Another Kind of Desert

I have written before about my growing sense not only of a increasing personal call to some kind of hiddenness, but also of the way in which the (at least in the UK) repeated lockdowns and “tiered” partial easings of lockdowns have contributed to the growth of what Steve Aisthorpe calls The Invisible Church:

There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.

The history of religion is littered with examples of the way that the luminous insights of prophets and poets and contemplatives (in my usage, Jesus would be all three) become clouded and encoded by institutions, and by their uneasy relationships with power and wealth. Obvious examples would be the Roman church in the years following the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, and the chaos of the English Reformation and the ensuing Civil Wars, but within other religions there are many parallels such as the  troubled history of the Islamic Caliphates and the role of Buddhism during the politically volatile late Heian to early Kamakura period in Japan.

Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.

These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishment in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.

Needless to say I have no answers, but the question underlies, it seems to me, much of the interest in “Churchless Christianity” that has flared up even more strongly during the present crisis. There will be voices raised, of course, both on the side of secular humanism and on the side of organised religion, accusing “hermits” of retreating from their responsibilities to the world, just as parallel voices have been raised at the hinges of faith and practice throughout history. To them I would offer these words from Caryll Houselander (quoted in Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ)

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. It is not the foolish sinner like myself, running about the world with reprobates and feeling magnanimous, who comes closest to them and brings them healing; it is the contemplative in her cell who has never set eyes on them, but in whom Christ fasts and prays for them—or it may be a charwoman in whom Christ makes Himself a servant again, or a king whose crown of gold hides a crown of thorns. Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too, it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.

4 thoughts on “Another Kind of Desert

  1. emmlisten December 13, 2020 / 10:52 am

    Thank you for this. I could not agree with you more.


  2. judithhafod December 14, 2020 / 9:07 am

    Oh Mike, I have tried to respond to you for years now. At last I have found a way.

    Exactly 3 years ago I was doing my project for Equipping for Ministry. I had been aware for a long time that I live in a sacred place at the end of the Llyn Peninsular in North Wales. I look out onto the sea from a house nestled in a valley below a cliff. I live on the edge. I live on the edge in every way really. I included a page in my project about this and quoted you. I would like to have asked your permission at the time… and also to say how much your writing meant to me at that time. Since then I have regularly read what you write and have tried many times to respond but failed.

    This blog from last week is important to me. I am a Quaker, but I don’t fit. I talk about God. I am a contemplative. My local meeting is full of activists. I came across the Franciscan tertiaries and am now a novice. But the organisation and closed words of the Anglicans is difficult. When I am with them I feel I am a Quaker. When I am with the Quakers I feel Franciscan. I look at the sea below me here and think I am standing on it. No firm ground to stand on if you like. I am drawn back to the Catholic church which I found very nourishing long ago. So I stand on the sea with 3 legs!

    Enough! I am sure I will contact you again some time and say more,

    Peace, Love and Light to you,




    • Mike Farley December 14, 2020 / 11:33 am

      Thank you, Judith. You’ve no idea how encouraging a comment like yours is!

      Your Quaker-Franciscan transition is interesting. My wife Susan and I met as Franciscan Tertiaries, and gradually moved – Susan (also a Catholic – she knows whereof you speak!) first – to Quakers. Like you, I am uneasy in both places. Among Quakers I have exactly your own problems with the misunderstanding of “God-language” and the pervasive ascendancy of activism. I’ve written about this elsewhere on Silent Assemblies. Among Franciscans we both found the formalism and the often-narrow interpretation of “obedience” distracting. In both camps there is all too often a concentration on procedures and administration, on the Quaker business method and the Franciscan chapter structure, at the expense – at times the almost complete forgetfulness – of the contemplative roots of both paths.

      I’m glad you found something of use to your project. You are most welcome, always, to quote anything you find. I feel that – so long as it is attributed and, if possible, linked – anything published on a public blogging platform is up for grabs.

      I like your image of standing on the sea with three legs. It may be the only place to stand, and sometimes it is firmer than the solid ground.

      Peace love and Light right back at you



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