Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees
We’re guests at this place where statuary is carved from the quarried sandstone. Most of these works are icons for pagan ritual. But here amid the cacophony of Roman talisman is also a carving in a Christian theme of a common woman of Galilee with a beloved baby in her arms. Nic made a deal in gold to take this Christian statue to be a gift to the monastery near Poitiers. The arrangement includes the purchase of grain to fill our sacks and a payment to send a messenger into the wilderness to find the sculptor who has an ox cart and may be willing to help in transporting it to the monastery. Antton thinks the artist may have enough of an interest in seeing this work off to a Christian place that he would be willing to take on such a journey. We are told he is what is called a “Desert Father.”
“Desert Fathers” I explain to Nic, “are ascetics who choose to devote their lives, or at least some years of their lives, to long hours of daily prayer and other spiritual practice.”
“Spiritual practice?” Nic asks.
“Some people find spiritual practice in fasting and ritual or maybe in mentoring others. Some are artists, writers and scribes, or keepers of books. Some simply pray for many long hours. One I knew was a carpenter. In these times they might choose a solitary life in a wilderness area like Egypt, hence the term ‘desert.’ Some live in caves or small huts often alone and isolated. Even though we knew Jesus to be a sociable sort, always showing up for the party this solitary practice was actually modeled after Jesus. Jesus often went alone into wilderness places for his own personal fasting and prayer and his most intimate hours with God. I knew that of him and it is written in the gospels as well.”
Nic asks, “How is this extreme asceticism different from the cults of the heretics the councils of Hispania had opposed?”
The answers are obvious. “It isn’t a cult. A cult functions with rules set down by the deceit of a charismatic leader making hoax of known truths, and it eventually it leads the followers to their deaths. The desert fathers practice an individual faith journey with promises between God and that ascetic; it’s not about loyalty to a human leader based on lies and fear. True spiritual practice is often a twisting path but it leads to spiritual renewal and to life. It is not deadly.”
The messenger returns without the desert father or the oxcart.