Meeting Doubting Thomas Again for the First Time

I am sharing these thoughts with my brother and sister clergy out there in Cyberspace. We have completed the liturgies of Holy Week and some of us have numbed brains after all of this.  Hopefully, you are finding some recharge time this week. I have been pondering the Gospel for this next Sunday, one that Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans will share again: “Doubting Thomas.” I appreciate the genius that is behind the creation of the Lectionary, in that we follow the exuberant, joyful exaltation of Easter Alleluia with a big step back into skepticism and doubt.

You and I have been tutored by Enlightenment fueled skepticism and mistrust of mystical experience (even in seminary). I read in the Church Times that a recent poll revealed that one-third of Church of England Anglicans do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. I suspect a higher percentage of C of E clergy share that doubt. Episcopal clergy in the USA have attended workshops and read the books by Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong, and the Jesus Project (whom my friend and professor Walter Bruggemann described as “second-rate Bible scholars”). These critical voices of the resurrection have challenged us to enter a deeper process of personal reflection on our belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Many of us, including myself, have preached Easter sermons describing the Easter event metaphorically and symbolically, while our parishioners hunger to hear the eyewitness testimonies. They know when we are tap dancing around the Easter proclamation, “Christ is Risen.”

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1602

I suppose that every year, as I engage this gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter, I will be wrestling again with my faith in the resurrection. The important issue here, for us clergy, is do we see Jesus, as Borg concludes, as an inspired shaman or something else? For forty-five years, I have taught world religions at a local college, as well as being a full-time parish priest. Every semester I encounter that Enlightenment inspired skepticism toward revelation and mystical experience among my students. My subversive mission has been to break down that resistance and open them up to the treasures of the world’s spiritualities and help them explore the deepest longings of their heart, which I believe to be a personal connection to the sacred Presence, however they may meet that.

In the ebb and flow between skepticism and faith, I found hope in these two experiences:

First, in a year-long encounter with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, I had to contemplate a different Bible passage every day, going through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; meeting once a week with a spiritual director to reflect on what was happening between me and God. I confess that through most of that year, the critical, skeptical mind pushed back hard on Sister Jeanne Fallon, CSJ. There was a lot of anxiety and anger in me those days, as our disabled son Erik had been in and out of hospital with near-death health crises. Toward the end of that year, when I had to contemplate the resurrection narratives in the gospel, Sister Jeanne advised me to ask the Lord to open my heart to know the resurrection of Jesus. I do look back at that time as foundational, as I entered that upper room with Thomas in my imagination, approached Jesus and could say, “My Lord and my God.”

Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1622

Second, I step into my father’s room at the board and care facility near our home in Laguna Niguel, California. Dad is unconscious, his breath rapid and shallow. After a few minutes, breath is less frequent. I anoint his body with Holy Oil and pray the Litany for the Dying with his nurse. Sobs well up in me as I struggle to say the words:

“Almighty God, look on this your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The breathing stops. Silence. I sit beside his bed, caressing his forehead. I do not understand this: after only a few minutes, how Dad’s body can turn refrigerator-cold while the room is warm? There is radiance and peace in his face. If I am not a priest of the Resurrection, what am I doing here anointing and praying? If I do not believe that in death “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens,” what would be the worth of my faithless prayers?

If I am unable to step away from the pull of those deconstructing, demythologizing voices hammering on the husk of my soul, and be priest seeking Jesus, and step forward myself, like Thomas, and embrace the body of Jesus, and exclaim, “My Lord and my God,” then I believe I should step away from the priesthood and return to the college classroom and my other vocation as philosophy professor.

Preaching on this Sunday’s gospel about Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus is an evangelical moment for us as clergy to take our own faith- filled steps forward and embrace the physical reality of the risen Lord.

16th century Swedish altarpiece, Strangnas Cathedral
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Academic Book Review of Desert Spirituality for Men

Book Review from Anglican Theological Review

Volume 104, Issue 4, November 2022, pp.507-508

Desert Spirituality for Men. By Brad Karelius. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022. 180

pp. $21.00 (paperback), $36.00 {cloth).

Brad Karelius, an Episcopal priest and professor, has provided us with two distinct enter­prises in this brief volume. Each is valuable in its own way. The first two-thirds of the book are generous memoirs honoring important relationships in the author’s life. Some are intimate as within in his family, and others are inanimate desert landscapes and Iron Curtain adventures. Most are formal and informal relationships ranging from spiritual directors to what the Celtic tradition would call “soul friends.” The memoir section is generous because Karelius allows us to see only the rough topography of his life but not the details. His focus is on others and the difference they have made in his life. In this sense, the book is more about chemistry than accomplishments, receiving rather than giv­ ing. The effect is to keep the stories grounded in his personal experiences of others with­ out the reliance on personal pronouns that characterize so many personal reflections.

The undergirding of these accounts is an impressive personal discipline on the part of the author. He maintained an active parish ministry, a life-long marriage, a son with spe­cial needs, and significant engagement in the community which is impressive. During it all, he prioritized long and fiuitful relationships with spiritual directors, frequent retreats both individual and directed, maintained daily prayer, and nurtured friendships with reg­ ularly recuning gatherings. This level of engagement in a busy world of interruptions presents an ongoing challenge that requires discipline and a readiness to start over again and again. Desert Spirituality for Men bears witness to the importance of these aspects of secular and spiritual life but does not indicate how one might hold them together. Readers, both men and women, will be readily drawn to the richness of Karelius’ experiences but left to their own devices about developing the discipline that is behind them.

The latter third of the book addresses the resources available to men seeking a deeper and more satisfying spiritual life. According to Karelius, the critical thinking of the enlightenment, the Protestant work ethic, the demands of capitalism, and the American

.emphasis on individuality have encouraged men to become “buffered,” a term coined by Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century to describe a developed immunity to the reli­ gious experience. Writings from Augustine to Richard Rohr are offered to shed light on the common state of spirituality for men.

In response, the author introduces several traditional forms of spiritual discipline. These include Praying the Monastic Hours, the Ignatian Examen, contemplative and centering prayer, and spiritual retreats. The presentations are sensitive to the unique fea­ tures of male spirituality. The psalms are given a special place because their honest intro­spection challenges the masculine tendency to discount feelings. Karelius makes it clear in his memoir that he has learned much about his own spirituality from women and encourages his readers to seek “opportunities for connection with the spiritual lives of women” (p. 123). He consistently underlines the power of nature and time spent in its embrace as a vital component of the spiritual life. Kareluis has a poet’s eye for landscape and an artist’s sense of its messages declaring that what he found in nature was a “sensual backdrop for revealing the holy, God reaching out to me” (p. 147). The book concludes by sharing the spiritual work of a three-day desert retreat that would have value in a variety of natural settings.

Desert Spirituality for Men is not the “How To” book the title implies. It is, however, a wise telling of a spiritual journey and its rewards. Those who want to know how to begin can follow the author’s example of seeking and maintaining relationship with mentors, guides, and soul friends.


Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA, USA

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The Desert Mothers: Amma Syncletica

(The following is Part Two from the workshop on the Desert Mystics that I presented June 4, 2022, for the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange at their Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California)

On a chilly March morning, during my Lenten desert retreat, I am walking in sand dunes just outside of Death Valley, California. I climb the steep, slippery slope of a hundred-foot dune. I like to follow animal tracks that are easy to spot on the fresh, wind-swept surface. A jack rabbit and deer passed through here last night. And a surprise: small, human footsteps appear. I follow them, climbing higher and higher, wondering who is walking in front of me in this quiet, desolate place. I arrive, breathless, at the top of the dune. No more human footsteps. What unfolds before me is a majestic view of the desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.An inner voice exclaims: “this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice.”

Fourth century Palestine: Father Silus of Pharan is on a mission bringing bread to a holy man. He loses his way in the intense desert heat and prays for God’s mercy. He sees tiny footsteps in the sand, following them until they disappear. In the distance, he sees a small person entering a cave. He draws near. Thinking he has found the holy man, he cries out. “Bless me, father”. No response. Father Silus draws closer, seeing a monk in the shadows. Father Silus asks for a prayer. The voice responds, “You are the priest. Pray for us.”

Who is this? How does this person know I am a priest? The monk in shadows ask, “would you like to know my story?” The monk is a woman, Syncletica of Palestine, born to a wealthy family, destined to be married off to a noble, but she hungered for God. She was drawn to the solitude and stillness of the desert. Her father allowed her to go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage before the marriage, where she escaped her servants and guards, and headed out to the Palestinian desert. She gave herself fully to the desert, living an ascetic life with contemplative prayer for 28 years, speaking to no one until this moment with Father Silus. Father Silus describes her radiant, youthful face, emanating a spiritual essence. He returns to his cell at his monastery, and sometime later returns to this cave to once again see this holy woman. Syncletica was no longer there. She had moved off further into the desert.

Benedictine Sister Laura Swan reveals:

“Here is a common motif for many desert mothers: having a deep love for God and longing for deeper friendship with Jesus. Escape from a previous life that might have been notorious or highly controlled by family, retreating into the desert. Encounters with desert monks who recognize their holiness, honed by years of fasting, prayer, and silence. Frequently, we only have their story, no insightful spiritual teaching. They disappear into anonymity far into the desert. But their soul and story leave indelible footprints in the desert sand for us to follow today.”

As we invite these desert mothers/ammas to walk with us in our journey toward God, spiritual writer Wendy Wright suggests these ammas were “practiced in peeling back the layers of silence, pierced to the core the hearts of fellow seekers and laid bare for them the voice of the living God.”


The best-known desert mother is Amma Syncletica of Alexandria. Athanasius communicated her sacred story along with that of Anthony of the Desert. She was a revered spiritual director. Twenty-seven sayings are recorded in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Syncletica was well educated, including the writings of desert father Evagrius Ponticus. When her wealthy parents died, she sold everything and gave the money to the poor. With her blind sister, now dependent on her, Syncletica moved to live as a hermit in the cave-tombs outside of Alexandria. Women visited her for spiritual counsel, which would have been one to one. The visitor would share a spiritual issue with her, but instead of immediately responding, there would have been long silent, contemplation. She shared the fruit of her own spiritual struggles.

She counseled women who were seeking deeper friendship with the Lord, advising:

“In the beginning, there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and, afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first, they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek…. so, we must also kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.”

The Mind

Syncletica counseled that our struggle with our thought life is vital to growing toward God.

She encouraged us to grow in self-awareness and to understand our passions and desires. Her counsel speaks to us today about the Power of Thought, which can move us toward discouragement, despair, anxiety and depression (the dark spirit) or toward joy, hope, love and peace (consolation). She recommends fasting and prayer as help to break the cycle.

The assaults of the dark spirits take place in the mind, our mental focuses direct the actions that we take. The mind is like a ship that can be assaulted by waves coming from outside of us and overwhelmed by water rising within, distorting habits of our mind.

As Syncletica says

Desert mother’s cave cell

“Therefore, we must observe the assaults of the evil spirits that come from without and also detect the evils within us, which derive from our own thoughts, and we must, in particular, be vigilant towards our thoughts, for they are constantly pressing on us and, without our realizing it, they send us to perdition.”

One must control these inner passions, which the enemy uses to take us off the path.

What does Amma Syncletica advise for us to do?
“Consequently, the mind must become painstakingly diligent with respect to its thoughts. And so, the person wishing to be saved must be very watchful. We do not have there something to be careless about; for Scripture says: Let the one standing firm take care lest she fall. (1 Cor 10:12).”

Syncletica tells her disciple to turn her thoughts to heaven.

When the Enemy’s campaign was being directed against her, first of all through prayer she used to call upon her Master to join the battle, for she was not strong enough to quell the onslaught of the lion. 1 Peter 5:8.”

The Lord Jesus joins the battle for her thought life. She turns to the presence of Christ.

Syncletica speaks to some of the inner voices that can possess us.


“What must one do, then, when such thoughts are present? Without ceasing, one must mediate upon the inspired word which the blessed David proclaimed when he said: but I am a worm and not a human being (Psalm 22:6). And in another passage Scripture says: but I am earth and ashes (Gen 18: 27), And also to be sure, one should listen to that passage of Isaiah, the one which says: All human righteousness is like a filthy rag.”

When the voice of pride is inflaming your heart, turn toward Jesus and meditate on humility.

DISOBEDIENCE is another passion that disturbs our life with God. Attack it with submission.

One of her disciples asks: what do I do when any of these passions, these dark voices, take over my life?

Syncletica counsels, “For the one who has fallen has a single thought that of standing up again. Those who have fallen have, to be sure, lost their footing; but as they lie there, they have not suffered any harm. And the one who has kept his footing should not judge inferior the one who has fallen, but should fear for himself, lest she fall and perish, and go to a deeper pit.”

Syncletica asks her disciple: your concern is how the other people in your life will respond to you if you fall. How you yourself respond to someone who has fallen will prove if you belong to Jesus.


We all have hurtful memories of when others have wronged us. This can feed an inner rage.

Syncletica counsels, “Even a dog, enraged against someone, relinquishes its anger when coaxed with a tidbit; and the other beasts also become gentle with habit.”

Those hurtful memories of wrongs done to us in the past burrow deep into our very soul and they can fester.

Syncletica responds: “One who is governed by remembrance of wrongs, however, is not persuaded by entreaty, nor made gentle by food, nor indeed does time that transforms all things heal the suffering of such a person.”

These festering memories destroy relationships, and the peace of Christ does not live in our heart.

These angry memories foster jealousy and slander, which invade our thoughts. You can face head on the Seven deadly sins because they are grave. Jealousy and slander subtly worm their way deep into our soul. This is difficult to notice as it slowly degrades our conscience and creates a controlling voice that is fixated on criticizing other people. Syncletica advises:

And these vices do damage not by the size of their blow, but by the negligence of the wound.”

(Reading the journals of Thomas Merton, who lived many years in the silence of the Trappists, I could see how the power of thought was his own spiritual battleground. He had a persistent nasty critic living within in him. As they chanted the psalms in the monastic services, the inner voice chastised the choir master: I could do so much better at this than he.).

Thomas Merton

Of all of her insights about mind and consciousness, this hits home for me. Our wounded memories of the past can control our thoughts. When I am doing a mindless task, that voice can grab me and beat me down as I relive a hurtful memory, especially an event in which I have wounded another person.

