Lessons from the Desert Fathers for Today
Fr. Athanasius Shaw
Saint Nikolai Velimirovich says in “The Prologue” that the inner enemies of man, the
passions and the manifold vanities, constantly flare up afresh in the city, while in the
wilderness, or desert, they wither and disappear.
The Saints, Holy Fathers and Mothers, monastics and pilgrims have gone out into
the wilderness “to flee the corruption of cities, to wage war with their passions, but
especially to encounter the holy,” as Saint Jerome related in the 4th Century. Our Lord Jesus
Christ gave us the example of going out into the wilderness to pray. In the Tradition of the
Church, the wilderness is a place where we can draw closer to God.
When I was eleven years old I went on a fifty mile backpacking trip through the
Olympic Mountains in Washington State. There I experienced something of the holy,
though at the time I was unaware of the source of that holiness. I remember the great joy I
felt as I hiked up over a mountain covered with wild flowers and surrounded by snowcapped
peaks and a pure blue sky. I remember experiencing profound gratitude and love;
and I can still hear the deep silence of the wilderness. I had a sense that this place was
I continued to drink from this fountain throughout my life – I couldn’t get enough of
the mountains, streams and forests; the wilderness seemed to refresh and lift up my soul.
However, it wasn’t until my participation in a Christ in the Wilderness backpacking trip in
the High Sierras in 2004 that I became aware that the experiences of holiness that I had in
the wilderness throughout my life were encounters of the presence of Jesus Christ in
Creation. The realization that my relationship with Jesus Christ can be enriched through my
love of wilderness was a wonderful discovery.
God reveals Himself through His Creation. St. Paul proclaimed this is Romans 1:20:
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being
understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…”
St. Basil the Great exclaims: “This marvelous creation” is the “supreme icon” of
Christian faith which leads to knowledge of the “Supreme Artisan.” Nature is a vast icon of
Icons are windows into heaven; they offer us access to Divinity, therefore they have
to be approached with love and humility. The passions that manifest as arrogance, anger and
judgment of our neighbor are blocks to approaching the “supreme icon” of Creation and
thereby touching the hem of Christ’s garment.
My experience in Christ in the Wilderness has shown me in a powerful way that the
passions result as scales over my eyes, blinding me to the beauty around me, and within
myself and my brothers and sisters. It has been the practice of Orthodox spiritual life from
the beginning to struggle against the passions and make real in one’s own life the Godly
attributes of Jesus Christ as the path to communion with the Lord; to “put on Christ”, as we
sing while circling around the Baptismal font.
In Christ in the Wilderness, the focus is to “exercise ourselves unto godliness” (1
Tim. 4:7), as St. Paul tells us to do. This is done by practicing each day one of the virtues of
thanksgiving, humility, seeing the beauty of the Lord in and around oneself, silence, or
solitude, and love for Creation and one’s neighbor. Most participants have expressed the
commitment to continue the practice of these virtues in their daily life.
Wilderness offers the opportunity to learn spiritual lessons from nature. One time St.
Anthony the Great was asked how he got along out in the desert without any books. He
answered “My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read
the words of God, it is at my hand.”
St. John Chrysostom tells us: “From the creation, learn to admire the Lord… He has
made the mode of creation to be our best teacher…”
In our Theology, everything that God has created is a particular manifestation of God’s
will through the Divine Logos; everything in nature has something to say about God, some
lesson to teach us about ourselves and the spiritual life. St. Basil instructs us to learn from
the ant, to learn from the bee, in order to become more productive disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our Lord himself drew out lessons from nature… .
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…” (Matt .6:28-29) and
“Behold the fowls of the air…” (Matt.6:26-27)
Most of us are constantly surrounded by distractions; our society pulls at us to turn
away from God. Going out into the wilderness and seeking to draw closer to Jesus Christ,
practicing the virtues and learning spiritual lessons through His beautiful Creation informs
our walk in Christ and therefore is a valuable experience for our parish life.
One teenage participant offered this refection of her experience in the wilderness:
“During the following days I practiced turning to God constantly, something I easily forget
in my daily life. I learned how to address everything with prayer and how to quietly bless
places and people. We faced our inner challenges. This [time in the wilderness] was indeed
His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch and the East has stated
“Without the contemplation of nature, one never comes
to the mystical side of Orthodoxy.”
The Christ in the Wilderness program puts these words into action.