HERMITAGE (POUSTINIA)Biblically speaking, the desert or wilderness is not what we would most likely imagine, such as the Sahara Desert or the Daintree Rainforest. The Hebrew desert or wilderness was a stretch of land used often for the pasturing of sheep and goats, and where wild beasts would dwell. The desert was not totally deprived of vegetation and water or even inhabitants (mainly nomads). The desert even had mountains, caves and streams. Yet, the desert was certainly considered uncultivated, uncivilized, barren and desolate.
The desert or wilderness was known as a place of wandering, hiding, solitude and danger. The desert was also a crucible of trial, temptation, affliction, punishment and purification as a certain rite of passage lasting from 40 days to 40 years.
In the story of Noah, God flooded the earth with 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Twice Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai. For 40 years, Israel wandered in the desert where most of them died. Goliath taunted the Israelites for 40 days before being slain by David. For 40 days and 40 nights, Elijah fasted in his flight through the desert to Mount Horeb where he met God, not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the gentle air as a still small voice. The prophet Jonah gave the people of Ninevah 40 days to repent before God was to destroy their city.
For 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus was tempted in the desert before his public ministry. Our Lord spent 40 days after the Resurrection before his Ascension. And for the past 40 years of the so-called “post-Conciliar era” (post-Vatican II), the Church has been wandering in its own “desert” still trying the find its way to the promise of a new Pentecost.
In short, the desert or wilderness was a jungle fit for wild animals and strangers, and a sort of hermitage or half-way house for the prophet and pilgrim. The desert or wilderness was a battlefield for spiritual warfare, and it was a holy ground for divine encounters. With such an understanding, it is not difficult to see the desert or wilderness as a figure and type of the monastery, the monastic way, and the monk himself. In fact, the Latin rendering of desert in the Vulgate is solitudo, where we get the word solitude. And this is what the word “monk” means – “alone”.