Some sixteen hundred years ago men and women who sought a deep relationship with God went to the Egyptian desert to find a sense of peace and unity with Him. These men and women became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers (the Abbas and Ammas.) They lived a simple and somewhat isolated life of work and prayer, and followed a three step program to mysticism. The goal of every monk was to see and feel the mystical presence of God.
The first level was Purgatio, a time when the young monks through prayer and ascetic practices sought to control their “flesh.” Specifically they were challenged to control their desire for wealth, lust of the flesh, and gluttony. This period of purgation could last for years, and didn’t conclude until they realized that the only control was found through grace. This grace came directly from the Holy Spirit.
Then the young monk went to the second step, Illuminatio. During this period the monks practiced the paths to holiness as revealed in the Gospel, identifying strongly with the Christ who taught the Sermon on the Mount. At this point the monk began to guide others in their paths of purgation, helping them to discover the grace of God. They entertained visitors and took on students as their resources allowed. Often the monk stayed at this stage until his death.
The final stage was Unitio, a period in which the soul of the monk was meant to bond with the Spirit of God in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon. At this point, many monks withdrew to the deep desert, modeling their journey after resurrected Christ, when he hid himself from His disciples, and appeared to them sparingly.
Amazingly, we can learn so much from desert monasticism. These pioneers of spirituality provide for us a personal path to God that works so well. Just imagine what life would be if we would follow the path of the desert, as we sought God. Many of the conflicts and worst church experiences could be avoided. If each Christian saw as his first task to purge himself of the desires of the flesh (not just sexual lust), and then share his journey, without judgment, with someone else, we would teach and hold up each other. It would be the burning desire of every believer to assist others in finding their path.
I am not sure that any of us will ever get to this final stage. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught an order of salvation: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Unitio and glorification are similar theologies, and Wesley concluded that glorification was not possible in our lifetime. I agree with Wesley’s conclusion, but we can have such a joyful journey if we are mindful of ourselves and those around us.