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Desert Spirituality and the Jesus Prayer

Throughout history, meditation has brought the faithful closer to God.

“I am going to allure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart.” — Hosea 2:16

Literally, desert means an arid, hot and barren place. Figuratively, in the spiritual literature of both the East and West, it refers to any place of retreat – a house of prayer, the seashore, the woods, a quiet room in one’s home, or even one’s heart.

Sacred scripture shows that the desert plays an important role in the history of the people of God. Both the Old and New Testament often refer to the desert, the wilderness, or a place apart where God summons those He loves to forget the cares of the world and concentrate on His love and the meaning of life.

Jesus chose to live, die and rise in the Middle East – a land of deserts. During His public life, Jesus periodically retreated to the desert to pray. It was there that He found peace and solitude.

Following the example of Jesus, the early Christians also went to the desert to pray and fast. St. Anthony of Egypt is regarded as one of the first desert hermits. His life in the wilderness served as the example for monastic communities that exist today.

St. Anthony was not the only one living a life of prayer in the desert. Others went to the desert to escape Roman persecution, such as Paul of Thebes. Anthony and Paul, who were two of the first Desert Fathers, soon attracted followers. By the fourth century thousands were praying in the deserts of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria and Palestine.

The Desert Fathers and their followers lived lives of prayer and fasting, but their spirituality was centered in the realization that intimacy with God meant being at peace with others. As the Western Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote about the lives of the Desert Fathers, “Retirement into solitude is of no use if the hermit is to live alone with aggressive and hostile fantasies. A prerequisite for this tranquility of the true solitary is the renunciation of all judgements, all criticisms of others and all interior argumentation…”

In the story of one old Desert Father, a young man seeking to lead a more spiritual life asked, “What shall I do?” The seasoned hermit answered, “Think lightly of no man; think no evil in thy heart; condemn no man and curse no man; then shall God give thee rest, and thy life shall be without trouble.”

The lives of the Desert Fathers have contemporary meaning, since time is nothing to God who is transcendant and always present. Each human being is called to be a contemplative, and to see God in the circumstances of his or her daily life. This is the teaching of Jesus who promised his constant presence. It is not required, however, to run off to the mountains or the desert in a literal way to pray.

Writing of the early Desert Fathers, St. Nicholas Cabasilas admonishes, “…Everyone should keep his art or profession. The general should continue to command; the farmer to till the land; the artisan to practice his craft. And I will tell you why. It is not necessary to retire into the desert, to take unpalatable food, to alter one’s dress, to compromise one’s health, or to do anything unwise, because it is quite possible to remain in one’s own home without giving up all one’s possessions, and yet to practice continual mediation.”

One way to meditate that is used by many Christians today and is believed to have been initiated by the Desert Fathers is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer involves controlling breath and body movements and repeating, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. By sitting and concentrating on the heartbeat and continually repeating the phrase, one can become absorbed in the presence of God.

The prayer has scriptural roots, for St. Peter proclaimed, “…of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Through the writings of Hesychius of Mt. Sinai, John Climacus, Diadochus of Photike and others, the early solitaries were taught different forms of the Jesus Prayer as a way to remember that Christ dwelt within. Each monk could choose his own phrase or word – a type of mantra for calming the body and mind.

The Jesus Prayer has remained an important prayer to Christians, who believe with the Desert Fathers that invoking the name of Jesus keeps the mind in the constant presence of God, and prepares the heart for meditation and the gift of contemplation.

Veronica J. Treanor, a doctoral student in anthropology, is a member of Council on Development Education.

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