“If You Will, You May Become All Flame:” Teachings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers with Cynthia Bourgeault

DSC_3913Our central image of the 4-day retreat: below the flame is a desert mother holding a scroll that reads, “Light the divine fire within yourself.”
(See end of the piece for a close-up of the image.)

“There were few ‘doctrines’ to prove at this time in Christianity, only an inner life to be experienced. Abba Isidore of Pelusia (5th century) said, ‘To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy.'”

-Richard Rohr


The burning question of my life in the last few years has been this: what is the role of spiritual practices in the quest to become a deeper, more aware, more compassionate human being? It was with this question in mind that I attended a 4-day silent retreat in Auckland, New Zealand in May with Cynthia Bourgeault in which we studied the 4th and 5th century writings of the Christian desert fathers and mothers.

Cynthia explained that the writings of these desert mothers and fathers, who seemed to spontaneously head to the sands of Syria and Egypt in the early 4th century, emerged on the heels of a paramount moment in Christian history. In 313 CE the Emperor Constantine suddenly reversed historical course by making the formerly persecuted religion of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. From this moment on Christianity became intertwined with political power in the Mediterranean and Western world.

However, the implicit code that these monastics seemed to adhere to is not the common perception of Christian doctrine, and certainly not the traditional message I received in my youth. Rather than emphasizing belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that secures our eternal salvation, the desert tradition seemed to be single-mindedly focused on the search for the abundant life in the here and now. Cynthia calls them “empiricists of the spirit,” experimenting with whatever worked. What unfolds in the writings is a rich Christian contemplative tradition that I was never taught in my formative years growing up in the church. Only now in mid-life have I been presented with these great innovators of the Christian tradition and their surprisingly earthy teachings and practices.

Much like the Assisi retreat with Cynthia DSC_2538three years ago, I found the learning that I experienced as unusually challenging, enlivening, and paradigm-shifting, as I re-imagined what the forefathers and mothers of my tradition actually did on their spiritual sojourn. And so I share these teachings, trusting that they will inspire more of us to flee, if even temporarily, the grasping clutches of empire’s privilege and comfort in order to perceive anew what it means to live the abundant life.

Asceticism in the Desert Tradition

The desert mothers and fathers, if known at all, are often perceived as ascetics who took eccentric and even extreme measures to develop their spiritual lives. Rather than drawing upon medieval caricatures of asceticism gone wrong, however, Cynthia suggests that these intrepid inner explorers employed ascetic practices in the service of transformation, bending the human will towards the divine.

The desert tradition saw spiritual practices as a means to plug the psychic energy leaks of physical indulgence, self-righteousness, gossip, and scattered attention. However, the tradition seems to be aware that these practices can be dangerous, for as soon as a program is set up, progress can be charted and pride is a temptation. It’s all about finding the right balance between too little will power, which prevents any kind of true lift-off, and too much will power, which can result in idolatry of the path itself.

What’s more important than the outer dimension of the ascetic life is the inner asceticism of non-attachment. In the spirit of Jesus’s radical non-clinging, the desert tradition saw any type of hoarding – not just physical, but emotional and spiritual – as a mechanism that shuts down the eye of the heart. Hoarding acts out of a compulsive, restrictive mindset. By contrast, Jesus called for seeing the world as a place of abundance, concluding in a long section on non-attachment in Luke 12, “Fear not little flock; it is the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Based on this cosmic generosity, the desert tradition was in agreement that Christianity should be lived around the core values of Jesus’ ministry: hospitality, generosity, inclusiveness, radical poverty, and trust.

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View of the Vaughan Park Retreat and Conference Center (up the hill) at Long Bay on Auckland’s North Shore

Themes of the Desert Tradition

Before embarking on specific teachings in the desert tradition, I’d like to briefly highlight the major themes that come through these teachings as a whole:

  1. Vision: There is a commitment to another intensity, a deeper communion of radiance and compassion that enables a person to become “all flame.”
  2. Humility and compassion: These are the two most important values of the desert writings, and the way to reach these goals requires common sense and a sustainable spiritual practice.
  3. Experimentation: These “empiricists of the spirit” continually asked: What does it take to sustain the body, mind, and soul of a human being? What does it take to be grounded in this world and yet live lightly in the spiritual domain?
  4. Persistent non-doing: “Sit in your cell” is a common refrain; its message addresses our existential restlessness. As Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The desert aspirant needed to face the dissipative, fidgety desire to escape the present moment; instead, the tradition firmly advises “sit in your cell,” face the tedium, and wait it out until something emerges out of it.
  5. Non-attachment: The real demons of the desert were the mental, emotional and even spiritual attachments to success and progress, indicators assuring us that we are on the right path.
  6. Hiddenness: In contrast to the spiritual materialism of our age, the desert fathers and mothers believed in the spiritual generativity of simply being alone in the desert and dedicating themselves to humble practices.
  7. Transparency: Means and ends, inner and outer all need to be in sync.
  8. Bodily wisdom: The body is the blessed instrument of incarnation, which, when honored, naturally supports a person on the path of liberation.


Teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Throughout the week Cynthia drew upon certain writings of the desert fathers and mothers for our consideration. What follows below are those teachings that I found most memorable and useful, both to help us understand the worldview of the desert monastics as well as those that were the most valuable for my own spiritual growth. Following a quote from a desert mother or father, I then share Cynthia’s commentary (CC) and my own reflection (MR) on the teaching.

  1. When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the Anthony_the_Greatdesert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ (1:1*)(A note on teaching methods**)

Cynthia’s commentary (CC): The great temptation in the desert was accidie, which is often translated as “sloth,” but would be better be defined as “existential restlessness.” Accidie, or literally the “noon-day demon,” requires us to confront our yearning to fill the void of waiting on God with all manner of stimulation: intellectual insight, relationships, companionship, or even the lower pleasures of delicious food or an afternoon cappuccino. The problem, however, is that this wandering attention of accidie runs the small self, egoic operating system. What is needed is to just sit, and to face the boredom and the “noon-day demons” of attachment to thoughts and emotions. Centering Prayer helps a person gain, as Rafe would say, enough being to be nothing. This is liberation.

Marty’s reflection (MR): “Being saved” in the desert tradition was not about salvation for eternal life, but related more to the root word “salve,” or “healing balm.” Marcus Borg re-defines the biblical term “salvation” as “healing the wounds of existence.” How can I be healed of my existential restlessness? Here is a question that resonates not just with me, but with my students, too! We all want to find a path to get at the core questions of human existence: who am I and why am I here? Regardless of success on the horizontal (or visible) dimension of life, it seems that our souls yearn to answer these questions on the vertical (or spiritual) axis. My working premise these past few years is that only through spiritual practices is there a reliable avenue to get at these questions, and I’m encouraged that a good number of my students seem to concur that spiritual practices indeed do help.

  1. A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him (1:1).

CC: The advice here is two-fold: work and pray (ora et labora), which became the basis of Benedictine practice. Stay in tune with what you are doing. Or, as Nike says, just do it! Do not work with a mind that is daydreaming. In today’s parlance, we would say to carry out all of our activities mindfully. By contrast, the sleepwalking of ordinary consciousness confers the energy of attention only on those things that are of natural interest. Fantasy and free-associative wondering dissipate energy, wasting an opportunity to practice presence. We need to train ourselves to place voluntary attention on something that is not inherently attractive, and wait for something to emerge.

MR: Four years ago I was feeling this existential restlessness, but Centering Prayer has seemed to quell my angst, giving me that foothold to finally deal with this underlying affliction. In my time in New Zealand in which we practiced Centering Prayer 2 hours/day, I did sense these “demons” of boredom. I could sense a great desire to escape the terror of emptiness, to flee to anything – intellectual insights, emotion-laden memories, superficial distractions – to satisfy this craving. This is an insight into the way the mind operates.

  1. When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, ‘Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?’ He heard a voice answering him, ‘Anthony, keep your attention on (or in) yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them (2:2).

CC: It may sound as if this passage is advocating hard-heartedness, but what Anthony is saying here is that this kind of theological speculation lowers the energetic system back to ordinary subject-object duality. Anthony wants us to keep our energy inside ourselves, to maintain a reservoir of coiled attentiveness, which translates in the tradition as “vigilance.” This is a higher vibratory level of being that unifies the bifurcated subject-object manner of perception. Those that can hold this unified attentional field know how to act in the midst of tension. On the other hand, those that raise these theological questions tend to remain stuck in these philosophical loops for decades. Stop trying to opt out of this “existential restlessness” (achidie) with social justice questions.

MR: Having taught social justice-oriented courses, this is a personal challenge – that slowly seems to be precipitating a mid-career adjustment – to my work with social conscience education. Yes, social justice is of vital importance, a truth that Jesus models in his concern for all those considered outcasts in his society. But in the spaciousness of spiritual practice, I’ve gained two new insights. First, social justice is a primarily a horizontal axis concern, but there is more to life than this domain; thus, the vertical dimension needs to be addressed in my teaching. Secondly, the practical social justice question is how can we avoid repeating the well-intentioned mistakes that are legion in the history of do-gooders? The wisdom tradition calls for action that is purified of its egocentricity. Cynthia advocates cultivating nondual perception in order to carefully sense where a small amount of applied energy in a given conflict can make a shift towards reconciliation, a concept she explores in her Law of Three teaching.

  1. Anthony said also, ‘Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay we will lose our interior watchfulness (1:10).

