‘Crossing the Desert’

Crossing the Desert: Learning to Let Go, See Clearly and Live Simply by Robert J. Wicks, copyright 2007, published by Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN.Reviewed by Anna Foote

Robert Wicks knows something about the pressures encountered in reaching out to others.

A psychologist, Wicks has seen the aftermath of human destruction. In 1994, he debriefed relief workers who were evacuated from Rwanda in the midst of that country’s atrocious genocide. In 1993 and 2001, he worked in Cambodia, supporting the Khmer people who were trying to build up their nation by overcoming years of torture and terror. In 2006, he counseled health-care professionals who were treating American Iraqi war veterans who had been severely disabled by multiple amputations or head injuries.

In Crossing the Desert, Wicks makes it clear that psychology is not enough to sustain human spirituality in the face of evil. He turns to ancient Christian wisdom, the desert mothers and fathers of fourth century Egypt. Though he does not make a direct connection, it is clear Wick’s reliance on desert wisdom certainly helped him—and his patients—come to some amount of peace with the horrors they witnessed.

But doesn’t the act of reaching out to others contradict the notion of retreating to the desert? Wicks says no, that one reason the desert mothers and fathers retreated to the desert to gain a sense of perspective on themselves and on society. That’s perspectives that all activists and caregivers can use.

He writes, “The desert ammas and abbas of the fourth century saw that worry, tensions, pride, greed, fear, and a desire for power and fame filled much of the world, and even the church. This led them to embrace a spirit of letting go. It moved them to ask some form of the question: What am I filled with now that is holding me back? This is the most basic question all of us must deal with on the journey toward letting go of all that is unnecessary and destructive in ourselves.”

For those of us who are concerned about the violence in the world, and especially concerned about violence that finds its roots in our nation, the message is clear. We must figure out what we are filled with and let go of what is unnecessary, or we risk destructiveness.

One theme Wicks stresses in Crossing the Desert is that the desert monks did not retreat from society to escape, but to gain a sense of perspective that enhanced their freedom and that of others. Wicks insists that the desert model is one of community.

He writes, “To be concerned only with self-improvement and personal security or peace is to distort the very heart of the wisdom of the desert. The fruit of desert wisdom should, in fact, help us let go of what is unnecessary so we can be filled with good things in ways that will enhance rather than subdue our own freedom or that of others.”

That’s a key point for activists. Wicks—and the desert elders—suggest that we must step into the desert, be filled with its wisdom, then share the fruit of that wisdom in ways that enhance our freedom and the freedom of those we serve. If we are too busy to look for wisdom and perspective, how can we know our actions are right?

“Stepping into the desert” is a metaphor for gaining wisdom, a process the ammas and abbas insist begins with losing our attachment to the ways of the world. Wicks writes of the letting-go process of the desert leaders.

“As they sought to discover both God and their true selves,” he writes, “unexpected graces emerged. By appreciating their own ordinariness they were able to become free. And they became strong enough to help others experience the simple presence of God in themselves. They became gentle and strong enough to be truly compassionate.”

To become “gentle and strong enough to be truly compassionate” is good advice for all of us, especially if we’re concerned about bringing forth a good, just world.

And Wicks says if we follow desert wisdom and gain some of those unexpected graces, our gratitude spurs us to action.

“Once graced by God,” he writes, “are we showing gratitude through seeing, embracing, and acting upon these divine gifts?”

In keeping with desert wisdom, Wicks does not prescribe what that action should be. But he implies that if action comes from our center, it is right.

And Wicks recognizes that we will fail, as the ammas and abbas did. But wicks points out that the elders knew how to evaluate themselves without punishment.

“There are a number of reasons the Desert Fathers and Mothers could do this,” he writes. “They embraced sacred scripture and thus realized the role of grace and the place of God. They knew that falling short or sinning was natural. They also knew that they needed the word of God, and periods of silence and solitude so they could reassess their lives. They knew that they needed feedback from others and appreciated at a deep level that to try to do it on their own was pure folly.”

Here again, the importance of community in one’s desert journey is evident.

Suppose we succeed, bit by bit. How would our world improve, if one by one—together—we “embrace a spirit of letting go” as the wise ones of the desert did? If we let go of what holds us back, individually and as a community, we create space to be filled with what is good, and then we act to bring that goodness to bear in the world.

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