A Place of Escape and Encounter
Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Fr. Greg Wiest, CSsR, a retreat leader at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, AZ on the history of Desert Mothers and Fathers and how the concept of desert spirituality can enhance our spiritual growth.Q Give a brief history of “desert spirituality.”
Q Give a brief history of “desert spirituality.”
A The desert makes us vulnerable. It exposes our weaknesses and needs. In the desert we leave behind what is comfortable and familiar. In the desert we survive only by relying on God’s goodness. People throughout history have fled into the desert so they could strip themselves of pride and self-reliance and know God’s providential care. God kept the Israelites in the desert forty years so they could forget the idolatry of Egypt and learn God’s justice. The prophets reminded the Israelites who inherited the Holy Land about the law of life God gave to their ancestors in the desert. John the Baptist came from the desert to point out how people could destroy themselves by trusting their own selfish ways. The power of the desert makes two things clear: there is before us either the life of God or the death of selfishness. Desert spirituality happens when the life of God completely and totally claims us.
Q Christ was drawn to the desert, as were countless disciples. Is the experience more of an encounter than an escape?
A The Holy Spirit drove Christ himself into the desert before he started his public ministry. There, Satan tempted Jesus to live without any reference to the will of God. Jesus won the battle. Jesus found in the desert a place where he could live for God alone. Throughout his ministry, when Jesus wanted to renew his disciples, he brought them to a deserted place. Early in the history of Christianity, around the year 300 AD, women and men from all walks of life fled into the desert from the power and prestige of the cities to find God in the solitude of their hearts. Outstanding in their holiness, they later became knows as the Desert Mothers and Fathers.” The desert is both a place of escape and an encounter. It’s a place to escape the distractions of the external world. It’s a place that allows a person to find silence and solitude. Then it becomes a place of encounter. In the desert, without distractions, we can see ourselves more clearly. The more we encounter the depths of our own hearts in the desert, the better able we are to find God there. We see where our own power and will have failed us. We encounter our weakness and our limits. It is when we cry out for help and mercy from the depths of our own barrenness that God comes to us with surprising, redeeming grace.
Q What can a participant expect to see, experience, and learn?
A In the United States, the Redemptorists of the Denver Province have two retreat houses located in the Sonoran Desert outside of Tucson: the Redemptorist Renewal Center and the Desert House of Prayer. Retreat participants and visitors will find themselves in a unique landscape that will fill them with wonder and awe. The colors of the mountains surrounding the desert change throughout the day as the sun shifts. A wide variety of cacti and shrubs populate the desert, filling the rocky ground with dense patches of green life. The saguaro cacti are a signature element to the landscape. The tall cacti grow with outstretched arms and look like a gathering of people in the sunrise and sunset. In their stillness and strength they remind people how to pray—quietly and patiently. The animals of the desert bring the spirit of the Creator wherever they appear, the call of the dove, the stealth of the coyote, and the play of the lizards. In the desert, people learn they aren’t the center of the world. We discover the joy of being among others sharing a common A Place of Escape and Encounter Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Fr. Greg Wiest, CSsR, a retreat leader at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, AZ on the history of Desert Mothers and Fathers and how the concept of desert spirituality can enhance our spiritual growth place. The desert helps us accept our humanity and how we can work with all creatures to live safely and happily.
Q How can an interested person learn more?
A If you are interested in learning more about Christian desert spirituality, there are several books that provide a great introduction. One of the best is by the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton was one of the first people to translate sayings of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers into English. His book The Wisdom of the Desert provides a sample of sayings passed down from their disciples and preserved by the Church throughout the centuries. These sayings are stark and instructive stories about how to meet God in the center of our heart. Another book classic book on desert spirituality is Father Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart. In it, he shows us how we can stand in the presence of God by practicing solitude and silence. If you are interested in spending retreat time in a desert, you can contact the Redemptorist Renewal Center for a directed retreat or the Desert House of Prayer for an extended stay in silence and solitude. The Redemptorist Renewal Center also offers both a five- and ten-week desert contemplative study sabbatical program and a spiritual-direction training program.
Q Can someone retreat to the desert without being in one?
A Each of us has hidden places inside that are unknown by the rest of the world. These are the places where we are open to what is eternal. They are places of loneliness and emptiness. We think these parts of ourselves will overwhelm us, possibly destroy us. These are the spiritual deserts inside our hearts. But God calls us to these places to renew us and transform our lives. In these places we see how solutions of the world are limited and often don’t have our best interest in mind. In our spiritual desert we understand that God alone is the answer. We can retreat to these places, but it takes courage and faith. The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers discovered long ago that the best ways to find God in the desert are through silence, solitude, and stillness. These three practices help us enter our personal deserts. Silence removes distractions. Solitude opens In their stillness and strength they remind people how to pray— quietly and patiently. A Flower Blossoms From the years 250 to 400, Christians left civilization for the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to find God in silence and solitude. We know these Christians as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The disciples of the Desert Fathers and Mothers preserved their sayings on prayer and how to live before God in silence and solitude. The Desert Father and Mothers attracted so many followers they eventually had to organize themselves into communities. This gave rise to monasticism—the flower of desert spirituality. our hearts. Stillness permits us to be receptive to the grace of God—together they magnify our faith.
Q How has this ministry touched lives?
A People who practice desert spirituality at the Redemptorist Renewal Center all comment on how quiet and stillness transform them from the inside out. One participant states how “the busyness and challenges of my life are released and my soul feels healed by the silence of the contemplative way.” She notices how the wilderness puts her in touch with a “purifying faith.” Another participant treasures the desert as a way of finding “love, forgiveness, hope, and tranquility.” He finds in silence and solitude of the desert a “rhythm, solemnity, and simplicity.” And a third person talks about how our Stations of the Cross that overlook the desert have changed his life: “The peace I feel in the high desert as I walk the stations reassures me that God is everywhere and that I am one with all his creation.”