CC: Silence for the desert fathers was not a mortification of the body to save their souls, as an outsider might view their lifestyle. Rather, silence was like oxygen inhaled for spiritual life; it provided the necessary elements for inner aliveness that could not be accessed in the ordinary world. The classic inner work principle states it this way, “As your being increases, your receptivity to higher meaning increases; as your being decreases, your old meanings return.” In the state of silence, being can be more easily augmented; the desert conditions maintained an inner intentionality and vigilance, awakening one’s vibrancy to the Eternal Now of God.

MR: In this my first-ever silent retreat, I did experience this inner vigilance that Cynthia speaks about. Only in this atmosphere was I able to face the “inner demons” of mental and emotional attachments. I thought meditating two hours a day would be a relief from the relentless busyness of my daily teaching. Facing the accidie was humbling. More positively, even though I have read Cynthia’s books and listened to her teachings for the past 5 years, the silence allowed me to genuinely “hear” some of her teachings as if for the first time. Certain life lessons that might have taken me many years to grasp just seemed to drop into place.

  1. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach’ (2:6)

CC: Trusting in your own righteousness leads to a sense of meritoriousness, resulting in complacency, pride, and blame of others. We naturally gravitate towards taking the higher position, which is Jesus’ chief critique of the Pharisees. Then we “identify” with our own vainglory, which, according to the tradition, is the most serious impediment to sustained spiritual growth. Identifying the self with righteousness attaches energy to the ego, which prevents opening up to God’s infusion of spiritual energy.

Anthony also warns the seeker to avoid living in the past, for the ego’s chief feature is that it is never here. Rather, it is always building the narrative of the self from the past or future rather than opening to the immediate present. As Eckhart Tolle observes, a victim is someone who takes their identity from the past. Our stories weave a web of our own captivity. Instead, the wisdom tradition advises that we take our identity from the present moment, which opens to the eternal. Anthony concludes by prompting Abba Pampo to give attention to the two organs that lead us most often to automaticity, the tongue and the stomach. What is the ideal amount of food to eat to support the spiritual quest? How can all of our words maintain the intention of seeking union with God? The tradition recommends that we answer these questions with the intent of becoming a more humble and compassionate person.

MR: Once again, the chief sins of the spiritual life are mostly subconscious attitudes in how we compare ourselves to others. Such a radical shift in attitude seems to require the equally radical discipline of continuous spiritual practice. “Take every thought captive” or “pray without ceasing” are the phrases St. Paul used to express the moment-by-moment need to discipline the self; this directly answers the question of what one ought to do.

  1. Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, ‘Can a man lay a new foundation every day?’ The old man said, ‘If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment’ (224:11).

CC: This may be the most “mindful” saying in the whole desert tradition. Every moment we carry a heavy load of nostalgia, shame, guilt, pain, and trauma in our personal narratives; but every breath allows us to start anew in God’s glorious now.

Every breath can be the breath of God, opening up total gift and total amnesty in every moment. It requires the hard work of openness rather than the assumed religious expectation of duty. We can let go barehanded into the breath of newness.

MR: This is the opportunity and challenge – to let go of past stories and future worries – and open to the radical moment-by-moment sustenance of God’s provision. As assuredly as the stars and planets stay in their orbits, that the seasons follow in march with the natural cycles, so too can we receive from the hand of God. As Jesus so eloquently explained, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26). Radical trust in the abundance of God was the cornerstone of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom.

  1. Evagrius, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything” (63:1).

CC: The British seminary dean and writer Alan Jones was once told as a young spiritual seeker, “Alan, you must learn to tell the difference between what is essential and what is merely interesting.” This could be a slogan for the desert tradition, especially for those of us who are entitled. We all love to read, to travel, to be up-to-date, to go out and experience. We have this outward, dissipative tendency that diminishes our attention. The desert fathers and mothers, however, say that nothing will be attained when we go outside of ourselves. When all escape routes have been cut off, we need to sit constrained in prayer writhing and stewing in our own juices confronting our existential restlessness (accidie) and despair. We prefer, however, to run into activity, intellectual stimulation, journaling, new contacts, etc. Like the Buddhist retreat practice, we need to check our watch, our journal, and the book we’re reading at the door if we want to be “taught everything.”

MR: As an HKIS teacher and “knowledge worker,” I pride myself being on the educational cutting edge. Everything is interesting! I grasp after content, which as a teacher is my stock-in-trade. But am I grasping after what is essential rather than what is merely interesting? This year I stopped my 20-year subscription to the International NY Times. And I miss(ed) it. But it has given me time to focus on my inner journey rather than always having that newspaper that I paid for waiting every day to be read. Replacing reading the NY Times with meditation, which seems so empty to the egoic self, is something of a “loss.” But it reveals the subtle shifting of values as I strive to move towards the essential.

DSC_3911Our central image at the 4-day retreat. The scroll reads, “Light the divine fire within yourself.”

