Is it possible to flee to the desert a little bit? No and yes. No, you can’t flee a little bit, for fleeing a little bit is not fleeing at all. But yes, you can flee a little bit, if that little bit is complete. Here’s what I mean. We are all called to flee the world, in the sense of fleeing the sinful ways of the world. But we are not all called to flee in the same way. St. Isaac the Syrian, also known as St. Isaac the Solitary, wrote letters and homilies for hermits, those who had fled the world in the most complete and literal way. Much of the wisdom of these letters and homilies can help anyone flee to the desert completely, even if they only flee completely a little bit.
To flee to the desert means to go where something isn’t. That is, part of how we flee to God is by fleeing from what’s keeping us away or distracting us from God. St. Isaac in homily 73 tells us that the most severe spiritual struggles are not those caused by open warfare with the devil. The most severe spiritual struggles are caused by the proximity of things, things that arouse our passions. Simply by removing ourselves from the things that stir up our passions, we find a bit of peace, a space where we can pray a little and draw near to God a little. What we are doing when we remove ourselves from those things that stir up our passions is fleeing to the desert, a little bit.
Let’s look at an example. I have found myself over the last several years increasingly angry and frustrated in ways that lead to depression. This has made it difficult for me to maintain my desire and longing for God. The only relief I have found has been to flee to the desert in a very specific way. I have found that when I don’t listen to, watch or pay attention to the news, I am less angry and frustrated and more able to find joy in my life and to rekindle desire and longing for God. And yet, I am often tempted to read or watch or listen to the news. Flight into the desert (a mental place deserted of news, especially political news) is something I must continually choose. When I don’t, I suffer (which is, by the way, what the word ‘passion’ means—to suffer).
But usually, I do not notice that I am suffering right away. Right away, the interest, the intrigue, the outrage of what is reported, or not reported, in the news keeps me completely distracted from the wounds being inflicted on my soul. It’s usually only afterwards, when I try to return to my own life, the life I really have to live, that I realize my heart is full of anger and my mind confused. I find that my impotence to influence the ugliness of the world presented to me in the news quickly leads me to despair and listlessness. I find myself stuck, unable to do anything.
But when I flee to the desert, when for several days or weeks in a row I can avoid the news, I find I am more at peace, more aware of the people and the cares that really are mine to pay attention to. I find that my heart misses God and that I have a desire to pray and be near God.
And so, although I do not flee to the desert as a hermit does, I do nonetheless flee to the desert completely, a bit. And that bit for me is to avoid paying attention to the news, especially the political news. However, for each person their flight to the desert may look different. Each person who desires to draw near to God has to discover those things that “bring on the onslaughts of wars and struggles” and by which “he swiftly inclines toward a fall,” as St. Isaac puts it. And it is those causes, the things, maybe the relationships, places or situations that bring on the onslaughts of war and struggle and that swiftly incline us to fall, it is from those things that we must flee. We must flee to the desert, to a place deserted of the things that are inciting our passions.
And keep in mind that it is not the things that we flee that are necessarily bad or evil in themselves. I know people who can listen to the news all day long and not be spiritually disturbed by it in the least. The problem isn’t the news, the problem is my passions. It is my weakness that I must bear, not by blaming others or the things that impassion me (as our First Parents did in Paradise). I bear my weakness by fleeing, as Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife. I flee to the desert, to the place where the thing isn’t, the thing that stirs my passions.
For most of us, this bit of desert that we flee to is not a physical place. There may be no other physical place we can go. Rather, the desert is a mental place, a place free of the things that bring the onslaught of our passions. But to get to this mental place, we usually have to do something physical. Turn off the radio. Walk away from the computer. Keep our mouthes shut. Leave the conversation. Not go to certain places or hang out with certain people. It’s usually not something huge, but we have to do it completely: we have to flee to the desert, a little bit.
And if we flee to the desert a little bit, in the bit that moves us away from the things that incite our passions, then we will begin to find peace. We will begin to find a place in our hearts and minds where we can pay attention to God and to the people that God has put in our lives to love and care for. Fleeing to the desert allows us to live the life God has actually given us to live and grow to become the people God has made us to be. All of this is possible if we will do our part, if we will flee to the desert completely, a little bit.