Merton on the desert: We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.

by Bob Schwartz

From Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself—that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the “wilderness of upper Egypt” to “wander in dry places.” Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage….

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.