Saturday, March 23, 2013

Desert Spirituality: From Meditations on the Sand by Alessandro Pronzato


Courage to Surrender


The dialectic of searching and finding has a strange structure in the desert. The search has a surprising ending. I could not in all honesty say whether I have found what I was looking for. All I know is that I have been overtaken. Overtaken by a Voice. Surrounded by a Presence. It is difficult to define what I have found. But I know for certain that I have been seized by Someone.

The immense spaces of the desert give you at first the feeling that you are free to go where you like. But you know intuitively that someone else is going to lead you by the hand.

The desert constitutes a most paradoxical challenge. You are given a vast territory with boundless possibilities of escape. Your courage is on trial. Are you courageous enough to be captured? Are you heroic enough to offer an unconditional surrender?

Prayer, it seems to me, is an extraordinary gift of space. No one has more space at his disposal than the man who prays. But that space does not help him to flee: it makes all flight impossible. And the man of prayer knows that he has been rendered incapable of fleeing. Which, you will agree, is the happiest solution. For we never enjoy greater freedom than when we are seized by God.

Not to have an escape route. This is the quintessence of the risk we take when we pray. And how beautiful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.

~ from Meditations on the Sand by Alessandro Pronzato, Chapter 32 - Courage to Surrender


To Pray is to be Eccentric


These days there is a great deal of talk about the 'rediscovery of one's identity.' But they seem to be talking about an identity which is imposed on the individual by society. It is predetermined and unalterable. You have found your identity if if you 'resemble' the model which has already been decided for you. The search for one's identity then ends in slavery, not freedom. for you do not become what you are called to be, but what society wants you to be.

In the context of the search for identity, prayer is a subversive factor rather than a consolidating element. The individual passes from a concentric mode of living to an eccentric one. Eccentric not in the bizarre sense of the word, but meaning that the individual in question has the centre of his being outside himself. For he allows himself to be acted upon by God's grace.

People who pray are eccentric because they go outside the circles of brainwashing and conformism. They transcend the circles of plans and possibilities and enter the sphere of God's influence. All this, however, can only happen through the painful process of an exodus. It is their desert, fascinating and frightening at the same time, with its dark nights and its Promised Land." 

~ from Meditations on the Sand by Alessandro Pronzato, Chapter 30- To Pray is to be Eccentric


Paradoxes of the Hermit


Hermits are said to be men [or women] of renunciation: instead, they are men of great possessions. They forgo many things but receive God in return. They abandon the transient and gain the eternal.

They are known to be men of detachment: yet they are men of the most tenacious attachment. They detach themselves from things and people only to cling all the more fiercely to the absolute.

They are considered deserters, but they are in fact trailblazers for mankind. They are believed to be living in obscurity while their caves are luminous with God's light.

We think they are useless: however, in reality, without them the world would crumble. They are called the men who fast: nevertheless, they are the most convivial of men.

Are hermits austere then? The term austere in its Greek origin means something harsh, rough, gnarled. Austerity implies limitations that are imposed on oneself. In this sense hermits are austere, inexorably rejecting all secondary things and limiting themselves to the absolute essential.

~ from Meditations on the Sand by Alessandro Pronzato, Chapter 28- Paradoxes of the Hermit


Solitude As Participation


Solitude may be a legitimate need; isolation, on the other hand, is a selfish delight. In solitude one is in communion with others; but isolation is a negation of communion. Hermits go to the desert not because they want to get away from men, but because they desire union with God. We may still consider valid the ancient dictum that in solitude there is solidarity.

Men in solitude have discovered that the only way to be truly present to the world is to live in the presence of God.

In that sense monks and hermits are the heart and eyes of the Church. 'It is possible to think that monks who live apart from the world are also apart of the Church. But in fact they are at the centre of the Church' (Paul VI).

The man who lives in solitude does not set himself apart. He is, on the contrary, part and parcel of the world. Evagrius has left us this definition: 'A monk is someone who is separated from everything and united to everybody.'

The same thought is underlined by a nun of our own times. In her book, Ligne de force Bethlehem, Seour Marie says, 'You must put down your roots in silence. And this silence, more than any spoken word, will unite you to your fellow beings.'

Thomas Merton used to warn against the danger of choosing solitude solely for the purpose of being alone. And, speaking of Charles de Foucauld, M. Carrouge said that his solitude was a barrier against the world, not against love.

If human suffering does not evoke compassion in the eyes of a monk, then it is obvious that those eyes do not contemplate God. If the heart of a monk is not large enough to receive the blood and tears of the world, then that heart has no place for God either.

A monk's cell, no matter how small, should be a place for encounter and universal concelebration. The strictest cell is the one most vulnerably open to the sufferings of others. Solitude is genuine only when it is inhabited. And the best way to not have people in your way is to let them into your heart.

~ from Meditations on the Sand by Alessandro Pronzato, Chapter 6 - Solitude As Participation


The Art of Being Uninformed


In Islam there is a tradition whereby people go to the desert to regain their memory. They are known as the 'men of memory.' The mass media leaves you with a short memory, geared to the latest news. It is not unlike your shopping list. In the desert your memory, freed from daily news bulletins and sensational news flashes, returns to the source of primordial events and fundamental values.

The man in the market place may be well informed, but he suffers from amnesia. He may be abreast of current events, but if he tries to recall what happened yesterday his memory breaks down. He may know where he is, but he has no idea of where he comes from and where he is going.

Is the man in the desert then out of touch? Hardly. He has simply chosen to be elsewhere. He is in the right place. He is the man of verity, not novelty. In the market place you may be able to remember the things you have to do. But it is only in the desert that you can recall what what you ought to be. In the market place you are a number, and the computer can count you. In the desert you discover your true name, and God calls you by that name.

~ from Meditations on the Sand by Alessandro Pronzato, Chapter 33 - The Art of Being Uninformed


Credit: Facebook Page of Society of St. Antony of Egypt
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