An Evangelical source on Desert Spirituality, Wind Ministries shares this commentary:

Past hurts that continue to drive our thoughts and language will dilute the revelation we have received when we attempt to help another. Jealousy and slander are so malicious, they stain all that we do. As James states, we bless God while cursing man. We are double minded when we gossip and slander and yet still expect God to use us considerably. If we fail to recognize the proclivity to gossip and slander, we have failed to recognize our fallibility. We must be honest about past hurts, recognize how they have driven our actions, and trust God to be faithful to cleanse and purify our hearts.”

Syncletica’ s soft voice advises

Why do you hate the person who has vexed you? He/she was not the one who wronged you, but the Devil. Hate the disease and not the one who is sick.”

Syncletica must have counseled hundreds of men and women on their desert visits to her. She knew that many of those souls might live in the desert but never find Jesus. Syncletica teaches:

“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his/her own thoughts.”

Wherever you are, city or desert, you can be alone in your thoughts and near to Jesus in your heart.

Amma Syncletica battled a form of cancer that lasted three years of her life, suffering greatly. In her last days, she spoke of visions of angels, other desert mothers, and heaven:

“… the watchful hovering of angels, the encouragement of holy maidens for her passage, the radiance of ineffable light, and a parade of a paradisal realm.”
 When she died, it was written:

“The blessed Syncletica went off to the Lord, having received from him the kingdom of heaven as a praise for her struggles and praise of our Lord Jesus Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever.”

Seminary professor Mary Earle reflects

“What do these desert mothers have to offer to us today? I find their insistence on practicing silence, solitude and stillness, a kind of medicine for our over-heated, frenetic culture. Many women today are trying to balance work, family, volunteering, and participation in a faith community. Our lives are harried, and we have no sense of being able to rest in the divine silence, the Source from which we come and to which we will return. When I am teaching this material, I always begin and end the class with simply sitting in silence. Inevitably, participants remark that it is like getting a drink when you are really thirsty, so thirsty you have forgotten what water tasted like.”

“The practice that the desert offers us is down to earth, simple ways of allowing ourselves to be reminded that we are always living in the Love which creates, redeems and sustains us. The ammas draw us away from the assumption that technique is what matters. They remind us that this is a way of life.”

Personal reflection

Reflecting on your own life today, what guidance has Syncletica given to you about your own Thought Life?

What help do you seek from the Lord with the struggles of your Thought Life?


Forman OSB, Mary OSB. Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.

Wheeler, Rachel. Desert Daughters, Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020.

Ward SLG, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1987.

Russell, Norman (translator). The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto. London: Mowbray, 1981.

Swan OSB, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.

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Press Release for my new book, Desert Spirituality for Men

Inspired by Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Belden Lane, and Thomas Merton, Desert Spirituality for Men reveals the transformative and healing power of the desert—for men who actively seek God. Blending a memoir of his son’s fight for life, reflections on his own desert retreats and response to the Lord’s persistent desire for relationship, Brad Karelius offers guidance to men in their holy longing for God. An Episcopal priest for fifty years, Professor of Philosophy for forty-five years, husband, and father, Karelius also tells about the power of his friendship with six remarkable men, and he describes some of their well-founded prayer practices which will sustain and nurture any man in his quest. This book will encourage men of all callings and stages in life to plan their own retreats to the desert—where God lives and gives life.

Coptic monk walking in Egyptian desert
Author at Owens Lake, Eastern Sierra, California

Brad Karelius is associate professor of philosophy at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He is author of The Spirit in the Desert: Pilgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley (2009), Encounters with the World’s Religions: The Numinous on Highway 395 (2015), and Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest (2018).

Interview with Brad Karelius

Why did you write this book?

I had three goals in minds. First, to help men to admit their deep longing for God and to discern the tension between their true self and false self. Second, to encourage men to journey into a desert wilderness for silence and solitude as a gateway to contemplation. Third, to encourage men to seek the support and friendship of other men in their spiritual journey 

What is the one thing you hope that men will find to help them in their life with God?

God may be merciful to me, but I have to accept God’s forgiveness in order to become sanctifying grace. In the twists and turns of my own life journey, I came to know that I am beloved by God. I hope that readers of this book will awaken to see themselves as also beloved.

How is the desert connected with spirituality?

The desert has been the crucible of formation for major world religions: Judaism, Christian and Islam. The health crises of our son Erik drove me out into the desert for long, solitary retreats. I had foundational encounters there and want to share with others whose lives may also be on the edge.

What prayer forms are especially suited for men?

Daily prayer should be familiar and repetitious, clearly defined and time limited. I present three forms: the Breviary or Daily Office, which are prayers scheduled at different times of the day; the Examen prayer, a reflection on the day that has passed with a focus on gratitude; and contemplative prayer, sitting in silence within the loving presence of the Lord.

Why do American men struggle with spirituality? 

We have inherited the values of critical thinking and science from the European Enlightenment, and we live in an increasingly secular culture that is skeptical of religious experience. Yet, there is a fire and passion within us for communion with God that conflicts with the pursuit of success in the world. 

Who are the Desert Fathers and Mothers?

They were Christian mystics who left the cities at a time when Christianity became established in the Roman Empire. They sought a purer experience of the way of Jesus in the remote, barren lands of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, establishing the foundations for Western and Eastern Christian monasticism.

Are women more spiritual than men? 

Several Pew Research Center studies concluded, “women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians.” Scholars of religion suggest that possible reasons for this gender gap could be biology, psychology, family environment, social status and that a woman’s center in home life may have lessened the effects of secularization.

How have women affected your life with God?

Contemporary writers on men’s spirituality seem to be motivated by the diminished self-identity of men caused by the women’s movement. I believe the way forward for men in rediscovery of their spiritual selves will found in opportunities for connection with the spiritual lives of women. I have experienced this is two ways: I have shared several ministries over the past forty years with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, California. Also, I have shared ministry with five women priest associates, finding a complementarity as a male priest working with women clergy.

What is spiritual direction? 

Working with someone who is trained in this ministry, spiritual direction can help you to explore your experience of God, discern important decisions, heal trauma from the past, and grow into God’s deepest desire for you.

Where is your son Erik in all of this?

For 35 years Erik has struggled with a life-threatening seizure disorder. He has been near death many times. For Janice and me, this has stripped our life down to helping Erik to survive.  I have had to disconnect from the drive for success in my vocation and be present to the family when another health crisis arises.

An Excerpt from Desert Spirituality for Men

This is the third day of a retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, the Episcopal Benedictine retreat center in the foothills above Montecito, California. I have prayed several of the monastic offices with the monks, and have been to early morning Mass. In the late afternoon, before Vespers, I sit on a wooden bench in a garden, overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon. The shimmering Pacific Ocean is in the distance. The sun will set soon. A gentle breeze carries the scents of sage and juniper up from the canyon below. Creatures scurry about in the underbrush.

My mind is emptied of all the voices that chattered in my head as I drove one-hundred-fifty miles north to this retreat. Those voices are now mostly silent. I am listening to nature rustling around me, speaking in the rhythm of a day turning into night.

There is a warmth penetrating my body that is not of the sun. It fills my body with welcome heat, gentleness, sweetness. Is this what God’s embrace of love and peace feels like? I let go of it, closing my eyes.

I do not fall asleep, but this encounter holds me tight to the bench in the garden. A bell rings in the distance; faint at first, then it becomes louder and clearer: the bell calling the monks to Vespers. I have been sitting for over an hour, but it seems like five minutes.