  1. Gregory: “If you wish, you can become all flame.”

CC: Spiritual practice rewires your nervous system, raising your electrical circuit from 110 to 220. When a deeper stability is attained, the miserably low and entropic energy level gives way to the power, strength, grace, and profundity of the divine life flowing through us, like the bush that burns but is not consumed. The ego drops away, and a fully attentive, fully alive, and fully present human beingimages emerges. As William Blake said, “We are here but a little while to learn to bear the beams of love.” The desert fathers and mothers were not worried about their salvation, but how their bodies can become all flame to do the work of compassion in the here and now. There is a burning bush inside of each one of us, and these Christian monastics used the desert as a laboratory to learn how to become all flame.

MR: Last Christmas during an Advent service I heard the pastor say the word, index“Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.” I remember feeling a “recognition energy,” as Cynthia calls it – an actual physical sensation inside the heart – of God within me. This seems to be the leap from 110 to 220; everything in the tradition is not only a story of the past, but a moment-by-moment realization in the present. This is the spiritual activation energy of a living tradition’s sacred text.

  1. “Poeman said, ‘All bodily comfort is an abomination to the Lord'” (172:38).

CC: What is the role of the body in spiritual growth? Already in the 4th century there was the Neo-Platonic distrust of the body in favor of the eternal soul, and the Jewish squeamishness regarding various bodily fluids, but at this point in the desert tradition there was no post-Augustinian belief that the body was irredeemably polluted and in need of submission. At its best, the texts self-correct and rebalance this Neoplatonic and Jewish anti-body bias, asking experimentally: how can the body best serve the aim of transformation?

With this in mind, however, the desert tradition did recognize that the body can keep us in our habituated comfort zone. Gurdjieff used to say, “Anyone can call himself a Christian when they have had their cup of coffee in the morning and after the paper has been delivered.” Remove the prop and see if you have truly been transformed or not. You won’t experience the jaws of the lion, the trash compactor effect of accidie, if all the spiritual paraphernalia (e.g, the meditation timer, the book club, heading the coffee hour at church) lull the spirit into a sense of high self-regard.

MR: To what extent can spiritual growth occur in a highly privileged community like at HKIS? To what degree does situational privilege substitute for true inner change? There is a range of responses to the social status hand that one has been dealt. Certainly gratitude for the gifts we have is appropriate, but also an understanding that, along with privilege, guilt naturally arises in a city like Hong Kong where vast differences in income inequality are obvious. Perhaps the best general advice is to remove bodily comforts and observe the psychological chatter that occurs. Has bodily comfort become a substitute for genuine spiritual growth?

  1. Abba Anthony said, “I believe that the body possesses a natural movement, to which it is adapted, but which it cannot follow without the consent of the soul; it only signifies in the body a movement without passion” (6:22)

CC: What is surprising here is that the body is seen as an ally of the spiritual life. The body is on board! It’s the soul that needs to give its consent, which underscores that questions of sleep and food are issues of the spirit. The implication is that the body is naturally fertile and productive for spiritual growth, which stands in contrast to our common perception that spiritual attainment requires heroic, body-punishing athleticism. Eating, drinking, and sleeping to excess is not attractive to the spiritually aligned life; temperance, rather, is the natural fruit of such a life.

There seems to be a correlation between increased meditation and a lessening need for sleep. Investing so much energy every day on ego maintenance may be why we normally fall exhausted into bed. Perhaps the ego damage repair that usually occurs subconsciously in sleep may happen during meditation, decreasing the need for sleep. Meditation, in fact, appears to be more restful for both body and mind than sleep.

MR: I am intensely interested in the role of the body in spiritual development. Having been sick for a decade with a difficult-to-diagnose and ill-defined ailments, I know how lack of health saps energy for everything, including the spiritual life. Conversely, now that I’ve discovered how to care better for my body, I’m very curious how to tune the body to make it more open to subtler, higher frequency energies. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, bodily health may be a prerequisite for the divine quest. This year I plan to begin one of my religion classes with a unit on setting goals for upgrading physical health as the foundational unit of a curriculum for spiritual growth.

  1. “A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet another,’ and the hunter replied, ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words, the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened (4:14).

CC: The watchwords here are compassion, moderation, and common sense! The goal is not to break the monks or competitive asceticism, but rather to attend to their needs.

MR: The fundamental question as a religion teacher for me is: how can my classroom meet the spiritual needs of my students? What has primarily driven my educational interest in meditation is a very practical need: my students are suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually from stress. The compassionate and common sense response is to use spiritual practices in my religion classes to ease the burden of living in a high-achievement culture.

  1. “Syncletica also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility'” (234:19).

    “The same Abba Agathon said, ‘I have never offered
    agapes [Eucharistic meal]; but the fact of giving and receiving has been for me an agape, for I consider the good of my brother to be a sacrificial offering” (23:17).

