Alone in the desert

April 2, 2009

topofmountsinai2I have been looking at a book called La Forest des Hermites et Hermitesses D’Egypte et de la Palestine, printed in 1619, by Abraham Blomaert with illustrations by B Bolswert. This is a book that details the solitude and studies of various early Christian monastic saints, and leads me to consider the way in which tales like these of the ‘Desert Mothers and Fathers’ encode the space of the desert without directly mentioning it.

In his book Oasis of Wisdom, David Keller writes that the roots of early Christian monasiticism have relate to three ‘events’:

Oikoumene: Oikoumene is an interior awareness that the inhabited world is a distraction from a deep personal longing to seek God and live the Gospel without distraction. This leads toward…

Anachoreisis: Anachoreisis is a physical separation from the usual patterns of a person’s relationships, activities, responsibilities and the conventional values of society through a withdrawal to the desert. (Anachoresis is the Greek root for ‘anchorite,’ referring to a person who lives in solitude apart from their community.) The place of anchoresis is…

Heremos: Heremos is the Greek for desert. It may be experienced within or on the periphery of the inhabited world or in a more desolate and uninhabited location. A physical desert or wasteland became both the image of and often the locus for separation from society to seek complete dedication to and dependence on God. (Heremos is the root for ‘hermit,’ a person who seeks God in isolation from others and for ‘eremitic,’ referring to that manner of life.) It is the desert, whatever its physical location, that provides the hesychia or soliture for prayerful transformation.

What did the Early Moderns think of the desert life? Why was this book relevant in 1619? At this time you have descriptions of the desert from within different genres, which all offer a different perpective. Joannes Boemus wrote in 1611 (The manners, lauues, and customes of all nations) that ‘much of Affricke as is inhabited, is wonderfull fertile, but the greatest part thereof lyeth desert, being eyther couered with drye barren sands, forsaken for the vicinitie of the Sunne, or annoyde with sundry sorts of hurtfull creatures.’ Thomas Adams linked sinners to deserts in 1616 in his A divine herball together with a forrest of thornes In five sermons:

…heere lyes Earth before vs. And as I haue seene in some places of this Iland, one hedge parts a fruitfull medow, and a barren heath: so of this Earth, Man; the same substance for natures constitution, clay of the same heape in the creating hand of the Potter; for matter, masse, and stuffe, none made de meliore luto; though in respect of Eternities Ordination, some vessels of honour, of disshonour others; here be two kindes, a good and a bad soyle: the one a Garden, the other a desart: the former an inclosure of sweet herbes, excellent graces: the latter a wild and sauage Forrest of Bryars and thornes, scratching and wounding offences […] The earth desires the influence of heauen, and showres from the cloudes, to make it fruitfull. It is granted: the Sunne shines, the dewes fall. The Garden hereupon brings forth herbes, the desart thornes.

On a slight tangent: there is an interesting book called Landscapes of the Sacred by Belden C. Lane. It is really about America (and not about the seventeenth century) and landscapes in the American spiritual imagination, but it contains a chapter on ‘The Desert Imagination of Edward Abbey’.


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