A CURIOUS group of Christian men (and women) began leaving the cities where churches flourished in the ancient world. They were in search of solitude in the desert places, far from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
That was the 4th Century when Christianity had become a respectable religion. Persecution had stopped, following the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. The church was becoming a part of the establishment and it was beginning to enjoy wealth and power.
Perhaps this group of Christians (who are called the Desert Fathers) saw the growing corruption in the church. With the cessation of persecution, the church was being seduced by a corrupt world. The urban voices and noises were too much for these Christians who were seeking to live out the Gospel faithfully. Perhaps not being able to die as martyrs in a world that stopped persecuting them, they sought new forms of martyrdom in the barren and lonely deserts.
They deserted the thriving cities in search of spiritual discipline and holiness. They went in their small numbers to live alone or in small communities in far away and obscure places in the wilderness. They spent much time in prayer and the reading of Scripture. They had an intimate knowledge of cold nights, biting hunger, intense struggles with temptation, sin and the dark forces of this world. They were well-versed in the art of spiritual direction, guiding the soul through the treacherous mazes of this world.
They developed a collective wisdom of the spiritual life and of eternity which is largely unappreciated by the busy modern world. Yes, there are collections of their sayings such as Benedicta Ward’s “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”. However, these are largely unknown or unread, even by pastors and theologians, never mind lay people.
What relevance do these desert disciples have for us modern-day Christians? Let me mention just one point.
We live in an increasingly urbanised world, as the table illustrates.
The largest city in the world is Mexico City with a population of 32 million. Asian cities such as Calcutta, Shanghai, Beijing, Bombay, Seoul and Jakarta, are not far off with populations ranging from 17-20 million.
It is estimated that 1.2 billion Christians live in such urban centres. Surely, their urban environment affects them in more ways than one. Many of us have no choice but to live in an urban world. Many would in fact rather live in a highly urban environment, with all its glitter and convenience, excitement and amenities. However, we have to be careful that the underlying theological message of the urban environment is not uncritically imbibed by us.
In a highly urban environment, everything we see is man-made. The urban world tells us that we live in a man-made world. God is soon forgotten in such a world. Human achievement is worshipped and our utter dependence on God becomes a forgotten fact. This contrasts with the message from a desert. There one can hardly see a man-made object. Everything in the desert points to a Creator God and the fact that this world is made and sustained by God.
The ancient Israelites lived in urban Egypt, and were used as slaves in the massive construction projects of the Pharaohs. When God delivered them and took them through the desert, they were reminded of the awesome power of God when He parted the Red Sea, and when He spoke on the mountain. As they passed by majestic mountains by day and lay down on the desert sand at night, looking up at the star-filled sky, they had a megadose of God-awareness. Yet they failed miserably because they longed for their urban delights (such as meat, garlic and onions) when God provided simple manna from heaven (Num. 11:4-6). They missed the point of the desert, which was meant to take the world out of them.
Jesus went into the desert too. The desert brought Him face to face with the deep realities of life that urban artificiality often obscured. That is why He often chose, in the midst of His busy ministry, to find time to go to desert places to pray and be with the Father. He must have witnessed countless times and alone the beautiful sight of the rising sun on cold desert mornings.
What about us? We do not have deserts to have our quiet times. The urban world surrounds us, but we must not let it inhabit us and feed us with the lie that we are the masters of our destinies, that we have built this world.
Remember King Nebuchadnezzar who looked at his grand urban creation, Babylon (Dan. 4:28-35). He looked around his city and said, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” He was intoxicated with pride and hubris and became mad. He lived like an animal, roaming the wilderness. That did his soul a lot of good because he became humble and came to his senses. One day, he looked up at the heavens (at what God has made) and had his sanity restored.
All this is not to say that we should not live in urban settings. We can enjoy what the city offers and serve God in it. But we must not allow it to entice and poison our souls, for its glossy illusions are dangerous for our souls. To be safe, we must see the God-made world ever so often.
In our situation, we could visit the seaside and parks. Or we could simply look at the night sky and marvel at the unbelievably huge, mysterious and beautiful universe that God has made. These acts will remind us who the Creator really is and that we have to give an account of ourselves to Him. This will save us from pride and from the soul-starving illusions of a make-believe world. Then we can learn to love God and our neighbours, and live freely and redemptively in our urban worlds, without being imprisoned in them.