CC: Another way that the desert tradition hedges against overzealous asceticism is by imagining the ascetic life as a great river between two banks, which are non-attachment (or humility) and compassion. In order for the river of monastic practice to be flowing correctly, it needs to water both banks. If one side is deficient, the integrity of the whole is diminished. “Vainglory,” as it is called in the tradition, is always the biggest danger in the desert, as Syncletica makes clear in her teaching. In the second passage, caring for the brother is likened to the holy communion meal of love. If the fruit of the monastic life is not expressing itself in increased compassion, then something has gone awry. These are the two great checkmarks of the desert tradition to ensure that the practices are on course rather than drifting towards self-satisfaction and isolationism.

MR: My international school students always want to find what is common in world religions rather than splitting the field into its differences. It’s safe to say that all the world religions we study agree that humility and compassion are two non-negotiable characteristics of the spiritual person. If that is our starting point – aiming to help students develop these twin traits of spiritual maturity – I think students would be far more welcoming of religion class, for it offers an approach to goals that aren’t explicitly addressed in any other part of their school curriculum.

  1. A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back and tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints, and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved’ (132: 23).

CC: This unforgettable story teaches a serious point about non-attachment. Praise and blame run the pleasure-pain program, and it means you are drawing your energy from that narrative of the finite self that is dependent on this program. This story teaches that in order to be “saved” (e.g., healing the wounds of existence) one needs to find life beyond praise and blame. This hard core teaching advises that defending oneself leads to self-justification, binding the individual to the small self. As a positive if unconventional example, in the Sufi tradition there was a group called the Malamati that were willing to accept all blame without defending themselves. Not being easily offended is a mark of a free person.

Conversely, the desert modality avoids putting the self in the judgment seat. Taking on the role of judge far too often results in the public shaming of individuals. This frequently results in the evaluator seeing him or herself as a righteous defender of values, leading to pride, the bête noire of the desert tradition. Of course, this does not mean to be a wimp. Rather, what it means is that the unattached higher self is free to bring appropriate energy to a conflict situation for the purpose of reconciliation.

MR: In my last several religion courses I’ve introduced the “Eight Worldly Concerns“*** of Buddhism, which teaches (among other things) not to be attached to praise, nor to fear criticism. This comes as an especially paradoxical and perplexing idea to my students, whose lives are ruled by this derivative of the pleasure-pain program. Upon reflection, however, the students come to see how dependency on the evaluations and opinions of others makes them vulnerable and feeds their stress levels. Taken together, these nearly identical spiritual principles from the two traditions elevates the concept to a more universal level. Again, the advice is to develop a more stable identity beyond the praise-blame duality.


The burning question of my life at present, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, is to better understand the role of spiritual practices in my life and the lives of my students. Through the four-day silent retreat, the word “purification” kept returning to me. For the past five years of reading and listening to Cynthia I have received a great deal of clarity – she’s the teacher I’ve always wanted – but at the beginning of the retreat she said that silence would be the greatest teacher. And she was right! What I learned from the desert condition of silence was more about the role of spiritual practices in the purification process.

Purifying the self of all attachments means taking a hard look at mostly good things – teaching social conscience classes, doing service learning, leading a summer class to Bhutan – and burrowing down into the mixed motives implicit in them all. In order to do the essential rather than the merely interesting, I need to attempt to purify the desire for egoic recognition for all of the ‘good work’ that I do. Purification means to replace this inner deficit mentality with an awakening to the present moment in which God lives. To become all flame – to be freed from the egoic consciousness that creates a narrative of the past and worries about the future – requires living in the now. Striving to maintain a present moment consciousness will become a more prominent goal for me in the future, a new understanding of the Pauline exhortation I remember from my youth, “Pray without ceasing.”

Finally, my most enduring image of the retreat was the palpable spiritual yearning of the retreaters ensconced in silence throughout the day, including meals. Most indelibly, 5 or 10 minutes before Cynthia would come in to teach, the conference room in a half-circle for 65 people would fill up with participants sitting, reading, kneeling, or prostrating before our desert-like centerpiece altar – all in silent, even pregnant expectation. I have never experienced this kind of focused, DSC_3918palpable collective intention. The silence set in relief a corporate body language that projected a combination of hunger, sanctity, and adoration. In such an atmosphere one’s own heart simply mirrors the visible and invisible ambience, waiting with anticipation for Cynthia to teach us something we needed to hear. In this way, we honored the spirit of those who walked into the Syrian and Egyptian deserts 1700 years ago asking in a posture of supplication, “Abba, Amma, give me a word.”


To hear a chant about “becoming all flame,” hit here.

To watch an 8-minute introduction of the study of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Cynthia, hit here.


* Primary Source MaterialBenedicta_Ward_Sayings_Of_The_Desert_Fathers

The first number of the reference is drawn from the page number in Benedicta Ward’s book, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1975). The second number refers to the number on that page that denotes the particular comment that has been quoted.

