With the Desert Fathers and Mothers: A Wisdom School Sung in Three Voices

What follows is an article on the Desert Fathers and Mothers retreat that Cynthia Bourgeault led in Tucson Arizona in the winter of 2018. Beautifully crafted by Jo Taylor for the Northeast Wisdom website, with experiential notes from Heather Ruce’s retreat journal and Quaker Chantmaster Paulette Meier’s reflections, their three voices come together to share the song of those ancient Wisdom teachers and their sayings as they come alive in us today.  

Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.
~ Abba Moses


First Evening: I Enter the Desert

I arrive and immediately I am activated. I am aware of the old narratives creeping in and I feel somewhat small. How am I going to do this? I begin to see so many familiar faces of love and I settle down. I belong here, these are my people.

After our first meeting I reflect. My insecurities are emerging, my beasts if you will. I know these beasts, they are not unfamiliar, they are old friends. They are full of doubt. They tell me I am behind, that I still have so much work to do, that I am too much, I’m being dramatic, people don’t like me, they just tolerate me, I’m too tender and that’s annoying, I shouldn’t struggle with my personality patterns so much.

“Be at ease Heather, there is nothing at stake here. You have permission to be human; then regroup, find your feet again. Your emotional programs are going to emerge, they are the guardians to your inner silence. You are going to want things that are not going to happen. You will not get what your small self wants. See if you can keep your attention in your heart this week. Stay out of your head and get into your body. Forgive yourself for not being where you wish you were so that you can be where you are in freedom.”
~ excerpt from Heather’s retreat journal


In February close to one hundred people gathered in Tucson, AZ at the Redemptorist Renewal Center for The Desert in the Desert Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault. As remarkable as it was to experience the snow that fell on the first day (yes snow fell on the saguaro cactuses!) it was more so to be in presence with one another. Using the text, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward, we explored the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers as Cynthia guided us through the major building blocks of ascetism, vigilance, and discernment.


Vigilance, self-knowledge and discernment; these are the guides of the soul.
~ Abba Poemen


Second Day: They Begin to Reveal Their Faces

Cynthia leads us through feeling and sensing our hearts. In the process I begin to enter this cosmic inter-tidal zone. I am keenly aware in my heart, aware of a deep sense of intimacy and contentment as I sense the beat. I am also aware in my whole body and in the body that all who are in the room make up, as well as the desert. I am not in my usual state of consciousness. My eyes are closed and yet in my eye lids I begin to see faces. First, Mary Magdalene then others I do not recognize. Men and women flashing through my eyelids. A question, who are they? The Desert Mothers and Fathers. In the moment I know this is true, they are showing me their faces and I am grateful.

 Later, our small group focuses on the saying about vigilance, self-knowledge, and discernment as the guides of the soul. These three guides make sense to me…awake presence, self-observation, and clear seeing. During the group lectio I have an image of three shepherds walking slightly ahead of me. Two on my left, one on my right. At first men, then women, then both men and women. It is a very comforting and gentle image.

 Later that day my mind begins to question what I have seen. Am I just making this up? Is this my imagination? But my body and heart know to trust these experiences because the flavor of them is different than something nostalgic or anthropomorphic.
~ excerpt from Heather’s retreat journal


The group was enriched by young adults, many of whom are participants in the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Paulette Meier through her gifts of voice and Quaker wisdom chanted not just for contemplative prayer practice but throughout the day in response to requests. Small groups of about ten met in the afternoon to wrestle with selected sayings of the desert mothers and fathers and when the weather cleared most everyone walked the desert to enjoy its beauty.


Paulette says it is not hard when she is asked to sing spontaneously. She adds: I seem to have a gift of being able to come up with a song on the spot that relates to what is going on in a group. In Wisdom groups, Cynthia says something and a song comes to mind immediately, with the feeling that it would be good to sing it. Cynthia says, “Great!” and, as the group sings it, it is clear that the song is perfect right at that moment. It can be very immediate. The words we hear, in the intellectual, want to be sung, because it brings us down into the heart to sing them.


Desert awareness was a doorway for Cynthia to share content from her new book on the imaginal realm, to be published early in 2020. Purification of the heart, and seeing beyond causal reality with expanded, undivided attention as practiced by the desert mothers and fathers are transitions to the imaginal realm of spatial rather than temporal relationships and patterns based on resonance.

