The Spiritual Desert Isn't Optional

The Desert, Not the Monastery

We are sheep lost in the desert, but the shepherd is looking for us. That is how Pope Benedict XVI described the Church at the beginning of his pontificate. The desert is an old image borrowed from the Fathers and, obviously, from Revelation (Rev 12:6). It is a startling image unlike most of what is offered by preachers today. This is why at the time the following captured my imagination as a preacher, a Protestant, and a soon-to-be convert to Catholicism: “The human race—every one of us—is the sheep lost in the desert that no longer knows the way.”[1] It was the first time I really heard it, the first time this ancient image struck me and lodged itself in my mind. Thanks to it I am now a priest lost in the desert. Now it is how I imagine the ministry almost entirely: haunted and inspired by the idea we are all in the desert, lost but looked for.

In the recent apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, Pope Francis calls the contemporary world where our young people grow up a “desert devoid of meaning” (§216)—a harsh and hostile place. Entire generations are raised in barrenness—a parched, emaciated, faintly spiritual, pseudo-materialist sense of things, which all too many have ever known and will know. The “eclipse of the sense of God and man” (Evangelium Vitae §21), is how John Paul II put it. The “desertification” of society is how at least the last three popes have described our contemporary situation. That is the aggregate spiritual effect of all our fundamentally atheist attempts to articulate goodness without positive reference to God.

This is where we are: in the desert. But it is also where we belong as people of faith. That we wander in the desert is both a danger and a challenge, risk and providence. As Paul said of his work in Ephesus that although “there are many opponents,” still, “a door has opened wide for me” (1 Cor 16:9), so too are Christians to understand their task in today’s deserts. Benedict XVI said, “The Church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, toward the place of life, toward friendship with the Son of God, toward the one who gives us life, and life in abundance.”[2]


In the desert we are to imagine ourselves lost and found at once; lambs rescued, we are to follow the way of the Lamb. Called to be “living sources of water from which others can drink” is how we are to imagine our varied ministries: as pilgrims walking with others in these deserts we unwittingly created for ourselves, ministering to those around us suffering thirst (Evangelii Gaudium §86). Sharing what Paul called the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18) is how we restore each other while still on pilgrimage. Sighing for our heavenly country while sharing nourishment, grace, and the words of God as we wander together in the desert.[3]


It is an ancient biblical image but also a contemporary aesthetic. This, it seems, is the spiritual terrain imagined by those behind what is called “New Monasticism.” Its followers are interested in “interspirituality” and the fusion of horizons. They call for the gathering together of diverse traditions along with, among other things, care for the environment, into a deeper spiritual form of life.[4] However, for those like me, sense in such boutique spiritualities peculiar to the privileged what Žižek called “Western Buddhism,” other answers to the desertification of our world may, at first, appear more attractive.[5]


For conservatives, for instance, Rod Dreher’s popularized and understandably criticized Benedict Option, his talk of things like the “idea of the Christian village,” may seem more appealing.[6] However, this too bears a rather middle-class inflection. There is something about it more cathartic than practical, more merely the soft revolutionary rhetoric of the purchasers of Apple products and Whole Foods shoppers, but less radical and more managed than the real spiritual revolutions of the past. It is the stuff of boutique-marketed book tours, but not lasting conversion.


These are some of the reasons why I find the image of the desert more helpful than the monastery. This is especially the case for those of us without the means to reorder our whole economic existence, unable to find or afford Christian villages, interfaith ashrams, or spirituality centers. For most of us the desert remains bereft of such oases. We are stuck, and beyond buying a book, or following some self-professed sage on Twitter, many of us simply do not know what to do.

The desert, not the monastery, wandering hesychasts more than stable monks. The example of the latter is more useful to the Christian imagination today. The stability of the cell was, of course, a prized virtue among the Christians of the desert. However, in the mountains and among the wadis and rocks it was harder to achieve, more precious, precarious, and vulnerable. The walls of caves are different than walls of monasteries. Their environment bears different, wilder fruit, an interiority without establishment.