Hours later, lying on my bed in the monastic cell before sleeping, I remember this embrace of God. It was a visitation unconjured, unexpected and unmanipulated. The feeling of peace and love stayed with me in my sleeping hours.

Jesuit mystic Augustin Poulain writes about the prayer of quiet:

This comes abruptly and unexpectedly. You are suddenly possessed by an unusual state of recollection which you cannot help but notice. You are overtaken by a divine wave that fills you through and through. You remain motionless beneath the influence of this sweet impression. And then it all disappears with the same suddenness. Beginners are surprised at this, for they find that they are overtaken by something that they cannot completely understand. But they surrender themselves to this inclination because they realize at once that it is something holy. They postpone to a later date the task of examining it more closely.

Today, as I remember that experience on the prayer bench at the monastery, an image came to me: I had been on a bench at a bus stop waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive. There is no schedule, therefore no expectation. But I had to show up for this encounter to happen.

I shared this experience with a friend. She asked me an important question: “How do you know you are really praying with God or just talking to yourself?” It is common when we pray to talk to ourselves instead of to God.

I have tried to approach my prayer with God in this way: I want to pray as if I am having an encounter with an actual person, which I am. I am speaking with God. I begin my prayers by asking God to be with me, to touch my heart, not just my mind. I ask God to remind me again that God loves and forgives me, as I love God. The fifteenth-century Spanish Carmelite and mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila said, “A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he/she is speaking to . . . I do not call prayer, however much the lips move.”

Praise for Desert Spirituality for Men

“The buoyant narrative style of Brad Karelius carries us along. His mode of writing permits him to give us his passion as a priest, his deep embrace of the desert, and the specificity of his rich lived encounters. . .. In his compassion, Brad is wise; more than that, he offers transformative vision and transformative practice. As with all his work, this book is a gift to be treasured.”

—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia University

“Thanks so much to Brad Karelius for the wealth of material from his wonderful explorations of prayer.”

—Benedicta Ward, Oxford University

“Brad Karelius is a compelling storyteller, weaving tales of men’s spiritual experience with the challenges of desert terrain.”

—Belden Lane, Saint Louis University

“Equal parts travelogue and diary, confession and acknowledgment of the many people who helped him along the way, Desert Spirituality for Men speaks eloquently of one man’s journey as scholar and teacher, priest and human person marked by God’s grace in the ups and downs of his life. There is indeed wisdom here for men, but also for all of us discerning vocation and life’s meaning in our uncertain times.”

—Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard University

“In this book, visits to the desert alternate antiphonally with vivid sketches of some of the very different men who through the course of Karelius’s long life have shaped and disciplined and tutored and kindled his spirit. . .. This modest but moving book . . . belongs as much in the cab of a pickup truck as on any library shelf. Got a lonely trip ahead of you? Take it along. You’ll be glad you did.”

—Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography

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My new book has been published: Desert Spirituality for Men

Good News! My new book, Desert Spirituality for Men, is now available to order from my publisher Wipf and Stock.

Here are some endorsements:

“Equal parts travelogue and diary, confession and acknowledgment of the many people who helped him along the way, Desert Spirituality for Men speaks eloquently of one man’s journey as scholar and teacher, priest and human person marked by God’s grace in the ups and downs of his life. There is indeed wisdom here for men, but also for all of us discerning vocation and life’s meaning in our uncertain times.”

Dr. Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard University

“The buoyant narrative style of Brad Karelius carries us along. His mode of writing permits him to gives us his passion as a priest, his deep embrace of the desert, and the specificity of his rich lived encounters. . .. In his compassion, Brad is wise; more than that, he offers transformative vision and transformative practice. As with all his work, this book is a gift to be treasured.” -Walter Brueggemann, Columbia University

“Thanks so much to Brad Karelius for the wealth of material from his wonderful explorations of prayer.”

Bendicta Ward, Oxford University

“Brad Karelius is a compelling storyteller, weaving tales of men’s spiritual experience with the challenges of desert terrain.”

-Belden Lane, Saint Louis University

“In this book, visits to the desert alternate antiphonally with vivid sketches of some of the very different men who through the course of Karelius’s long life have shaped and disciplined and tutored and kindled his spirit. … This modest but moving book . . . belongs as much in the cab of a pickup truck as on any library shelf. Got a lonely trip ahead of you? Take it along. You’ll be glad you did.”

-Jack Miles, University of California at Irvine

Here is a description of the book:

Inspired by Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Belden Lane, and Thomas Merton, Desert Spirituality for Men reveals the transformative and healing power of the desert—for

men who actively seek God. Blending a memoir of his son’s fight for life, reflections on his own desert retreats and response to the Lord’s persistent desire for relationship, Brad Karelius offers guidance to men in their holy longing for God. An Episcopal priest for fifty years, Professor of Philosophy for forty-five years, husband, and father, Karelius also tells about the power of his friendship with six remarkable men, and he describes some of their well-founded prayer practices which will sustain and nurture any man in his quest. This book will encourage men of all callings and stages in life to plan their own retreats to the desert—where God lives and gives life.

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The Desert Mothers of Egypt Part I, Amma Mary the Harlot

(The following is Part One from Encountering Your True Self with the Desert Mystics, presented June 4, 2022, at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California; a ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange).

Thank you for joining our conversation, here in person at the Center for Spiritual Development, and on Zoom.

Egyptian Desert

I want to thank Sister Karin Nuernberg CSJ, Steve Bruce, and Sonya Longbotham for their help in shaping this event today.

I am only a fellow desert sojourner with you. The deserts of California have been a soul-saving refuge for me during the many years of health crises for our son Erik. In my retreats during Advent and Lent, the desert landscape purges my anxieties and fears and opens my heart to gratitude. I was surprised to be embraced there by the love and joy of the Lord.

I asked myself: why was I, a male priest, asked to be the presenter today on the desert mothers/ammas? I believe the answer is that the Holy Spirit invites me to enter the lives and teachings of these holy women, so that I may know them as companions on my journey with God.

This past February, in Part 1, we encountered Moses the Black and Anthony of the Desert. We discovered that Moses had three obstacles to his life with God: Vindictive Pride, Restless Passions, and Raging Violence. His core spiritual goal was apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter. He found peace at a desert monastery, dying to much of what had been his violent, reactive life.

Abba Moses the Black

Anthony the Great traveled far into the Egyptian desert for hand-to-hand combat with armies of demons and wild beasts. He practiced silent prayer hesychia (Sikea), “moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”[1]

In this desert wasteland, where your life is stripped to essentials, you must learn to ignore the False Self (all the efforts you exert to hold up a persona, a reputation in the eyes of other people, your sense of self-importance).

Abba Anthony the Great

Henri Nouwen writes: “If we enter the deep silence of God’s presence in the desert, we would lose the false self and meet God in our nakedness alone.”

Spiritual writer and teacher Belden Lane shares: “The desert place is where we loosen our grip on the false self: that projected an image of wholeness and competence that we constantly present to everyone else. Jesus invites us into the desert to claim our True Self. What we are most deeply in him.”

Belden Lane continues, “When you aim the indifference of Apatheia at your false self, the true self is set free to live in all its joyous expansiveness.”

Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Mary the Harlot

From the faint shadows of church history, the desert mothers/ammas have recently reappeared in the studies of desert spirituality.

