FROM ANCIENT DESERT TO MODERN SPIRITUAL CITY
The circular history of contemplative prayer and meditation
By Antonella Pedley
Some while ago at an annual gathering, I listened with hundreds of other Christians to a fiery young speaker who sought to jolt us out of spiritual slumber and to rekindle the flame of authentic Christianity in our souls. As part of the transformative prescription, he warmly recommended the writings of the Desert Fathers. I found the recommendation odd, given the Protestant setting. Was the spirit of the Desert Fathers somehow part of a larger agenda of which I was unaware, I wondered?
WHO WERE THE DESERT FATHERS?
Towards the end of the third century (c. 270), a man called Antony, who claimed to be a Christian, sold his possessions and headed to the Egyptian desert to live in solitude. Many others followed his example, living either alone in caves or together in monastic communities. They developed a particular kind of prayer and meditation, in which silence was the key element. The main purpose was to create an “atmosphere in which a spirit of prayerful awareness of God could thrive.”1
This was not meditation on the meaning of Bible passages; instead “it was first and foremost the utterance, or exclamation of words, which were gradually digested and memorised.” The monks used Scripture mainly for its talismanic (magic) quality in spiritual battle against demons, making use of “short exclamations and bursts of prayer, using either words of Scripture or words modeled on Scripture.”2 Understanding the “magic words” they used wasn’t necessary.
Additionally, the Desert Fathers discouraged discussions around the meaning of particular Bible texts. “When someone asked Amoun, [one of the Desert Fathers] if it were better to talk about the sayings of the Fathers or the sayings of Scripture, he was told: ‘You had better talk about the sayings of the Fathers than about the Scriptures.’”3 One scholar observed that, “In some cases the words of the elder appear to have had an authority which went beyond that of Scriptures.”4
Vital to this desert experience was the spiritual director: he was not simply a mentor or counselor, but a master, to whom everything was to be confessed. He was to direct the “spiritual formation” of the disciple, who was to obey him completely.
Monasticism soon expanded and developed further, becoming a staple of traditional Christianity. The Reformers, especially Wycliffe, Luther, and Melanchthon, disapproved of monasticism because it was not rooted in Scripture.
But why did monasticism appear in Egypt at the time it did? This is one of the hotly debated topics in current scholarship. Although far from proven, one theory is that the monastic concept was brought to Egypt by two Manichean missionaries around the year AD 270. Manicheanism was founded by Mani, who believed he was called to establish the first true world religion with universal aspirations. In the year 242, Mani traveled as far as India and learned about Buddhist monastic practices.
Mani’s beliefs eventually featured a mixture of Gnosticism (a heretical Christian sect), Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. The Manicheans had a superior class of believers—the elect. They resembled Christian monks in certain aspects: they were celibate, lived austere lives, and followed strict dietary rules.5 The fact that the first Manichean missionaries arrived in Egypt just at the time when Christian monasticism was born makes it possible that Buddhist elements influenced the Desert Fathers and Western monasticism in general.
ANCIENT BECOMES MODERN
Fast-forward to the second half of the 20th century and to Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk who explored the sayings of the Desert Fathers as well as the writings of medieval mystics such as Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross. In 1959, Merton sent a copy of his book The Wisdom of the Desert to the Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, because “the wisdom of the Desert Fathers showed a remarkable resemblance to some of the stories of the Zen Masters.”6 He thus entered into meaningful dialog with Zen Buddhists, which deeply influenced his thinking and writings. He came to reject the primacy of Scripture in favor of personal experience gained in solitude.7
Merton was also drawn to Sufism, a mystical Muslim tradition, from which he adopted the idea of the divine spark at the center of our being.8 Writing about Merton’s legacy, one scholar observes: “He showed Western people that pluralism offers an invitation and opportunity for spiritual growth rather than a threat.”9
Merton’s ideas on “spiritual formation” were taken up by others, such as Thomas Keating, who invited Eastern teachers to his St. Joseph’s Monastery in Massachusetts and developed the modern form of contemplative prayer called centering prayer. Since then, other writers, teachers, and ministers—Catholic, Evangelical, or otherwise—have further developed and popularized the concepts of contemplation and centering prayer.
