Written on a rock in the ashram of Vidayavanam near Bangalore (see posting above) are the words: ‘Let wisdom emerge from the forest’. This was the inspiration of Fr Francis Vineeth CMI when he founded the ashram 17 years ago. After that time, with the grateful assistance of Frs Anto and Jojo, it is still going strong. It is as much a small thriving village as an ashram with its own dairy herd, vegetable and crop land and extensive range of fruit trees. The food is exceptionally good and varied and the water clean. Each morning begins in darkness in ‘the cave of the heart’ – Fr Vineeth’s chapel (see picture) - which to my Celtic eyes resembles a long barrow or dolmeth. As the morning liturgy proceeds with bhajans, flowers and incense, the first rays of dawn strike the window above the priest’s head and the whole ‘barrow’ is illuminated ( I will try and attach a video clip). After our silent breakfast it is time for teaching and following the sacred tradition of India this will happen under the trees. I share my visit with a small group of seminarians on retreat from all over India. Their stories are heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure and we quickly make friends. Today they have asked this western scholar to give a talk under the trees (I attach some of the text below). This is the first time I have taught under a tree and the effect is magical – students cannot drop off and the birds and butterflies seem to join in the fun. The text? Well as I sit in my cell day after day I thought something from the desert fathers would be appropriate.
Me being me I am already thinking about ways of bringing groups to experience these riches. Once I am back at St Mary’s I will be talking with my InSpiRe colleagues about a possible future study pilgrimage to visit some of these wonderful places I have seen over the last few days. So please watch this space if you are interested. Tomorrow morning I leave early for England with fond sadness and joy in my heart.
The metaphor and reality of the desert burns itself into the consciousness of at least three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three arise from the desert and contain a nostalgie for former times when God first revealed God’s self in the harsh burning environment of the wilderness. For the Jews it is the place where God revealed God’s self to Moses at Horeb appearing in the burning bush (Exod. 3), that very essence of the dry, desiccated wasteland within which Moses found himself at that time. It was the inhospitable place within which the people of Israel were tested for forty years as God played cat and mouse with their hopes, expectations and theological understandings, culminating in the revelations of God’s nature and covenant on the inhospitable peak of Sinai (Exod. 19). After the deportation and exile to Babylon the prophets looked back nostalgically to their people’s time in the desert and longed once again for God to lure and ‘seduce them’ (Hos. 2:14) back to the wilderness where the Valley of Suffering would once again become the ‘door of hope’. There, they sang, Israel ‘shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt’ (Hos. 2).
Likewise, Christianity ‘appears in the wilderness’ in the shape of the quasi-shamanic figure of St. John the Baptist. He emerges from the desert, writes St Mark, ‘clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist’ eating ‘locusts and wild honey’ (Mk. 1). This child of the desert, a true prophetic soul, wild and unkempt, pulled no punches in his dealings with the powers and authorities of the city – the classic antithesis to the desert dwellers. In his delight in infuriating, challenging and generally rubbing those in power up the wrong way, he set a precedent that his disciple, Jesus, seems to have enjoyed emulating.
John arises from the desert and Jesus, we are told in Matthew 4, begins his ministry there. His first act after his baptism at the hands of John. Thus, at the start of his ministry Jesus withdraws immediately to the desert to begin battle with the devil – that traditional inhabitant of the wasteplaces. We shall have more to say about him and his little demon helpers later.
Thus from its earliest beginnings Christianity recognises the importance of entry into the desert as a necessary stage in the spiritual journey. Its importance in the earliest stages of Christianity (for example, St Paul after his conversion spends time in the deserts of Arabia described in Galatians 1) means that it becomes ‘archetypal’ for all Christian spirituality that will follow. Of course, as Christianity unfolds this will not necessarily be about actually entering the physical desert of the Middle East. For the early Celtic Christians at the Western fringes of Europe their desert was to be found in the wild and untameable ocean besides which they would often live or upon which they would set out on voyages of spiritual self discovery. As the late middle ages collapsed into the modern age and the growth of the cities reduced the terrain of the desert, the new orders such as the Carmelites stressed the importance of finding the desert in the city. St Teresa of Avila, in her reform of the order in the sixteenth century insisted that her ‘carmels’, her ‘little deserts’, should be placed at the centre and heart of the cities of sixteenth century Spain, where, by and large, they remain to this day. In the twentieth century the Italian Little Brother of Jesus, Carlo Carretto, felt that the desert was to be found in the city and made sure that the little brothers and sisters of Jesus would live in the most rundown, socially deprived inner city estates. Today the sisters and brothers in the UK live in the hardest hit neighbourhoods of the great cities such as Birmingham and London.
So, as Christianity emerged ‘desert spirituality’, as it is often called, emerged too. Not just a physical dwelling in the desiccated or abandoned places but also a dwelling in the inhospitable places within. An invitation to all people to move out of their comfort zones and move to the places of loss, driven-ness, pain and grief that our ordinary lives so deftly and easily mask through addictions, consumerisms, promiscuities, greeds and violence. For us 21st century children of Freud and Jung it is the place of the unconscious where we are no longer in control and more primitive and basic urges and desires take over. It is ultimately a spirituality of paradox for, we are told, it is in the uncomfortable places that we do most to avoid that God chooses to reveal God’s self to us. Here we will find the ‘living water’ that ultimately we are seeking – not in forests, cities and verdant places but in the neglected, dry and dead places on our earth and in our selves.