Into the Ancient Desert for Answers
by Donavon L Riley

Today, it is hard to ignore or avoid the unrest and discord that pervades society. But if we listen to the past, to those who lived before us and grappled with the upheavals and deprivations of their era, we have an opportunity to learn from them how to live selflessly and embody compassion and charity, and in this way, live a revolutionary life.  

The Desert Fathers, for example, were ascetic pioneers of Christian spirituality. They were not mere escapists; they embarked on a pilgrimage of the soul, seeking transformation through communion with God. At the heart of their faith lay the profound belief that the path of salvation wasn’t found in reshaping the external world in Jesus’ name but in communion with him, nurturing the inner sanctum of the self by being in the world but not of the world, as Jesus teaches. As John records in his gospel [17:15], Jesus prays: “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” So, for the Desert Fathers, such as Ephraim the Syrian and Aphrahat the Persian, relentless pursuit of the kingdom of God wasn’t made up of grand gestures but of profound humility and boundless charity.

Abba John of the Thebaid, in his wisdom, highlighted the paramount importance of humility. Quoting the words of Christ, he illuminated the path to heaven, affirming that it commences with being “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Similarly, Abba Joseph provided practical counsel, affirming that even if one lacked the strength for heroic deeds, safeguarding the conscience from evil towards others could lead to salvation. Their teachings pivot on the profound truth that genuine transformation starts from within, from a focus on participating in God-given reality and discerning the heavenly meaning behind all things.

Some of the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers, such as fasting on meager rations, may seem antiquated to us, yet their emphasis on humility and charity remains profoundly relevant. In a world besieged by the constant chatter of social media-driven conversations, where every corner of our lives, both on and offline, reverberates with tales of turmoil and calls for our immediate attention and action, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers offers us an oasis for profound introspection of both earthly and heavenly truths. But if we continue to allow ourselves to be swayed by the pervasive culture of criticism and judgment that is rampant online, we are voluntarily ensnaring ourselves in a web of despair and bitterness. 

The Desert Fathers can guide us past all that, since they invite us to turn away from our screens and turn inward, not to wallow in narcissistic self-reflection, but to look to the divine, to learn from Jesus how to cultivate humility and extend charity towards others.

It is a poignant irony that amidst the clamor for societal change and justice, the true revolution advocated by the Desert Fathers is one of self-transformation for the sake of a higher calling. Amidst the chaos of a world gripped by moral ambiguity, their teachings bring personal integrity and heavenly truth into communion. As the Apostle Paul exhorted the Philippian Christians, the pursuit of blamelessness amidst a crooked and perverse generation isn’t attained through complaint and dispute but through embodying the light of Christ. (Philippians 2:14-16).

So in a society where virtue often takes a backseat to material success and instant gratification, the Desert Fathers, like the apostle Paul, exhort us to reassess our priorities. Theirs is a message of profound simplicity: to believe that Jesus is God and Savior, and from that core belief to live virtuously, to embrace humility, and to embody charity in all facets of life. And while we may not retreat to the desert or subsist on meager sustenance, we can emulate their spirit by tending to the garden of our souls with diligence and sincerity.

In their quiet humility and unwavering commitment to charity, the Desert Fathers epitomize a timeless truth: that the greatest revolution begins in faith, from within, in communion with God, not by going out and seeking to remake the world in our image. This is how we become beacons of light amidst the darkness, embodying the transformative power of godly humility and Christ-like charity.

Their teachings challenge us to eschew the allure of outward appearances and ephemeral accolades, and urge us instead to delve into the depths of heavenly mystery and our relationship to it. In the solitude of self-reflection, we confront the shadows that lurk within, and the light that comes to us from above, which paves the way for profound personal change. Through acts of kindness and compassion, we become conduits of divine grace, illuminating the world with the radiance of God’s love.

The Desert Fathers’ legacy is not one of asceticism for its own sake but a profound testament to the transformative power of God acting on the human spirit. Theirs is a pilgrimage of inner alchemy, wherein the base elements of ego and selfishness are transmuted by the divine into the gold of selflessness and love. In their simple yet profound way of life, they beckon us to strip away the veneer of pretense and embrace the authenticity of our true selves, in relation to our Maker and those around us.

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By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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