Desert Spirituality - "The Place of Great Undoing"
Editor's note: We are grateful to spiritual director and author Ryan Kuja for sharing this excerpt from his new book From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World. An SDI New Contemplative (2016), Ryan is currently working in Medellin, Colombia as a Christian contemplative activist. In this excerpt, he examines the contemplative spirituality that arose among the Desert Mothers and Fathers and continues today as a practice that invites us to leave the "falsity of the ego" and "meet a God we don’t know and can’t possibly imagine."
After Constantine converted to Christianity around 313 CE, the still fledgling Jesus movement that had existed only on the fringes of society became the religion of the Roman Empire. As the Christianizing of the ancient Near East began, the foundations of the gospel began to morph to fit Rome’s vision rather than the vision of Jesus and the original church.
The empire began remaking the Jesus movement into its own image.
As many faithful followers of Jesus witnessed the perversion of their faith concretize further and further, some chose to resist it by fleeing. Men and women left the cities for the deserts of Palestine, Egypt, and Syria. It was here that desert spirituality arose as a reaction to and liberation from empire spirituality.
They fled into the wilderness to nurture another way of life in community, to discern what it meant to follow Christ through humility, silence, and solitude. The desert invited a radical interiority rooted in contemplative practice focused on a complete surrender to the divine as well as a confrontation of falsity in the self and in the world. Here, the Desert Mothers (Ammas) and Fathers (Abbas) were able to have an experience of Christ not mediated by the state but by their own bodily reality.
Metaphorically, the desert is a place of testing and transformation, of being divested of empire and ego. In the desert experience, the dreams, goals, and visions of the false self can be seen clearly, sometimes for the first time. The desert symbolizes the terrain in which we unlearn empire spirituality. It is a space of confronting empire’s gods and the small self’s narrow, self-interested visions. Desert spirituality’s great power is the undoing of empire spirituality and its temptation to live according to force, power, and control.
In metaphorical desert spaces, we can practice deep truthfulness. Facing the falsity of ego and empire is the beginning of commissioning. In the desert we are confronted with the things we normally remain unaware of. We come face to face not only with our own brokenness, but the ways our brokenness breaks others.
To intentionally enter the desert experience is to come to know oneself intimately, especially the ego, the pain, the shadow, the falsity. It is also to behold the way empire has shaped our imagination, to wrestle with colonial ghosts, duel with our inner colonialist, expiate mission’s original sins that have lived on secretly inside our tradition, face the times we planted seeds of American culture when our desire was to till the soil for the growth of the gospel.
The desert is the environment, the inner space in which our imagination is transmuted from imprisonment to empire. It is the place where we articulate a strong no to who we are not and to who God is not. The false self begins to be recognized, released, and reconstituted in the image of the true self “hidden with Christ in God.” The Western imagination that has affected how we think about the marginalized and how we see the missional task starts to emerge from the layers in which it has been covered. Our unconsciousness, our loss of memory begin to arise from beneath the comfort of amnesia.
The desert is the place of great undoing.
Encountering truth is disruptive. Living as an amnesiac is far easier, but it is not the way of the desert, of the gospel, or the divine. Truth telling is not rosy or optimistic. It is a taxing process that can threaten identity. It questions everything. It asks us to let go of all we thought we knew, our preconceived notions, our treasured way of seeing the world and our role in it and even the God we believe in.
The desert invites us to go into the vulnerable places inside to face and to let go of what we find, to leave the God we know and meet a God we don’t know and can’t possibly imagine. That is the heart of desert spirituality, forming us for the work of global justice by forming us into the image of the God we can’t yet conceive of.
A global citizen with a background in international relief and development, Ryan Kuja has lived in fifteen cities and rural villages on five continents. He holds an M.A. in Theology and Culture from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology as well a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. A spiritual director and writer, his first book, From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, published in June 2018 by Wipf and Stock. Ryan is currently in the role of Field Director with Word Made Flesh in Medellin, Colombia. You can find him at ryankuja.com and on Twitter @ryankuja . Photo by Dan Cumberland.