Paulette shares: What struck me the most, perhaps, was Cynthia’s emphasis that the desert mothers and fathers were in community, and that desert work is not done in isolation. She spoke of the “great orbit of prayer,” saying that even hermits are not separated. The laws of quantum physics come into play here. We were invited to go out into the desert for an hour and just sit in one spot, alone, with no cell phones or journals or anything to distract us, not even a watch, and try to sense the connection we all had out there, even without seeing each other.


Third Day: A Call from the Desert

I can do nothing but fall prostrate on the ground. I am right in the center of the beginning and the end of the stations of the cross. I feel myself in the cosmic inter-tidal zone. My heart beats and in my heart I feel and sense the dense heart-beat of the earth underneath me. I feel and sense in my heart the more diffuse beat of the body of hope and Conscious Circle above and all around me. My heart is in Christ’s heart holding the earth, taking in the collective pain body and breathing it out. I am intimately met and supported in this place. It is big but not too big, immense but there is space, this is abundance, this taking in, this journey is my offering. I bow … 
~ excerpt from Heather’s retreat journal


To increase awareness, we first practiced thinking, then feeling, and finally sensing our hearts – heart sensation as a way of mapping presence. Cynthia explained that seeing with the eye of the heart rather than through one’s egoic narrative brings the experience of a finer energy in a different bandwidth that is interwoven with but different than what we know as causal reality. Emphasis was on what it means to have a collected heart, a gathered heart that becomes a source of clarity with a receptivity and connectivity that never diminishes. In her words, “Each heart is a fractal of the cosmic heart, not separate but an individual receiving unit of the one divine heart.”


Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.
~ Abba Poeman

… I hear, “May it be so and do not offer it to anyone until you do so in freedom and do not keep this for yourself as doubt will likely tell you to do.” I notice something stabilizing inside. I am moving through some eye of the needle, perhaps being pushed through. I recognize that loneliness has ended some time ago. I stand taller, I notice my posture of doubt more and it is falling away.”

~ excerpt from Heather’s retreat journal

Paulette recounts: Cynthia encouraged us, through practice, to dive into the inter-connectivity that exists between us and the world. She was tying our experiences of this inter-connectivity together: sending us out into the desert alone with an exercise; experiencing how things happen at the same time and at different levels. I was aware of how akin this is to what Quakers call a “gathered meeting,” when we feel as one body in the stillness, and vocal ministry that may arise from different members is serendipitously connected.

To prepare us for the desert practice, we stood and were invited to draw our attention to different parts of the body, noticing the difference between sensing and feeling. The distinction was challenging for me to get, but it struck me as more about sensing energy vs. feeling something with your normal senses.  As we cultivate the ability to sense, we expand our awareness of connection. Those are my words!


 … So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.
~ Abba Anthony

Fourth Day: A Desert Day

Today we return to the desert. The place calling me is the place I fell prostrate. I hear a voice inside me say, “That’s not very far out into the desert, shouldn’t I go somewhere further out, more isolated, dirtier?” Another voice, “Ah. Doubt. That is the place that keeps calling and so you can trust.” I let go of the perceptions of others. I return to the spot in the center of the beginning and the end of the stations of the cross. I take a seat on the bricks. I take it in, the desert, the sights and sounds and temperatures. I say hello to the Saguaro cactus beside me and others surrounding. Then I close my eyes. At first there is a sense of the beginning and the end of my life. Born a little bodhisattva, my parents carrying ancestral wounds but they loved and they still love me, so deeply, so fully in their own beings. I have tears run down my face and I see myself as a little old lady with many scars but nothing is missing. I leave the world a little bodhisattva. It is my work to do.

The faces of the Conscious Circle still revealing themselves. Mary Magdalene, Jesus, others. I ask if they are my shepherds from the visual I had two days before. They say, “Yes and no. We are all your shepherds.” This is settling.

I feel the pull to lie down on my back. Now the earth is holding me from underneath all the way from the core and the imaginal is embracing and surrounding me, like the image Cynthia offered of a placental zone encircling this realm. I am right in the center and I am being tended to. I am weary from the journey I am on and I am being tended to. In this moment, I am content. I feel completely sandwiched in and interpenetrated by the realms, held and supported by both. The sensation is one of lightness, the feeling is connection and freedom at the same time. I rest here for awhile.