** Teaching Method of the Desert Tradition

It seems sensible on a blog about education to consider the pedagogy of the desert writings. According to Cynthia, this is classic wisdom teaching style. Sufis and Zen Buddhists use this genre, as did Jesus, whom I will draw upon below for the sake of familiarity. The approach is three-fold:

  • Short, pithy sayings

Jesus was famous for his one-liners, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60), ” or “And even the hairs on your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30), or “So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). The desert fathers and mothers also delivered short, pointed statements: “Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, ‘The monk ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye'” (42:11).

  • Paradoxical statements

Jesus was a master of such unconventional statements: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 6:20). The desert tradition also contains similar kinds of statements: “Without temptation, no one can be saved” (2:5).

  • Teachable Moments

An in situ event, whether real or fictitious, is used to illustrate a spiritual principle. An example of this is when a woman is caught in adultery and Jesus is asked whether the woman she be stoned. Through the give and take with his detractors, Jesus pronounces, “He who is without sin may cast the first stone” (John 8:7) Then there are fictitious stories that are called parables, such as the Story of the Prodigal Son, in which a rebellious son leaves his family, taking his inheritance with him before he returns hungry and penniless to his father.

These characteristics are all intended to jar the listener into questioning so conventional means of perception. These ‘hand grenades to the mind’ opens the listener to a breakthrough to a new understanding.

*** The Eight Worldly Concerns

Do not be attached to:

  1. Getting and keeping material objects
  2. Praise and encouragement.
  3. A good reputation.
  4. Pleasures of the senses

Do not fear:

  1. Losing or being separated from material objects.
  2. Being blamed, ridiculed, and criticized.
  3. Gaining a bad reputation.
  4. Unpleasant experiences.

Online version of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers



Contemplative Consciousness
Sunday, January 19, 2020

I’ve heard some concerns over the years that contemplation is a practice of “Eastern” meditation wrapped in a Christian disguise. Some Christians have even been taught that seeking union with God through silence makes room for the “devil” to get in. While understandable, these apprehensions are based on a lack of knowledge about Christian heritage. In addition to Jesus’ own practice of prayerful solitude, we also have the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Starting with Anthony the Great in 270 CE, thousands of Christians moved to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to form alternative Christian communities. These brave souls were on fire with love for Jesus and sought to become more like him through a disciplined rhythm of life and prayer.

The desert mystics focused much more on the how than the what, which is very different from Christianity’s primary emphasis on beliefs and doctrines in recent centuries. The desert tradition offers a rich teaching of surrender, through contemplation, to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. Some have said that the Desert Fathers (abbas) and Mothers (ammas) are like the Zen Buddhist monks of Christianity. Their koan-like sayings cannot usually be understood with the rational, logical mind, which is perhaps why their teachings fell out of favor during the Enlightenment.

Above all, the desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) helped modern Christianity recover an awareness of contemplative practice, in part inspired by his reading of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Merton wrote: “All through the Verba Seniorum [Latin for Words of the Elders] we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.” [1]

The Desert Fathers and Mothers focused on these primary practices in their search for God: 1) leaving, to some extent, the systems of the world; 2) a degree of solitude to break from the maddening crowd; 3) times of silence to break from the maddening mind; and 4) “technologies” for controlling the compulsivity of mind and the emotions. All of this was for the sake of growing a person capable of love and community.

Contemplation became a solid foundation for building a civilization and human community—not just in the wilderness centuries ago but in the world today. Contemplative consciousness labels things less easily and does not attach itself to one solitary definitive meaning. In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.


The Desert Mystics
Monday, January 20, 2020

Though I deeply admire the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I must be completely honest with you. There is much about them that I do not find attractive or helpful. And it is important to share that here, or you might pick up one of the collections of their “sayings” and throw it out as unreal, dualistic, naïve, and pre-rational—all of which, I think, would be largely true. The desert mystics represent a level of human consciousness and historical development that we have collectively moved far beyond. And yet, I still admire and even need to learn from them! Let me use the desert abbas and ammas to illustrate an important point for understanding many historical personages and traditions (and even the Scriptures themselves).

Contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber offers a helpful distinction between stages and states. [1] Your stage is your outer awareness. Your state is your inner aliveness. The goal is to be both holy and whole, saintly and wise. But your state and stage don’t always coincide; many of us are stronger in one area than another.

You can be a high-level thinker and be quite astute about psychology, theology, history, or philosophy (a high stage), but do it all from a perspective of individualism and arrogance about that very information (a low state)—because it is still all about “you.” Conversely, you could be quite unified within and with others, in a high state of loving consciousness, but be poorly informed, lacking in exposure and education to helpful and informative knowledge.

Perhaps you know people who are compassionate and kind yet still reveal prejudicial attitudes. They may seem hypocritical but are simply at a high state and a low stage. Love will win out in them and goodness will flow through them, even if they don’t have the gift of teaching or of understanding complex or contradictory issues. They are holy but not whole, saintly but not “smart.”

