St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. ca 373AD) wrote that monks were those who preferred the liberty of the wild animals to pursue their relationship with God rather than the domestication which results from urban living and its comforts and conveniences. The life of the city in his mind comes between the spiritual man and God while the life in the desert rids a person of all of those things which get between us and God – things which hide God from us and things which help us not see God at all.
“The desert is much better than inhabited places for one who is seeking the glory of God,
and the mountains are indeed preferable to cities for anyone aware of the grace that is given him.
Consider the little things. The animals of the desert are not subject to the whip and the mountain goats are not victims of shearers.
look at the wild ass in the desert; no one rides on his back.
Watch the roebuck in the wild; he does not lose his freedom.
Look at the stags on the rocks; they do not have to bear the yoke.
Think of the wild beasts; they do not have to have their food doled out to them…”
(Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 211)
So do we urban dwellers give up our spiritual freedom just to enjoy the pleasures of society?
St. Ephrem contrasts this life of freedom of the wild animals with animals that are not only domesticated but who even draw to close to human society – they end up losing their antlers, forfeiting their skin, being trapped and killed. Yet in the spiritual literature, there is another wisdom which says the desert and the city are not physical places where we dwell but the condition of our hearts.
“Amma Syncletica (3rd-4th Century) said, ‘Many live on the mountains and behave as if there living amidst the uproar of a city, and they are lost. It is possible while living amongst a crowd to be inwardly solitary, and while living alone to be inwardly beset by the crowd.” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 212)
Living in the desert, living to seek God and to be aware of His presence, does not require us to travel all over the world, not even to monasteries. We are able to put aside all of the things of our life so that we stand exposed to the raw power of God, not masked by the defenses the city gives us (or the false sense of security it gives us). Prayer of the heart can turn any situation, including the bustle of the city into the quietness of the desert, and then can make the desert blossom by being the place where God dwells.