The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness. —Ivan Illich
It is hard for many of us to ‘see’ God these days. We are often overwhelmed and inundated with too much of everything: too many possessions, too much food, too much stimulation, too many activities, too much work, too much information, too many choices. As a consequence, most of us live scattered, hectic lives, racing from one task to another, juggling too many commitments, always living on the surface and never really knowing ourselves, or others.
Little wonder then that we easily become ‘blind’ to God’s presence deep within and all around us. Why? Perhaps because we lack a basic ‘purity of heart’.
What is this ‘purity of heart’ and who can teach us about it?
The spiritual theologian Belden Lane from the Jesuit University of St Louis once remarked:
To learn desire, one necessarily sits at the feet of those who are thirsty. The satisfied never make good teachers … This is how the desert knows water— achingly, desperately, with a passion bordering on dread. It’s the only way we ever know God as well.
The experience and wisdom of the early Church’s Desert Mothers and Fathers has much to teach us in this regard. These ancient searchers literally fled cities into the ‘desert’ in their ‘thirst’ for God. It was common for them to suffer great interior tribulation and anxiety.
Many of them, however, attest to ‘seeing’ God anew with fresh eyes.
One of these Desert Fathers, St Isaac of Nineveh, wrote beautifully that purity of heart ‘is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature’. He continues:
And what is a compassionate heart? … It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.
A more contemporary Desert Father was the Italian Carlo Carretto — a follower of the desert mystic Charles de Foucauld. In 1964 he published his now classic book Letters from the Desert. Carlo recounts how he fell in love with the desert as a place of prayer and a place of truth. Ivan Illich’s foreword summarises Carlo’s message poetically:
We became friends. When he came to visit me he told me stories. Remembering them I always felt that outside the desert they would sound out of place. The immensity of the desert overwhelms both the power and weakness of men. The Muslim shepherd’s song envelops the Franciscan tenderness of Italian in the austerity of unambiguous faith. The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.
Whether they were ancient or modern Desert Fathers, these mystics spoke of an ‘awakened heart’ as central to their experience of ‘seeing’ God.
Here our hearts become quiet. Many people find the famous Eastern Jesus prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner’) to be useful in summoning this type of awareness and of entering into the stillness that is the reality of God’s presence.
Of course, we do not have to go to a physical desert wilderness. We enter the ‘desert’ of our hearts and our lives whenever we stop and pray. We enter into a presence that excludes many of our ambitions, worries, comparisons and judgments. We discover an immense compassion for creation and for other people, especially the suffering ones. We learn for ourselves: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’
This article is part of a series of reflections entitled Blessed Are You: Meditations on the Beatitudes & Daily Life by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.