I have turned to several women from Benedictine religious communities to help me shape my presentations today:

Sister Laura Swan OSB

Sister Mary Forman OSB

Anglican Sister Bendicta Ward (who died this past week).

And Episcopal seminary professor Mary Earle

Benedictine Sister Laura Swan writes:

“Women’s history has often been relegated to the shadow world: felt but not seen. Many of our church fathers became prominent because of women. Many of these fathers were educated and supported by strong women, and some are even credited with founding movements that were actually begun by the women in their lives.” [2]

Among the desert fathers and mothers, women outnumbered men two to one, yet it is the stories of the men which have been preserved.

For its first 300 years, Christianity was essentially a home-based religion. In these house churches, there was no ordained priesthood. Liturgy and prayer were often extemporaneous. If the Eucharist evolved from the Jewish seder meal, women would have taken part in the breaking of the bread.

Woman Eucharistic Celebrant, catacombs in Rome, c. 200

Women held leadership positions as deacon and presbyter. As Christianity became accepted in the fourth century as an established religion, church leadership became more public, and women remained in the home in this power shift.

Factors such as plagues, social instability, theological debates and conflicts in the church, caused men and women to seek a deeper relationship with God, retreating to the desert for a less compromised life with God.

In the seventh century, Sophronius wrote the story of Mary of Egypt, based on a two-hundred-year oral tradition from desert monastic communities, originating from Zosimas.

Zosimas grew up living in Palestinian monasteries, becoming a disciplined orthodox monk. At the age of 53, he had become full of himself with pride. He believed that he had “mastered” asceticism and contemplation. The abbot (perhaps sensing Zosimas’ inflated ego) sent him off to a monastery near the river Jordan, where the monks were very austere). Zosimas was happy there. When Lent arrived, the custom for the monks was to go out into the desert to spend Lent in solitude. Zosimas crossed the river Jordan, traveling into the desert searching for a holy hermit.

On the 20th day of his desert retreat, in the distance he saw a shadowy figure. It seemed to be a naked person, whose skin had been blackened by the sun and who had short, white hair. Zosimas quickened his pace, but the other person ran until Zosimas came close enough to shout to ask her to stop. The shadowy figure crossed the river Jordan, while Zosimas pleaded for her to stop. The other person spoke to him by name, asking for one of his cloaks to cover her nakedness. He threw it to her, and both knelt in the desert sand to ask for blessings. Zosimas begged for her prayers and blessing.

As the woman turned to the east, she was lifted up from the earth, which frightened Zosimas. Finally, he asked her to tell him her life story. He said, “God seems to have brought me here so that I can tell others about you.”

The woman said, “I am ashamed to tell you my sinful actions, but since you have seen my bare body, I shall lay bare to you also my deeds.”

Abba Zosimas and Amma Mary

Mary came from Egypt. At 12, she left her family, going to Alexandria, where she threw herself “entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse.” She lived this life for 17 years, not taking money for sex but living by begging and spinning flax.

One day during the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a crowd of men ran toward boats to go to Jerusalem. Mary went with the men, attracted to the crowd of potential lovers, offering her body to pay for the journey. Once in the boat, she lured the men into wanton acts and, when finally in Jerusalem, she did the same with other men there, hoping to distract them from their attention to God.

When the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross arrived, she followed the crowd toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ Tomb). She tried to enter.

Mary says,

“I mixed with the crowd to get into the church where the holy cross was shown and exposed to the veneration of the faithful; but found myself withheld from entering the place by some secret but invisible force.”

Four times she tried, but the invisible force blocked her way. At a corner of the church, she rested, exhausted from her attempts. She awakened to her sinfulness and sobbed. She repented with fervor. Beside her on a wall outside the church was an icon of the Theotokos, Mother of God. She prayed to Mary for help to enter the church, promising to renounce the world and do whatever the Virgin Mary directed.

710866 Penitent Mary of Egypt, c.1520-30 (oil on panel) by Massys or Matsys, Quentin (c.1466-1530); 31.1×21.3 cm; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA; ( Mary of Egypt (ca. 344 – ca. 421) is revered as the patron saint of penitents, most particularly in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic churches, as well as in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.); © Philadelphia Museum of Art ; John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Mary remembers: “After this ardent prayer, I perceived in my soul a secret consolation under my grief; and attempting again to enter the church, I went up with ease into the very middle of it and had the comfort to venerate the precious wood of the glorious cross which brings life to man.”

Rushing back to thank the icon, she heard a voice saying to her:

If you go beyond the Jordan, you will there find rest and comfort.

Mary hurried away. Someone gave her three coins, with which she bought three loaves of bread. She reached the church of John the Baptist near the Jordon.

“She prayed in the church and washed her face and hands in the holy water of the river. She received the sacraments at the church, ate half a loaf, drank from the Jordan, and slept on the ground. Next day, she crossed the river in a small boat. She let the Virgin Mary lead her into the desert, where she lived for 47 years.”

The first 17 years were the most difficult, fighting many demons: the desire for rich foods and wine; lewd songs danced in her mind; To combat these demons of memory and addiction, she imagined herself back in Jerusalem in front of the icon of the Mother of God, praying for her help. She fought her sexual addiction, begging Blessed Mary for help “for one who was in danger of drowning in the sea of the desert”.

Living in complete solitude, Mary lived off wild plants. Her clothing wore out to nothing. Illiterate, she let the Word of God teach her.

Mary finished her story, as Zosimas fell to the ground, weeping at her feet. He promised not to tell her story until after Mary died.

Zosimas went into the desert seeking the counsel of a wise sage, never thinking it would be this woman. Mary went off into the wilderness to be absorbed into anonymous obscurity, but it would be Zosimas who would bring out of the desert her witness of repentance.

The power of Mary’s prayer overwhelmed Zosimas. Mary discerned his disorientation, saying:

“Father, why are your thoughts troubling you and deceiving you about me, that I may be an evil spirit and my prayer false? Be assured, sir, that I am just a woman and a sinner, but protected by holy baptism. I am not a spirit but earth and ashes, entirely flesh, in no way calling to mind of spirit or phantasy.”

Zosimas asked Mary about her time in the desert, how she survived in the desolate wilderness. Mary said:

“When I think from what evils the Lord has freed me, I am nourished by incorruptible food, and I cover my shoulders with the hope of my salvation.”

Mary seemed to have a deep knowledge of sacred scripture, reflecting:

“I feed upon and cover myself with the Word of God, who contains all things (Deut. 8). For man does not live by bread alone, (Matt. 11:44) and all who have not clothing will be clothed in stone, having discarded the outer covering of sins (Job 24).”

Zosimas wondered who had come out here in the desert to instruct Mary. Mary responded:

“Believe me, I have seen no one since I crossed over Jordan until I saw you today, not even an animal or any kind of creature since I came into this desert. Never in any way did I learn letters, nor have I ever heard anyone reading or singing them, but the Word of God living and active itself teaches man knowledge.

She asked Zosimas to leave, and come back in the following year, returning on Holy Thursday to bring the Sacrament to her at the banks of the Jordan River. Zosimas returned the following year, bringing the Sacrament in a small chalice. He waited at the Jordan River. Mary appeared on the opposite bank, made the sign of the cross, walking across the river to Zosimos. She received the sacraments and prayed to the Lord that now she might depart in peace.

