communion with the living Master.

We are the ones who are transubstantiated (not the bread and the wine).

At the end of the 3rd century some of the initial energy of Christian faith was fading. This diminishment of vision brought significant changes in the church.

During the 4th century the Eucharist and Easter celebration shifted from being rites of crossing over to being merely ritualized drama in which Acts I, II, III are Maundy Thursday to Easter.

The early church was comfortable in the world of parables and story. But gradually people began to get more bothered by what was in and what was out of the accepted canon. These are the questions of orthodoxy which holds that it is important to get things nailed down, just right. It became necessary to think about Jesus correctly. Lynn Bauman speaks of “doctrinal mantras” being established for the faith.

This is a movement away from a heart perception to head perception and rationalization. Heart perception calls for a heart encounter, an awareness of the subtle.

The desert mystics sought to return to lived out parables. This is why they were pulled into the desert; there they received the subtle and then manifested what they received in the world.

They were spiritual pioneers, experimenters. They sought to discover what works best to bring soul and body together.

In the desert they practiced spiritual eldership. This is how leadership worked. Elders were Abbas (same as Sufis call leaders).

Eldership can only be earned by discernment of the heart. It is not about seniority. We only become “elders” by opening and living the deep life.

We can’t share spiritual teaching and wisdom unless it is recognized by others. The disciple and the leader make each other through mutual recognition. This was modeled by Jesus. People heard Jesus and recognized that this was a person who spoke with authority. The relationship was close to a love relationship in which you must practice self-disclosure.

Churches become stale when this kind of leadership/elder relationship no longer functions. We become stalled when we move to leadership of position and hierarchy, rather than obedire which means deep listening.

In church hierarchy based on position, people want to get rid of the whole “eldership” thing. This is a terrible loss. We need elders

The elder is a midwife who walks through the eye of the needle, navigating the movement from the egoic to the place beyond boundaries. This takes courage, faith and commitment. It is like Peter walking on the water and Jesus holding out his hand to him.

This is not about wiping out authority but about rediscovering an ancient model.

Abbas were spiritual elders. They practiced wisdom teaching par-excellence.

There are 2 forms of teaching in the desert tradition:

1. Sayings – These are short, paradoxical “logia”, the Greek for “words”. The disciples approached an elder asking for a word. The response came in a pithy and memorable saying.

 The sayings are dense, packed like the Eucharist. The student ate them and they became life. The disciple would go away and ponder the words, like seeds. They can never be fully understood on 1st hearing.

2.Stories – These are meant to be deeply challenging to the rational and lateral thinking with which we are familiar. They are intended to push the student, to be living parables. They carry the challenge to go do this or that.