More recently, other pieces of the puzzle have come together to give context to my earlier question—Is seeking the experience of the Desert Fathers somehow part of a larger agenda?
The puzzle is a new “Christianity” that would have been unrecognizable a few decades ago, in which boundaries between many denonimations have become thin to the point of dissolving. The primary catalyst for this environment was the emerging church (EC) movement.
EC appeared as a reaction both to the formalism of traditional churches and the marketing gimmicks of seeker-oriented megachurches. This mainly urban movement was able to establish new dogmatic norms. EC proponents do not view Scripture as absolute truth, only as narrative, metaphoric, or mystical truth. Instead of certainties, open-ended discussions that foster a sense of community are preferred.. Pluralism reigns, in which diverse Christian traditions, old and new, are celebrated. Services borrrow elements from Roman Catholic or Anglican liturgies, such as prayer beads, lectio divina, spiritual direction, the yearly liturgical calendar, and the Eucharist, blending the ancient with the modern. The values that count above all else are experience and relationships, not doctrine or teaching. As pluralism leads inevitably to strong ecumenism, the commom denominator that sticks out above the others is “spiritual formation,” which can be traced back to the Desert Fathers.
Although some have heralded the death of the emerging trend, its ideas have become so pervasive as to be absorbed into the fabric of both mainline and evangelical Christianity.
THE FOUNDATION—SOLA SCRIPTURA!
So, we have come full circle and the old has become new. But is everything “old” good or safe for the Christian?
It is true that renewal and authenticity are much needed in Christianity. A profession of faith should be backed by a living experience with God. True religion is not just that of the mind, but also that of the heart. But should experience alone become the basis and end goal of our faith?
The Bible is the only sure foundation for the spiritual life of the Christian. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Isa. 8:20. The only way our “spiritual formation” can be sound and complete is by molding our teaching and practice to the inspired Word of God. 2 Tim. 3:15–17. Just as the Early Church apostles and later Protestant Reformers stressed, we must test every idea, old or new, by the measure of Scripture. It is the only sure guide to salvation.
- D. Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, p. 146.
- Ibid., p. 123.
- Ibid., p. 155.
- Ibid., p. 110.
- W. S. J. Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, pp. 436–439.
- H. C. Steyn, “The Influence of Buddhism on Thomas Merton,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Sept. 1990), p. 9.
- W. H. Shannon, Thomas Merton’s dark path—The inner experience of a contemplative, pp. 220, 221.
- C. Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Attention of the Heart, Cross Currents, 59.1, pp. 18, 20.
- See Reference 7, p. 12.
Reprinted with permission from Last Generation magazine, Volume 29.4, “Mind Your Brain.” Find more articles in this issue on the truth about meditation and safe and unsafe spiritual practices at www.lastgen.net. Antonella Pedley holds an MA in ancient religions; the theme of her dissertation was Christian monasticism in the first millennium.
BIBLE PROMISES FOR A DEEPER COMMUNION WITH GOD
“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18
I will show you My salvation.
“Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known My name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble…. With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation.” Psalm 91:14–16.
You will seek Me and find Me.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11–13.
You will be filled.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6.
Abide in Me, and I in you.
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit: for without Me you can do nothing.” John 15:5.
I will abide with you forever.
“If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:15–18.
I will draw near to you, if you will draw near to Me.
“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” James 4:8.
You will be fruitful in the knowledge of Christ.
“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours, and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:5–8.
I will manifest Myself to you.
“He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him.” John 14:21.
I will dwell in your heart through faith.
“That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17–19.
Open the door and I will come in.
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and dine with him, and he with Me.” Revelation 3:20.