1. Already in the 1st century Palestine there were the Jewish communities of “Essenes”. These were individuals who went to live in the cliffs of the area near the dead sea. The Qumran caves were among those places.
2. Much later, sometime in the IVth century, Christians left for the desert places. There were two known “retreats” to the desert—the Syrian and the Egyptian. Individuals who “retreated” into the desert attracted disciples. Soon communities of anchorites and hermits were established. The patron saint of the diocese here, in Laguna, is “St. Paul the hermit”. Each Sunday in the parish a prayer is said to this saint and in the prayer is the mention of St. Paul as “the first hermit”.
3. The communities took monastic forms in the desert regions. Some other names are known: St. Anthony, St. Macarius, St. Pachomius, etc. During my college days I was not very studious but I still remember the hours I spent in the library reading on the lives of these desert saints…as I also read Zen stories.
4. These desert fathers had a strong thirst for silence. The desert was, for them, the place away from a social life (of the Roman empire) that seemed directionless. The desert was a way out of that social world which the ascetics found intolerable. The desert fathers were not at ease with the social life of arrogance and power play. A kind of “ethical relativism”, at that time, was already “fashionable” in the Roman empire.
5. In the desert the hermits turned inwards and saw the evil from within. Evil, they said, was no longer from the outside but from the inside. The silence of the desert appeared burdensome too; filled with cries and noisy whispers. The “temptations” of St. Anthony, for example, serve to illustrate this “silent noise” of the desert. The psyche of the Saint sought its own integration and it projected so many negative images on the screen of the desert….and the desert was then filled with repressed phantoms.
6. Well, looking at that history we can say that the desert is also what pursues us today. Yes, the desert is a way out of the noise of social life…but then it becomes the place where noise of the inner world intensifies. The desert is a “way out” towards….something or someone!
7. With all the facebook posts and “news” I read, I feel that maybe, just maybe, some of us might want to flee to the desert….wherever that may be. A new desert tradition might be awaiting. One friend of mine “expert” in Gestalt therapy once told me that if we cannot have that desert somewhere out there, bring it in here. My friend makes sense.