The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter I:
The Hidden Treasure

THE desire of knowing the Lord is often the first impulse of the religious life. The human soul repeats the request of the Greeks who came to Philip, "Sir, we would see Jesus." The desire -- it is only in such paradoxes that religious experience seems able to express itself -- already witnesses to the fact that the soul, which feels it, has seen Jesus. The contradiction may he stated nakedly without the fear of making discord in the Christian consciousness. He who has seen Jesus once, still sees Him, and therefore must desire to see Him.

As the clearness of the vision varies, so does the intensity of the desire. For some men it is dim, as the reflection in a mirror that is cracked and tarnished. The shape is uncertain and its lines wavering. Jesus is not so seen as to shut out the possibility of seeing the other things which present themselves within, behind, or beside the mirror which reflects Him. Men who behold Hun thus, desire to see Him in a very real way; yet their desire does not become the master passion of their lives, so that all other desires grow faint or are excluded altogether. They wish for other things as well as the vision of Jesus. Certainly they will only wish for those other things whose possession is not inconsistent with the seeing of Him. Yet they do wish for other things. For a few men the mirror is more perfect and the reflection much clearer. To them the vision is so desirable that having once seen Jesus they thenceforth see nothing but Jesus, hope and strive for nothing else of any sort except to see Jesus.

The difference between these two ways of seeing is a difference in vocation. We cannot explain it. We no more seek either to explain it or to alter it than we seek to explain or alter the fact that it was St. John and no other who saw "in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle." We simply recognise that they who see clearest are they who have the higher vocation, and we know that their way in life must be the harder way, as our human nature reckons hardness. It is they who when they have found the treasure hid in the field are so absorbed with the desire of possessing it that they sell all they have; that is to say, they, having seen Jesus, see nothing else in life at all desirable except Jesus. It must always seem to most men a strange and very hard thing to give up everything for the sake of a spiritual gain. To those who have seen the vision and heard the vocation it is, save for the weakness of the flesh, not a hard thing. It is written in the gospel of them that "for joy thereof" they go and sell all that they have.

Among those who have had the vocation none have had it more certainly than the hermits of the Egyptian deserts. They, because they had seen very clearly, and in their daily lives continued to see very clearly, were, of all men, most absorbed in the desire of seeing Jesus. The stories and sayings in this chapter show us the intensity and the meaning of their desire. To the hermit Macedonius the pursuit of his God was a toil like a hunter's, but inexpressibly more absorbing. He cannot think of ceasing from his hunting. The abbot ,John knew that no enticements could seduce away his soul from entering upon the fruition of Jesus. The abbot Arsenius, who had been once a courtier in the Emperor's palace, recognised that all other desires must give way before the desire of seeing Jesus. Very wonderful is the perception of the abbot Allois of the remoteness of the soul which dwells with God from all else except God.

The lives of the hermits supply us with a very perfect example of the paradox of religious experience. They, if ever any men, grasped the true value of the hidden treasure. They, more than most men, realised the condition of obtaining it, and sold all that they might purchase it. Yet their lives afford an almost terrible example of the intensity of the continuous struggle which the purchasing entails. They saw Jesus, therefore they desired to see Him, and their desire forced them to pursue that holiness "without which no man shall see the Lord." This is the keynote of their lives. They were determined, at all cost, in some way to become good; because having seen Him very clearly, they knew that they would not get to see Him unless by His grace they grew to be like Him.


How the hermit Macedonius witnessed that it is not strange to do for the sake of possessing the Lord what men do willingly for smaller gains.

A certain captain of soldiers, who took a great delight in hunting, once came in search of wild animals to the desolate mountain where Macedonius dwelt. He was prepared for hunting, having brought with him men and dogs. As he went over the mountain he saw, far off a man. Being surprised that anyone should be in a place so desolate, he asked who it might be. One told him that it was the hermit Macedonius. The captain, who was a pious man, leaped from his horse and ran to meet the hermit. When he came to him he asked, "What are you doing in such a barren place as this is?" The hermit in his turn asked, "And you? What have you come here to do?" The captain answered him, "I have come to hunt." Then said Macedonius, "I also am a huntsman. I am hunting for my God. I yearn to capture Him. My desire is to enjoy Him. I shall not cease from this my hunting."


A word of St. Basil to one who was unwilling to sell all that he had in order to buy the field wherein the treasure is.

A certain Syncletius, a senator, renounced the world. He divided his property among the poor, but kept back some of it for his own use. To him St. Basil said, "Truly you have spoiled a senator, but you have not made a monk."


A word of the abbot Arsenius, him who left the emperor's court for the desert, seeking God; and resigned his wealth that he might take the hidden treasure.

"If we seek God, He will appear to us. If we hold Him fast, He will remain with us."


The word of one who knew how good a thing it is to know of nothing in the world, but to know of Jesus.

The abbot Allois said "Except a man say in his heart, 'I and God are alone in the world,' he will not find peace."


How the enticements of the world have no power to lure back again the soul that has once possessed Jesus.

The abbot John said: "There was an exceedingly beautiful woman who dwelt in a certain city, and she had a multitude of lovers. A great man, one of the nobles of the city, came to her and said, 'Promise that you will be mine and I will wed you.' She gladly promised, and being his wife went to dwell with him in his palace. Afterwards her other lovers came seeking her and found her not. When they heard that she had become the nobleman's wife, they said one to another, 'If we go up to the door of the palace, it will be plain that we are seeking her, then, without doubt, we shall be punished. Let us go to the back of the house and whistle to her, as we used to do when she was free. When she hears our whistling she will certainly come down to us.' They did as they had planned, and the woman heard their whistling. Hating greatly even to hear them, she went into the inner parts of the house and shut the door upon herself. Now this woman is the soul of a man. Her husband, the nobleman, is Christ. The palace is the eternal mansion of the heavens. They who whistle for her are the demons."


A comparison of one who desires to attain the eternal treasure to an archer who turns his eyes away from everything except his mark.

A man will despise all things present as being transitory when he has securely fixed the gaze of his mind on those things which are immovable and eternal. Already he enjoys, in contemplation, the blessedness of his future life. It is as when one desires to strike some mighty prize -- the prize is virtue -- which is far off on high, and seems but a small mark to shoot at. The archer strains his eyesight while he aims at it, for he knows how great are the glory and rewards which await his hitting it. He turns his eyes away from everything, and will not look save thither where the reward is placed. He knows that he would surely lose the prize if his strained sight were turned away from the mark even a very little.


How a man cannot possess the heavenly treasure and at the same time cling to the pleasures of earth.

The abbot Arsenius was once asked by the abbot Mark why he fled from the society of men. He replied, "God knows it is not that I hate men. I love them well. But I cannot dwell both with God and with men. There are multitudes of heavenly beings and many virtues, but all their wills are one, and they come of one will. Among men it is otherwise. Their wills are many, and they pull us different ways. I am in this strait. I cannot leave God, for that is how I think of it, to dwell with men."

<< Introduction ----- Chapter 2 >>