It is what I think David Bentley Hart was getting at towards the end of Atheist Delusions. There he pointed to the desert fathers and mothers of early Christianity as the “proper model of Christianity in the late modern West.” Not to any sort of new monasticism, what Hart saw as exemplary for Christians today was more a sacrificial spiritual rebellion of mind, heart, and speech. Pointing to Christians of the desert, to sayings of the fathers, he said,

They are fascinating testaments to the birth of a new spiritual polity in the very midst of the Christianized empire, a community whose sole concern was to discover what it really meant to live for the love of God and one’s neighbor, to banish envy, hate, and resentment from the soul, and to seek the beauty of Christ in others. These sayings reflect, among other things, what one might best call the heroism of forgiveness, and frequently a piercingly wise simplicity, and just as frequently a penetratingly subtle psychology. And the guiding logic of the life they lived was that of spiritual warfare: that is to say, now that the empire had “fallen” to Christ and could no longer be regarded as simply belonging to the kingdom of Satan, the desert fathers carried the Christian revolution against the ancient powers with them into the wild, to renew the struggle on the battleground of the heart.[7]

Less consumers of some gourmet spiritual movement, more thrown into interior guerilla spiritual warfare, Christians of the desert were combatants undoubtedly less stable, more harried, more ad hoc, but more demandingly interior, more flexible. This is the model. It is what Benedict XVI meant describing faithfulness in the desert, that we should be people habitually purified in prayer and penance and enlightened by scripture.[8] It is also what Pope Francis means by calling for the renewal of the structures of the Church, that they become, like the Christians operating them, more flexible and open (Evangelii Gaudium §27-28). That is what is so often lost in our various American and Western translations of papal wisdom. Amidst repeated exhortations to prepare for a different sort of Catholicism in a different post-religious world we resist abiding in the desert, because we want to preserve and protect the status quo instead of praying and girding our loins.

Preaching in the Desert

But what does this have to do with preaching? As I said, I am a priest and preacher, a middle-class pastor of middle-class folk. What does it mean for people like me to see ministry, especially the preaching ministry in terms of the desert? Is that not as pretentious as all this talk of New Monasticism and the Benedict Option?

I don’t think so. And that is because, aside from the desert being an explicitly biblical trope, it is focused more on Christianity as a way upon pilgrimage and a precarious practice, less on being settled and establishing bulwarks against an imagined impending Dark Age. Understanding the ministry of preaching in terms of the desert is what I think Pope Benedict XVI suggests, at least implicitly, in his 2010 exhortation Verbum Domini. The picture drawn in that exhortation is of preaching in the desert that calls for a reimagined homiletics for a new and unfamiliar world: “There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love” (Verbum Domini §2). He adds that the Church is a “community that hears and proclaims the word of God” (Ibid. §51). That requires preachers. But what sort of preachers? This is the underlying question of Verbum Domini, at least for homiletics. The sort of preachers it evokes is what is so reminiscent of the desert.

At the heart of Verbum Domini Pope Benedict points to the saints, first to St. Anthony the Great, as examples of the living interpretation of scripture, of “those who let themselves be shaped by the word of God through listening, reading, and assiduous meditation.” The saints not only complement the work of interpretation today—that is, if it is genuinely Catholic—they also show how it is possible for Catholics themselves to become living interpretations of scripture. “Every saint is like a ray of light streaming forth from the word of God” (Ibid. §48), he says. In priests, in consecrated religious, in the lay faithful, it all looks slightly different, but the final fruit is what Benedict called “living exegesis.” It is why he emphasizes the practice of lectio divina for all (Ibid. §87).

Yet, for seminarians and priests, it also looks like a particular commitment to study and prayer. For religious, it looks like life formed by poverty, chastity, and obedience (Ibid. §82-85). For laity, it looks like daily life infiltrated by the word of God through catechesis designed to get the story across, to develop “knowledge of biblical personages, events, and well-known sayings.” Pope Benedict even recommends memorization (Ibid. §74).

The purpose of all of this, though, is simply to form biblical people, Christians who in every facet of life, in triumph or tragedy, reflect, think, imagine, and speak within the horizon and idioms of scripture. Not because they merely condition their minds by rote repetition, but because by reading the word of God, and then by giving themselves wholly to the world which the word of God reveals, they become people who live and experience what they read. That is, more than speak scripture, they become scripture. They become readable texts themselves.

They become living exegeses like Jesus (Jn 1:18). Perfected by sacrifice, their words become disclosure, genuine Gospel proclaimed. As Augustine said of Our Savoir in his commentary on the Psalms: “His heart is scripture, or rather his wisdom is in the scriptures.” Yet, it was only at the crucifixion, Augustine wrote, that Jesus’s heart melted like wax, “so that all the weak could understand scripture.”[9] That is, only when scriptural prayer became sacrifice was the heart opened to reveal and speak scripture. This might be the deeper meaning of what Pope Benedict meant by the “living exegesis” of holiness. To speak the word of God because one has become a sacrifice of God: this is deeper stuff and a higher calling than simply saying Catholics should brush up on the scriptures. It is a call to become thoroughly biblical in heart and mind on the cross, which is the final fruit of exegesis.