 I have a sense that I need discipline, I need to keep training.

 Is there anything you want me to know before I leave?

“Compassion. No judgment. Follow the process you love, not the outcome.”
~ excerpt from Heather’s retreat journal


Paulette continues: Later in the week, this practice was taken up in a different form: Cynthia included a Quaker style “meeting for worship” as part of the Eucharistic celebration.  Meeting for worship is the spiritual practice of Quakers, communing in silence with each other and, inwardly, with God or the Inner Light.  Sometimes that sitting and deep attentiveness will lead to a prompting of the Spirit to speak aloud to the community there. That takes discernment; holding back until you can’t hold it back any longer.

As Quaker writer and mystic Thomas Kelly described, sometimes “(A) blanket of divine covering comes over the room, a stillness that can be felt is over all, and the worshipers are gathered into a unity and synthesis of life which is amazing indeed.  A quickening Presence pervades us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and blending our spirits within a super individual Life and Power.”

In describing the Eucharist during desert times, Cynthia said the rite was fluid then, rather than rigidified, and it was all about the immediate intimacy of Christ, rather than “a memorial waiting until He comes again.” True communion is effortless and immediate; the desert fathers were not locked into a routine with it. She lamented that modern people come into a “group piety” with the Eucharist, restricting “a freely flowing communion, a tasting of the body and blood that flows through us.”  

It was meaningful to me that Cynthia included a meeting for worship in the Eucharist. I saw how it supported the understanding of this interconnection that we have, that “we are the body.” In my childhood, before Vatican II, receiving Communion called for a private, inward response to the miracle of transubstantiation. After Vatican II, it became a kumbaya inclusion experience for everyone. The Quaker meeting brings that communal aspect to a deeper level. With Quakers, Communion is experienced by joining our hearts and souls in “that which is eternal” together. It does take practice, and a sensing practice like Cynthia introduced is helpful.

Cynthia’s words during the Eucharist were like a download; the words become a spoken state of being that draws people in.

Expanded attention practice helped us to ground while trying to sense how our life is connected to the divine and how “by nature and necessity we are interwoven with all.” Cynthia went on to explain how expanded attention into the fullness of now brings the deepest surrender of identity. Christian mysticism as illustrated in the cosmic service of the desert mothers and fathers was a wonderful way to be in presence together and to touch the imaginal landscape.

As “Citizens of the Imaginal” how do we trust? How do we take up the teaching, appreciate all we have been given? How do we embody it, what do we do with what we have been given; how do we live it?
~ Heather


If you will, you can become all flame.
~ Abba Joseph 

Dancing Across the Moon, Jo Taylor, Intaglio collage, 2019

Jo A. Taylor lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband, Porter Taylor, on a creek in the Blue Ridge mountains. After working for 35 years to help improve care in nursing homes she has returned to art full time where the spiritual manifests in line and color. Most recently all efforts have been in printmaking with a focus on intaglio. She has had the opportunity to participate in Wisdom schools since they began in the southeast at Valle Crucis and to hold the post as a group facilitator. Mysticism within the Christian tradition and in the life and teachings of Meher Baba is her inner path.


Heather Ruce lives in San Diego, California with her husband Charlie and their two dogs. She works as a Wisdom Spiritual Director, working with individuals as well as facilitating groups and retreats focused on learning and practicing the Wisdom Tradition. She has been participating in Cynthia’s Wisdom Schools and retreats since 2012. She also has earned her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and is trained in Organic Intelligence, a model for building resiliency and healing trauma by creating higher levels of organization in the nervous system.


Paulette Meier is a Cincinnati Quaker singer-songwriter, who has used her voice to inspire and unite in the cause of peace and justice for years. As a peace educator, she produced an award winning CD for children, now used in classrooms around the country. Her CD, Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong, is a collection of chant-like songs she composed from texts of founding Quaker leaders, opening the door to a new vocation of leading chanting as a spiritual practice. Check out her website at www.paulettemeier.com, where you can learn more about her latest Quaker Wisdom chant recording project with Wisdom community musicians Nick Weiland and Andrew Breitenberg.

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