This describes many Desert Fathers and Mothers: having high states of union but by today’s standards low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. Enjoy them for their state, but do not hate them for their stage! Today we have large segments of the population with the opposite problem: high stages of intellectual exposure with very low levels of unitive consciousness—very smart but without awe, humility, or love, which the Desert Fathers and Mothers had in spades!

Many of the desert sayings may sound naïve, simplistic, and even dangerous, but try to receive the simple wisdom of the desert mystics with an open heart and mind in the coming days and let it lead you to authentic joy. Perceive and enjoy their state of loving union; don’t dismiss them for living in a pre-rational society. Perhaps holding this tension compassionately for them will help us do the same for people in our own time.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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19 Responses to “If You Will, You May Become All Flame:” Teachings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers with Cynthia Bourgeault

  1. krazykiwi says:

    Hey Marty: This is an amazing BlogSpot and reflection of the glorious 5 days we spent with Amma Cynthia! Thank you for this incredible gift! Pax et bonum, Alan

  2. krazykiwi says:

    Reblogged this on keep Ithaca in your mind.

  3. Thanks, Alan, it was a very enriching experience to be on retreat with Cynthia. I’ve written several blogs related to Cynthia’s work. You can find these at the bottom of the Centering Prayer Intro piece, which was published July 9, 2015.

    My Educational Philosophy
    Spiritual Retreat with Cynthia in Assisi
    Centering Prayer and the Call to Wisdom: A Personal Reflection
    Necessity of Spiritual Practice in Social Conscience Education
    The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere: Visionary Images of Christian Education (includes a 12-minute interview with Cynthia)
    Upgrade Your Egoic Operating System: A Conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault

  4. krazykiwi says:

    Descartes (1596-1650) identified the principle that most people accept’; what he surmised was: Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.” Marty, I’ve always wondered how our epistemologies are formed and if wisdom is different from “knowing” (theoretical knowledge). Until I came across Cynthia Bourgeault’s book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening 6-7 years ago along with the whole concept of Contemplative pedagogy. I’ve always believed that wisdom came about through heightened awareness; and that wisdom is appropriated by going beyond rational thinking. But I had no reference point from which to state this claim. Contemplation and the “divine awareness” it invites, gave me just such a RP.

    Beyond Ordinary Awareness

    How then can Centering Prayer have an intention of going beyond rational or reflective thinking? Cynthia Bourgeault quotes John of the Cross, who said. “Silence is God’s first language”. She directs our gaze to Keating’s levels of awareness. All persons have the ordinary awareness (see image taken from http://www.adishakti.org/_/silence_is_gods_first_language.htm) But all of us also have the possibility to go deeper into spiritual awareness. Centering Prayer can help us to move into an even deeper divine awareness, where we encounter God’s presence as it really is. In this encounter of Love, a person can find his True Self.

    Bourgeault calls it “divine awareness”, as we move towards our true center, as our own being and the divine being become more and more mysteriously interwoven. Thomas Merton describes this as: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God.” Keating says,

    What happens when we hit the center? Since there is no more junk left to hide the divine presence, I presume we are in divine union. Faith believes that God is waiting for us. Such is the meaning of
    Divine Indwelling.

    Bourgeault refers to Merton, saying that “access to this center is not at our command, it is entered only through the gateway of our complete poverty and nothingness.” Keating is convinced that the seeking of silence beyond our thoughts is the best way to get to know and throw off our false self. As long as we repeat our own comprehensions and insights over and over again, we will never get rid of them. It is in the surrender to God in contemplative prayer, we will be able to let them go.
    What kind of thoughts rise up usually in silent prayer?

    Keating puts the thoughts that usually comes up when we are seeking God in silence, into
    five categories:

    1. The first kind of thoughts he calls “woolgathering”. Those are the thoughts that come from what we were doing just before we entered into prayer. Or they come from sounds we hear around us or from outside. It may be a vivid memory, or some plans for the future. They are like boats flowing down the stream. To leave these “woolgathering”-thoughts it is enough to mention the sacred word, as easy as a “feather”, to let them go. That is of course if the intention is to stay with God. After some training, says Keating, we will think in two levels at the same time. We “hear” the woolgathering, but still we know why we are in silence. Gradually it will not be very difficult to leave these thoughts.
    2. Thoughts of emotional attraction They come from the conscious level and are thoughts that we easily are drawn towards. They are emotionally charged thoughts that are not easily resisted. When being aware of this, even the resisting movement inside can be a hindrance to stay in silence. Also here is the same solution: Let go of the thoughts, use the sacred word, and stay with the intention.
    3. Insights and psychological breakthroughs
    When we begin to quieten down and experience a certain peace, another kind of thought might emerge. It could be some bright spiritual insight or some great psychological understanding of our past life. Or we may see some solutions on problems we have. We may even remember someone we ought to pray for. No matter what it is, this is not the time for any of these thoughts. Just now, this is God’s opportunity to talk to us.