All this, of course, belongs to the universal call to holiness. It is for everyone. What does this mean for the preacher in particular and more generally for the state of Catholic homiletics? Internalizing the word of God, externalizing it in sacrifice, the preacher speaks God’s words from within, or as Jesus said, from the “heart” (Mt 15:18). This is what the speech of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and Judea was like. Their words were so deeply suffused with scripture that their own speech and vocabulary and rhetorical inventions were utterly biblical, unique repetitions of the word of God.

The scattered tradition of sayings of the Fathers and Mothers are replete with such unique repetition. For example, when Abba Isaiah compared insults to water, saying the Christian who receives constant insults “is like a tree watered each day,” one thinks of Jesus’s invitation to his disciples to “rejoice” in calumny (Mt 5:11-12). Or when Abba Pambo said that “mercy finds freedom of speech in the presence of God,” one thinks of the parable of the unforgiving servant, who when his lack of mercy was brought to the attention of his master, said not another word (Mt 18:32-35).[10]

The collected oral tradition of the desert is vast. Sometimes direct quotes, sometimes actions, sometimes parables or apophthegms, the speech of the Desert Fathers and Mothers exemplifies Christian rhetoric without the power of (Byzantine) empire. It is speech in rebellion against the power-hungry narratives of culture. It is a different way of preaching the Gospel in a strange, half-Christian world. That is precisely why we should reimagine preaching in terms of the desert, because we are no longer curators of Christendom. It is a spiritual fact that we are in the desert.

When preaching in these new deserts our homilies will perhaps look more like Peter Maurin’s “easy essays” or even some strange Christianized version of Leonard Cohen than, say, the sermons of Charles Spurgeon or the catechesis of Fulton Sheen. It will be preaching, to use Michel de Certeau’s terminology, that’s more “tactical.” Pope Francis likened preaching today to a family conversation, sometimes tedious but nonetheless fruitful, speech filled with joy (Evangelii Gaudium §140-141). This is no doubt true.

However, given the wildness of the ancient desert, we should be open to the possibility that this new reimagined homiletics might be equally wild. Like the miracle stories and songs of the Brazilian peasants de Certeau talked about, Christian preaching modelled after the traditions of the desert should become disestablished speech, subverting “the fatality of the established order.” They should be homilies free and subversive enough to survive the various homogenizing narratives of modernity, homilies like songs that “rise again, escaping the battlefield of defeat.”[11]

It is what the desert demands of every Christian: that we renounce the protection and props of the institutions of Christianity, preachers included. It is a renunciation that will change our speech. This is what is meant, for better or worse, by “authenticity”—the sense that the person speaking is not merely selling something, that it is truth free of manipulation. Such truth is what people want to hear today, what they are begging the Church to offer. We, the preachers, must oblige. That means older forms and older styles of preaching may need to go, that we may need to risk wilder words.

This is clearly not possible without returning to scripture. No reimagined homiletics, no redemption of preaching, will be possible without preachers turning off their screens and refocusing upon the silent page of the living word of God. This perhaps is the most urgent renunciation we Christians and we preachers are called to make: to escape the digital world, to stop looking at screens and find instead a quieter, more deserted place to read, a cave of sorts.

Just as Augustine who, when he heard that young voice singing “Take up and read,” thought of St. Anthony’s conversion and began reading St. Paul, we too should search again for the word of God like that. Because for Augustine, it flooded his heart with light and dissolved his doubt. And it made him a Christian and preacher too.[12] Because he remembered the desert, read scripture, and found the Shepherd looking for him.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, “First Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI at the Mass of Inauguration of His Pontificate,” in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 33.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin, 2004), 15.6.

[4] See Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko, New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st Century (Ossining, NY: Orbis, 2015).

[5] Slavoj Žižek, On Belief (London: Routledge, 2001), 12.

[6] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York, Sentinel, 2017), 122-143.

[7] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (Yale, 2009), 241.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth (SanFrancisco: Ignatius, 1997), 281.

[9] Augustine, Exposition 2 of Psalm (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2000), 21.15.

[10] John Wortley, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Yonkers, NY: SVS, 2014), 111, 264.

[11] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: California, 2011), 17.

[12] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2002) 8.12.29.

Featured Image: Vasily Vereshchagin Apotheosis of War, 1871; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Joshua Whitfield

Fr. Joshua J. Whitfield is the Pastoral Administrator of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News and the author of The Crisis of Bad Preaching: Redeeming the Heart and Way of the Catholic Preacher.

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