The monastic life has always been seen austere, solitary, or celibate, not least because the Father of Monasticism, St Anthony the Great, began his journey into monastic life by going out into the desert to find God. His journey was therefore necessarily austere, solitary, and celibate. By contrast, my life is not austere and I am not celibate.
For me, the spiritual journey begins with solitude – the ‘going out into the desert’ to find God. I am not leaving home to live in a physical desert but I have withdrawn, I have pursued the solitude necessary to find God.
And some just don’t get it.
Backslidden! Heretic! Lost his faith…
Such are the thoughts of my detractors.
But I am not the first to ‘go out into the desert to find God.’
There was a man called Moses who climbed Mount Sinai alone, to seek God’s face. He was gone for so long his followers set up an alternative religion while he was gone. Holy cow!
Joseph had an enforced desert experience in the pit, and then in prison, before becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt.
The Holy Spirit, we are told, drove Jesus into the desert before his ministry began.
These and countless others went out alone into the desert and sought the face of God.
‘What about fellowship?
‘What about Church on Sunday?
‘What about accountability?
‘What about being part of a community?
No doubt they faced similar questions. But the truth is, the going out into the desert is absolutely essential. It is there, in deep solitude, that we will hear the still small voice of God. It is there in the desert that we receive the call, the vision, and the empowerment.
‘Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee…’ – Luke 4:14
It is there in the desert, in the solitude, that God comes to call and empower.
The urban monastic life, therefore, straddles two worlds – the world of solitude and withdrawal, and the world of everyday life.
Strangely, it is not the chatter of the world, but the chatter of the faith-community that we need to silence – the quick fixes, the trite quotes, the shallow solutions and, frankly, the denial of the depth of God. All these voices must be stilled, and the only way is withdrawal.
When the clamour of shallow voices is finally hushed, then we may hope to hear the still small voice of God. If we truly want to be like Jesus, we would allow the Spirit to drive us out into our desert, into our place of solitude, to seek the face of God.
And here’s the thing – it’s not something you can pop out and do on a Thursday afternoon for an hour. It takes a long time.
It took Moses a long time. The people became impatient.
It took Jesus forty days.
It took St Anthony thirteen years!
It takes as long as it takes.
I have been journeying in this desert walk for three years. I think I have only just started.
Organised and institutional church is dying. People are leaving in droves, to pursue a more solitary walk with God. Something is happening. It’s a moment in history. It is time to hear the voice of God. It is time to journey into the desert. ___________________________________________________________
I have written about my journey into urban monasticism in the book Excess Baggage:
I am currently reading We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation by Brian D. McLaren. The author has been on the emerging church journey for many, many years and is often an inspiration for those seeking new expressions of their spirituality.
I wonder if those of us who meet up from time to time should read it and reflect on it, at the same time.
Basically he goes through the church year reimagining the various aspects of Christian teaching.
For example, in an early chapter about genesis is begins by talking about ‘aliveness’ – how the story of creation and the observation of nature speaks of God’s brimming life-giving personality. He then goes on to write about this ‘aliveness’ being in Jesus and how he clashes with the stifling restrictions of the Pharisees.
‘What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid . . . more awake, more grateful, more energised and purposeful.’
And isn’t that what we are all looking for? Not only in spirituality but in life generally, don’t we long for ‘aliveness’?
The author has also included though/discussion points at the end of each chapter for those who are reading it as a group, or for individuals to keep a journal.
A few quotes:
On the early church:
‘… before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary non-violent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. It dared to honour women, children and unmarried adults in a world ruled by married men.’
‘It had no bank accounts, but was rich in relationships and joy. It had no elaborate hierarchy and organisation, but spread like wildfire through simple practices of empowerment and self-organisation.’
As one review says on Amazon:
‘It isn’t the kind of book you can start at the beginning and read over a weekend. It is a pilgrimage. A journey. It’s a book that if you click with it will sit next to you for the next year and be part of you and your life . . . It made me think in ways I’d not thought before, some things weren’t mind-blowing, some things made me stop. It’s excellent as a starting place for journaling.’
The book is available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon here.