The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.
–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]
In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.
In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.
Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.
But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”
And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:
The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.
We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”
Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:
“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]
The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:
“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]
Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:
“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]
The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]
Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.
Do not doubt the feast.
[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.
[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.
[iii] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54.
[iv] Moses, 31.
[v] Ibid., 26.
I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.