Fire purifies. Desert fire purifies remorselessly. Silence pierces. Desert silence pierces unremittingly. Solitude strips bare. Desert solitude strips bare to the bone.
The Desert Fathers knew all this. They knew that the Lord your God is a consuming fire (Dt 4:24), and they threw themselves into that fire with all the confidence of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. There in the midst of the flames they were purified, pierced to the heart by the silence of the Word of God, and stripped bare of their sinfulness by the mirror of solitude. There in the desert they saw God—and themselves—and lived.
Young monks flocked to join them. From city and village, regular men and women came to beg their counsel. These men were terrifying in their purity, alarming in their austerity, disquieting in their discernment. Theirs was not a sweet but a shocking sanctity.
It was like talking to a burning bush.
The teachings of the Desert Fathers were rarely long. Their words, like their souls, had been purified, stripped of all that was unnecessary. They packed pithy sayings with prophetic intensity.
Imagine traveling miles on foot, pounded by the heat. Sweating, sun-burnt, and hungry, you come to a cave and shout a greeting. Out comes the knobby man with eyes like lightning. They strike you. He says nothing. You shift awkwardly.
“Abba, give me a word,” you say.
Do not give your heart to what cannot fill it.
He reenters his cave.
That’s it? So far for so little? Tweets are longer than that . . .
And yet these sayings are not tweets. The fathers of the desert knew how far people had come. They knew how far they still had to go. And so they gave “a word” rich enough to fill their silent journey back to their noisy lives. What do I give my heart to? How much yearning can my heart do? Can it ever be filled? By what?
The saying, like the speaker, terrifies, alarms, and disquiets, for it leads us with harrowing directness to God—and to ourselves.
Consider another such saying. Abba Lot approaches Abba Joseph, telling him all the penances he does and all the prayers he says. But he feels within himself that he is missing something, and so he asks Abba Joseph what he can do. Here is the word of Abba Joseph:
The old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Our God is a consuming fire. Our desire for holiness can be the same.
Image: Jackson Pollock, The Flame