Amma Mary receives the Eucharist

She asked Zosimas to return the following year. They prayed for each other, and Mary again walked across the river.

A year later, Zosimas returned to the desert, searching for Mary. Then he spotted a figure lying on the desert sand, hands folded and facing east. It was the dead body of Mary. Standing next to her body, he prayed the psalms and wondered how he could bury her.

There was some writing in the ground above her head.

“Father Zosimas, bury the body of lowly Mary. Render earth to earth and pray for me. I died the night of the Lord’s Passion, after receiving the divine and mystic Banquet.”

Zosimas wondered how his feeble hands could dig a hole in the hard ground. A lion appeared, bowing its head in deference, beginning to dig a hole for the burial. Zosimas covered the body and returned to his monastery. Then he revealed all that had happened, and the monks celebrated Mary’s memorial service “with awe and affection.”

Abba Zosimas and Lion bury Amma Mary

Anglican Benedictine Sister Benedicta Ward of Oxford, considers hidden meanings within the story of Mary of Egypt:

*The inflated ego of a monk seeking salvation by his own efforts contrasts with Mary, the sinful woman who receives salvation from Jesus because of her desperate need.

*The three loaves of bread that Mary takes with her into the desert remind us of the loves of the prophet Elijah.

*Mary passes over the Jordan River as a sign of baptism.

*She walks on water.

*A lion comes out of the wilderness, as a sign of the Prince of Peace.

*The only requirement for liberation from addiction is the awakening to the need for God’s help and openness to receiving the salvation of Christ.

Abba John the Dwarf shares a parable:

Abba John the Dwarf of Thebes, c 339-405

There was in the city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her saying, “promise me you will be good, and I will marry you.” She promised this, and he took her and brought her to his home. Her lovers, seeing her again, said to one another, let us go to the back of the house and whistle for her. But the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the door. The old man (Abba John) said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions, that the lord is Christ, that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling place, those who whistle are evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the soul. (Sayings of John the Dwarf, 16).

Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would have explored the archetypal story of Mary of Egypt. Beyond the supernatural overlay of her powers and abilities, I believe that the lasting effect of her story is found at that moment of conviction, when Mary came to herself and turned to Mother Mary and Jesus. Any one of us here who has experienced addiction and recovery for ourselves or within our family circle, knows that Easter moment of turning one’s out of control life into the management of the Lord Jesus.

Evolving over 200 years of oral tradition, the Story of Mary of Egypt knits together symbolism and real stories of women penitents, presenting a story of salvation with a human face.


From the Canon of Saint Mary of Egypt:

Mary of Egypt, painting by Jose de Ribera, 1651.

“The power of Thy Cross, O Christ, has worked wonders, for even the woman who was once a harlot chose to follow the ascetic way. Casting aside her weakness, bravely she opposed the devil; and having gained the prize of victory, she intercedes for our souls.”

Personal Reflection

  1. Remember your own awakening to sin, addiction or separation from God and you’re turning back toward God.
  2. What part of Mary’s story personally resonated with your own life?

Names and Terms

Abba Zosimas (AD 475-525). The Reflections of Abba Zosimos by Dorotheus of Gaza

Sophronius the Sophist, Patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 560-638). Wrote The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, which is traditionally read on the 5th Thursday of Lent in the Byzantine Rite.

Abba John the Dwarf of Thebes (c. 339-405), Coptic Desert Father, Sayings of John the Dwarf.

Moses the Black, AD 330-405

Anthony of the Desert, AD 251-356

Mary of Egypt AD 344-421

Syncletica of Alexandria AD 270?-350?

Apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter.

Hesychia (Sikea), Silent Prayer: “moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”[3]


Swan OSB, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories about Early Christian Women. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.

Forman OSB, Mary. Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.

Wheeler, Rachel. Desert Daughters Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition. Collegeville, MN: 2020.

Earle, Mary C. The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness. Harrisburg, NY: Morehouse Publishing, 2007.

Ward SLG, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Oxford, UK: Cistercian Publications, 1975.

Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance. Wipf and Stock, 2018.

Fess, Hugh. Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse. Oxford, UK: Cistercian Publications, 2005.

Ward SLG, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987.

[1] Land, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, 24.

[2] Swan, Laura. Forgotten Desert Mothers, 3.

[3] Land, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, 24.

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The Desert Mystics: Anthony of the Desert

On a mild December morning, I am walking in the desert near Lone Pine, California, on a cattle trail through spindly creosote and fragrant sagebrush toward Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada mountains. In this desert landscape, where I feel most alone, God enters my empty soul. God is very close here. Every stone, every wild plant, every desert creature breathes prayer to the Creator. I inhale the grace of this present moment.

Owens Valley, California, walking toward Mount Whitney

As I share this memory, perhaps you can remember your own experience in a desert place. Walking in desert spaces reminds us of that spiritual place within us that yearns for God. Other desires and passions obscure that spiritual place.

Father Ron Rolheiser describes wild, voracious energies within us: “….an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else…..Spirituality is what we do with that desire….with our longings.”

In hard rock mining in the desert for gold, a piece of quartz is placed in a mortar, ground into fine, powdery dust, mixed with mercury or other chemicals in a crucible, and placed in intense fire. The result is a clump of black ash or slag, and a tiny button of pure gold. The desert provides the mortar, crucible and furnace to reveal that holy button of soul. Anthony the Great is an early pioneer of Christian monasticism and finding our desert spirit.

Gold button in crucible

Orthodox priest Father John Chryssavgis reveals:

“Ironically, you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another. It may be in the form of some suffering, or trauma that occurs in our life. Dressing the desert up through our addictions or attachments—-to material goods, or money, or food, or drink, or success, or obsessions, or anything else we may care to turn toward or may find available to depend upon—-will delay the utter loneliness and the inner fearfulness of the desert experience. If we go through this experience involuntarily, then it can be both overwhelming and crushing. If, however, we accept to undergo the experience voluntarily, then it can prove constructive and liberating.”

Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Hermit.

The traditional biography of Anthony the Great presents a superhuman warrior of God who fights armies of demons with his bare hands. Anthony is presented as a kind of Spiritual Ironman superhero. Pushing that aside, we can enter his raw desert struggle for his true self. In the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius, we read simple language and unstructured wisdom crystalized from a long life as a desert mystic. Abba Anthony urges a transparent honesty before God, as he teaches, “Whatever you find in your heart to do in following God, that do, and remain within yourself in Him.” This wisdom is meant to be lived, not studied or analyzed.

Torment of Anthony by Michelangelo

Born into a wealthy family, at eighteen, Anthony’s parents died, leaving his younger sister in his care. He placed her in the care of a convent. One morning, he attends mass, grieving for his parents. He hears the Gospel story of the rich young man and Jesus’ words, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). Does this remind you of another saint? (St. Francis of Assisi) Anthony does this and leaves the city. He becomes a disciple to various ascetic monks living in the nearby desert, who reveal to him essential virtues and describe their spiritual battles with Satan. His heart is stirred up, and he strikes out into the desert alone, looking for a fight with the demons. As in one of today’s superhero movies, the Devil throws everything at Anthony. Anthony travels out into the wilderness, the dark energy of evil growing ever intense around him.

