This Advent Spirituality & Practice has been re-running a course on the Desert Fathers and Mothers that I first created for them in 2015. It’s called “A Simple Immediacy,” and as the emails glide into my box each day, the course seems even more relevant today than it did seven years ago.
2015 feels like a whole different world now—before Trump, before MAGA, before Q-Anon, before the mass insanity that does seem to be inexorably taking over our country and our world. So it seemed it might be good to share this particular email a bit more widely as my New Year’s “greeting” of sorts, and of the “good news” that the Wisdom path does, perennially offer to a world reeling daily more toward collective insanity.
Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’ “
Many years ago when I was an aspiring young theater buff, I had the chance to attend a production of Rhinoceros by the French avant-garde playwright Eugene Ionesco. In this “theater of the absurd” classic, a strange epidemic — rhinoceritsis — gradually overtakes an entire population. Individuals so affected suddenly sprout horns and begin rampaging about in hordes, tearing up everything in their pathway. As more and more people fall sway to its intoxication, it gradually becomes the “new normal,” and the non-rhinoceroses dwindle to an embattled few — finally to one lone survivor. And in the final scene, the stampeding horde does indeed turn on him, trumpeting the exact words foreshadowed by Anthony in our passage for today: “You are mad, you are not like us.”
Has the world gone mad? Indeed, it often seems that way. Our past century in particular has seen more than its share of rhinoceritis, between two world wars, the holocaust, recurrent genocide, nuclear warfare, the wanton destruction of natural species and cultural monuments, and our seeming incapacity to pull the plug on our fossil fuel addiction even in the face of irrefutable evidence of escalating climate change. There seems to be a collective madness that our human species cannot ultimately surmount. Even as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the “prince of peace,” we wonder in our heart of hearts if anything will really ever change.
I’m sure you’re familiar with that old Cherokee tale about our human predicament. “There are two wolves fighting inside each person,” the grandfather explains to his grandson: “One is evil — he is anger, envy, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
“Which wolf will win?” asks the grandson.
“It depends on which one you feed.”
In a world perpetually careening toward madness, the desert fathers and mothers chose unhesitatingly to feed the “good wolf.” Their commitment to their desert calling was fundamentally a commitment to bring forth what is highest in a human being, to model their lives on the new evolutionary benchmark set in Jesus Christ. While like all human beings they ran the gamut of temperaments and personality types, their common quest was for a set of values that are “truly human”: that create a life marked by balance, interior freedom, and compassion. Again and again throughout the ages, as both individuals and cultures go through cycles of excess and disintegration, these core desert virtues — simplicity, humility, mindfulness, “roundness” — keep resurfacing as the enduring models for human sustainability.
Counterintuitive? Yes. Against the grain? Definitely. But mad? I think not. Or if mad they be, on just such “madness” our planet depends.