    Keating is saying that to stay with all these “good” thoughts is to be likened with interrupting another person who is trying to tell us something. It is God we are listening to in contemplative prayer, God’s silence. Preachers have a special problem here when they in this silence get lots of ideas what to preach or teach about in their churches. In this situation they are only various kinds of tasty bait to take us out of the surrendering to God.
    4. Self-reflection
    Even when reaching a deep peace inside, a desire to reflect on what is really happening may arise. Reflection is one step back from experience. It is like taking a picture of reality. As soon as we start to reflect on an experience, it is over. If we choose to let the reflection just pass by, we will go into deeper interior silence. “The presence of God is like the air we breathe”, says Keating. “You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.” At this temptation to stay with the blessing, we really understand that this prayer is a learning of self-surrender.
    5. Interior purification
    “Any form of meditation or prayer which transcends thinking, sets off the dynamic of interior purification”, says Keating . Something happens in our organism. Deep rooted tensions are released. They might introduce themselves with a certain force or emotional charge. We may feel grief, anger, or fear without any connection to the recent past. To return to the sacred word helps to continue the process, the undigested psychological material of a lifetime is gradually released, the emotional investment of early childhood based on instinctual drives is dismantled, and the false self gives way to the true self.

    As we quieten down and go deeper, we find ourselves in a place where there are no more thoughts. What happens is that the unconscious probably will likely release emotions and traumas that would have taken years to unload in therapy. God has been doing psychotherapy for centuries by other names, says Keating. He searches through our personal history and heals what need to be healed, which can be self-inflicted wounds or wounds of childhood. “God preserves whatever was good in each stage of life and brings it to full flowering through the graces of spiritual progress and divine union.”

    • Hi Alan, Thanks for this very thoughtful comment! Cynthia’s ordinary, special and divine levels of awareness came as a revelation to me. I was at a point in my life that I wasn’t satisfied with cataphatic prayer, but needed guidance about some other type of prayer. I repeatedly have returned to her explanation that you are referring to.

      I have just in the last week picked up a remarkable book: The Presence Process by Michael Brown, which was recommended by Cynthia. It teaches in very clear, yet profound language how to develop presence through a 10-week program through use of a mantra. It’s intriguing, and teaches how to get beyond the rational, reflective thought processes that you are referring to.

      It certainly is amazing that the proposal here is that the most important way to purify oneself is through a letting-go process of simply sitting and disengaging the mental mind. What a wonder! I continue on the adventure to hopefully find that I have experienced and can recommend what Cynthia, Merton, Keating, Brown, and others are teaching.

    • Deborah says:

      Hello – I am new to the blogging world = I dont often reply to things. I stumbled on this by accident (??) 🙂 I have a near 30 year affair with the desert writings…and last year did my doctoral thesis on a desert Father Evagrius and contemporary of his – Amma Syncletica…. Thank you for this lovely piece on Cynthia – am also a long time fan of her work and almost 30 years with contemplative outreach since its near inception. With that aside, it is the candle I am fascinated with…and would so very much like to know where it can be found? The image on the candle in these pictures is Amma Syncletica of all things….and she is not well known among most folks…she is one of the few women repeatedly quoted in the Apopthegmata…. Is there any chance I might find who crafted this candle or where I might find one…or perhaps make my own if it is hand made…. It leaped out at me… I just love this dear Amma who has journeyed with me for several years. Thank you for any help you may be able to provide. And God bless your world!

      • Hi Deborah, Thanks for this comment! Studying the Desert Fathers and Mothers, which was really new territory for me, was a pretty big turning point for me. I realized that my dis-ease with the mainstream church was justified when we look at this early pioneers. Regarding the candle, it was made by someone, a woman I believe, in New Zealand. If you write me an email – mschmidt@hkis.edu.hk – I can provide you the email of a woman in NZ who can tell you more. Congrats on the dissertation – and I would love to read it or something else you’ve written about the topic. Thanks for the comment!

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  6. YTC says:

    Just come across your blog via a search of labyrinth pictures, and am interested to see the diversity of topics. Desert fathers is another point of personal interest. People nowadays need spiritual directions. I am enthusiastic in bringing daily awareness to people via the body, and the tool I use is the Alexander Technique. Feel free to send me a message if you are interested.
    Have a nice day!

    • Thanks, YTC, for this comment. I agree that people need a lot of direction, especially with regard to the body as a means of intelligence and communication, not simply an able carrier for other aspects of the self that we value more. To my surprise, my high school students are interested/intrigued to be asked to respect their bodies more. I’m interested to know more about the Alexander Technique. Thanks for the note.

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  10. Hello, I love this blog. Thank you for the beautiful photos and insights. I am wondering if you can tell me where I might be able to locate the candle in the pictures. It is beautiful…it is Amma Syncletica – and I wrote my doctoral thesis on her. I love the candle….or perhaps it was hand made? Any thoughts most appreciated. Thankyou.

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