Anthony finds an old tomb hewn into a rocky cliff side. He decides to live there and has a friend roll a stone to block Antony in. The hand-to-hand combat with Satan grows more intense inside that cave/tomb. Anthony is assaulted with doubts: guilt about leaving his sister behind. Satan tries to break Anthony’s trust in God. Anthony prays the Jesus Prayer over and over:

Pilgrim enters the narrow Cave of St. Anthony

 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He ties knots in a rope to mark each series of prayer. While he was asleep, demons entered the cave and untied the knots. An Angel or Theotokos (Mary the Mother of God) comes and teaches him a complicated knot that the demons cannot untie.

In the darkness of the cave/tomb, Anthony practices silent prayer, hesychia (Sikeå), which Belden Lane describes as:

“a form of prayer that involved a cessation of all words and thoughts—-moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”[1]

This spiritual warrior, Anthony, fortifies himself for battle with little sleep, and little food and little water.

Anthony survives by weaving baskets to trade for food, a common work for desert mystics.

Satan is relentless with his assaults on Anthony. A friend comes with food, rolls the stone aside to enter the tomb, sees Anthony badly beaten, carries him to the village for healing. But Anthony returns, ready for more combat. “Give me your best shot.” Satan sends in the wild beasts.

Anthony confronted a lion. “Why do you need so many of you? One could have done it. Eat me now and leave”.

Derwas Chitty, one of the major scholars on the desert mystics, reveals: “Then at last his urgent prayer is answered, and the quiet light of the Christ disperses the demonic fantasies. Complaining, “where was Thou? Why didst Thou not appear from the beginning, to cease my pains?’ he hears the reply, ‘Anthony, I was here: but I was waiting to see thy contest.’[2]

Anthony spends 15 years in this cave/tomb.

Pilgrims visit St. Anthony’s cave every day, climbing 1158 wooden steps. It is located three-hundred meters above St. Anthony’s Monastery, near Zafarana, Egypt. Look for St. Anthony’s Cave on Google Earth. The entrance is very narrow. At the far end is a small chapel.

Anthony goes further out toward the mountains. Crossing the Nile River, he comes to an abandoned Roman fort. He locks himself within the rock hewn walls and won’t let anyone inside. Friends threw food over the walls for him. At this point, Anthony is well known for his holiness, drawing pilgrims who seek his counsel. Some arrive outside the fort, and they hear a furious battle going on inside. Other monks come to ask his counsel. He speaks through the thick walls, saying: “fortify yourself with prayer, fasting and contemplation.” These spiritual seekers camp out in huts and caves dug into the mountain, becoming a colony of disciples. Eventually, Anthony comes out of seclusion to guide these people in their life with God.

After years of spiritual warfare, one would expect to see a battered, gaunt Anthony. However, he was said to come forth from the ruins with a youthful, radiant body.

Anthony becomes Abba, or spiritual father to these disciples/monks for about five years. Eventually, Anthony returns to seclusion further up on the mountain for the next forty-five years. But he continues to counsel and give spiritual direction to any persons who could find him.

There is a story about Anthony being followed by a satyr, a male nature spirit, who seeks God and asks Anthony to pray with him. An historic painting depicts this encounter, with Anthony holding a staff with a tau cross.

Anthony followed by Satyr

Anthony shares counsel with his disciples: “The person who abides in solitude and quiet is delivered from fighting three battles: hearing, speech, and sight. Then there remains one battle to fight—-the battle of the heart.”

Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God/’ The old man (Anthony) replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.

Our modern, skeptical mind tooled in rationalism hears all this about spiritual superhero Anthony and spiritual warfare. Is this coming out of primitive folk religion? How can we relate to this? Is it more than occultism and exorcism?

Listen to this insight from Father Ron Rolheiser:

Authentic spiritual warfare is to be pictured this way: Inside our world and inside each of us there’s a fierce battle waging, a war between good and evil, and these are the contestants: Hatred is battling love; anger is battling patience; greed is battling generosity; bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration; choosing to remain inside our wounds is battling healing; holding on to our grudges is battling forgiveness, ego and narcissism are battling compassion and community; and self-hatred is in a bitter battle with the acceptance of love and God’s unconditional embrace. Paranoia is waging a war against metanoia. That’s the real war that’s going on, in our world and inside each of us.

In the meantime, there will be spiritual warfare, primordial battles all around.[3]

Anthony’s spiritual charism spread far and wide as he healed the sick, exorcised demons, comforted the sorrowful and reconciled penitents, urging everyone to put the love of Christ before all things. Many were drawn to the solitary desert life. Monasteries were built in the surrounding mountains and so many monks came there that the desert became a city of monks.

The desert continued to be a spiritual battleground, and the monks found solace in the wild beauty of the land. Anthony compared a monk out of the desert to a fish out of water. A philosopher asked Anthony how he could live out there in long solitude without books? Anthony would point to the mountain side covered with spring wildflowers: “My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.”

At age of 105, he knew God was calling him. Looking to heaven, he sees a crowd of saints cheering him on, as he dies.


O God, as you by your Holy Spirit enabled your servant Anthony to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; so, give us grace to follow you with pure hearts and minds, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I will present the Desert Mothers at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, CA, in person on campus and online, Saturday, June 4, 2022, 10 a.m. to noon. Here is the link for further information:

[1] Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, p 24.

[2] Chitty, Derwas J. The Desert City, p. 2.

[3] Rolheiser, Ron. Spiritual Warfare, November 10, 2014.

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The Desert Mystics: Abba Moses the Black

(The following is Part One, Abba Moses the Black, from my workshop, Encountering Your True Self with the Desert Mystics, presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, Saturday, February 5, 2022.)

I am only a fellow desert sojourner with you.  For over thirty years, the deserts of California have been for me a soul-saving refuge during chronic health crises in our family.

This desert landscape purged my anxieties and fears, and I was surprised to be embraced by the joy and love of the Lord.

Egyptian Desert

I asked myself: why was I asked to be the presenter on the desert mystics? I believe the answer could be that the Holy Spirit invites me to enter the lives and teachings of these desert mystics so that I may know more deeply God’s forgiveness, compassion and love. I hope that is also why the Spirit has drawn you by the hand to join me this morning.

From ancient times, God has been leading people to the desert, to the edge of life. Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, the Hebrew people in the Exodus, John the Baptist and Jesus.

Writer and teacher Belden Lane writes:

The wilderness is a place of suffering, out on the edge. It is a place of letting go, a place for dying, and yet also a place for coming alive. The desert is where things fall apart and where things may come together for us in unanticipated ways.[1]

It is a place of love, where God meets us where we are, in our deepest longings.

With the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, some Christians did not believe that a truly Christian society could be created between the Church and the Roman Empire. They saw withdrawal and asceticism to be a purer way. So, they left the cities, heading out to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. At first, living solitary lives as hermits in caves or holes dug into cliffs and more and more men and women moved out into the desert, they formed clusters that became the first monastic communities, an alternative Christian society. These spiritual desert families could be led by an abba father or amma mother who cared for their spiritual welfare.

Coptic Monk

These monastic communities were well established by the time of Abba Moses in the 4th century.

Saint Moses (330-405 AD) had many aliases: the Ethiopian, the Black, the Robber, the Strong. The Egyptians mocked him as the Black because of his much darker skin. Later in life, he accepted this as “a badge of honor.” A ruthless robber, he is remembered for his superhuman strength and later repentance.

We are counseled that as we hear his story, in which Abba Moses moves from profound sinner to luminous saint, we need to realize this was a slow process.

Kidnapped from his homeland, Moses became a slave to an important Egyptian. He eventually gave Moses his freedom because he couldn’t be controlled and was said to have murdered someone. Moses was a huge, powerfully built man and that slave owner may have felt intimidated. Abba Moses became head of a ruthless gang of robbers, descending into a violent life of deceit, malice, anger and lust.

Abba Moses the Black

The story goes that a shepherd had insulted him. In his wrath for vengeance, Moses waited until night to swim across the Nile River (a task requiring great strength) to sneak into the herd of that shepherd, killing four of his rams, the most important part of the flock, decimating the future of the flock and ruining the livelihood of the shepherd. He tied the 4 rams together, swam back across the Nile to the other side, cooked some of the meat, feasting on it, and sold the rest of the meat to buy wine and to party with his gang.

A wanted man, always on the run, one day Moses hides out at the monastery of Scetia (seet-ia) or Skete (scate) in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt (between Alexandria and Cairo). The monks are still there today after 1600 years.  Hiding in a corner somewhere, he witnessed the monastic life, the serenity and peace. The Spirit of God touched his heart, pressing through his superficial passions to a much deeper place in his soul, connecting to his longing for God. Where did that come from? He wanted to be like them and was called to repentance.

I imagine Moses looking down into the abyss of his sins. He would fall into dark nothingness were it not for the Lord’s firm embrace of love. Moses could only honestly repent if he faced his violent past, allowing God’s love to sustain him. He confessed his sins to Abba Marcarius, who taught him about Jesus and baptized him.

 The monks were skeptical, thinking he only wanted to hide out with them. But Moses persisted, retreating to a monastic cell for fasting and prayer. The monks finally allowed him into their community. He surrendered his ego to the authority of the abba.

A common theme among the desert mystics: the soul grows toward God with the help of a spiritual director. Moses found that spiritual counsel with St. Isidore.

Moses had three obstacles to his life with God and in the monastery: Vindictive Pride, Restless Passions and Raging Violence.

  1. He acted out his vindictive pride ruining the life of that shepherd when he stole the 4 rams. Even in the monastery, the monks abused him because of his black skin. He was deeply hurt but did not respond. The community must have confirmed his spiritual progress, because they ordained him a priest, a very rare occurrence among the desert fathers.

Quoting from the original Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG of Oxford University:

“It was said of Abba Moses that he was ordained, and the ephod was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, ‘See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white.’ The old man (Abba Moses) said to him, ‘It is true of the outside, lord and father, but what about Him who sees the inside’ Wishing to test him the archbishop said to the priests, ‘When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out, and go with him to hear what he says.’ So, the old man (Abba Moses) came in and they covered him with abuse, and drove him out, saying, ‘Outside, black man!’ Going out, he said to himself, ‘They have acted rightly concerning you, for your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?”[2]

This difficult story expresses Abba Moses’ core spiritual goal, apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter. At this desert monastery, Abba Moses dies to much of what had been his violent, reactive life.[3]

For the desert mystics, apatheia was holy indifference to the values of the dominant Roman culture, the military industrial complex of Rome.

In this desert wasteland, where your life is stripped to essentials, you must learn to ignore the False Self (all the efforts you exert to hold up a persona, a reputation in the eyes of other people, your sense of self-importance).

Henri Nouwen writes: “If we enter the deep silence of God’s presence in the desert, we would lose the false self and meet God in our nakedness alone.”

Desert Cave where monks lived

Spiritual writer and teacher Belden Lane shares: “The desert place is where we loosen our grip on the false self: that projected an image of wholeness and competence that we constantly present to everyone else. Jesus invites us into the desert to claim our True Self. What we are most deeply in him.”

The False Self is always with us. It served a purpose as we fall back on it in trauma of early childhood. It protects us from being hurt by childhood wounds and teaches us how to survive in a dangerous world. The false self is that nagging voice that still says: don’t mess up.

Belden Lane continues, “When you aim the indifference of Apatheia at your false self, the true self is set free to live in all its joyous expansiveness.”

  • A second obstacle to Abba Moses’ spiritual life was that his earthly passions had been running his life, leading to violence, assault, and murder. The frenzy of those passions swirled around him constantly, which he countered with profound austerities: going sleepless for days, standing up for long hours, limiting diet to 12 oz a day. Demons assaulted him with lustful thoughts, and he almost broke under all this. You can see this was a slow, painful process, 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Within this spiritual warfare, his horrible old deeds haunted him.

Slowly, his love for Jesus purged the physical passions. And grace brought him home to God.

Desert Hermit
  • A third obstacle to Abba Moses spiritual life was Violence. Was it rage from the abuse he experienced as a slave? Violence had been Moses’ DNA. One day four thieves come to pillage this monastery. Moses recognized his old gang members. He tied them up in a bundle, carried them like the four rams, to the abbot of the monastery, dumped them on the ground and asked: what do you want me to do with them. His instinct was to brutally beat up these guys, but the Spirit took that away and. Of course, you know that those four robbers also would become monks.

In the year 405, at the age of 75, Abba Moses heard that a band of Berbers planned to attack and pillage the monastery. The monks wanted to put up a fight, but Moses said no.

When the assault on the monastery began, seven monks were seated around Abba Moses. He urged the monks to run away, but said he would remain, saying:

“I have been expecting this day to come for many years past, so that the teaching of our Redeemer might be fulfilled, ‘Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword’”. And they said to him, ‘We then will not flee, but will die with you.

One disciple hid behind palms leaves and saw all seven brothers murdered, but then he saw seven crowns descending from heaven and placed over the heads of the dead monks.

Abba Moses, a vicious robber and murderer, was transformed by the desert and the grace of Jesus Christ to be remembered as Moses the Black and an apostle of non-violence. Very little is known about Abba Moses in the African-American community, The Fellowship of St. Moses the Black has a mission of equipping Orthodox Christians for the ministry of racial reconciliation and to share the Orthodox Christian faith with the African Americans.

Ikon of Saint Moses the Black


What do you imagine that Abba Moses and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to each other about non-violence?

Contemplate the following quotations from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG. Consider how these sayings may connect with your life with God today.

  1. A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So, he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
  2. A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man (Abba Moses) said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
  3. Abba Moses said, “The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.”

Collect for Saint Moses the Strong.

Let us pray.

God of transforming power and transfiguring mercy: Listen to the prayers of all who, like Abba Moses, cry to you: “O God whom we do not know, let us know you!” Draw them and all of us from unbelief to faith and from violence into your peace, through the cross of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


[1] Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, p. 16

[2] Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 139.

[3] For a Coptic Orthodox commentary on the “Colorist” undertones of this passage please visit: Coptic Voice, March 14, 2018, “The Blackness of St. Moses the Strong.”


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Registration Now Open for Seminar on Desert Mystics

I invite you to join me at my seminar on the Desert Mystics, Saturday, February 5th, from 10 am to noon (Pacific Standard Time) on Zoom. This will be Part One of a Two Part series. Part One is an introduction to the Desert Fathers, especially Moses the Black and Anthony the Great.

The seminar is offered through the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange.

Part Two will be offered Saturday, June 4, 10 am to noon (Pacific Standard Time) focusing on the Desert Mothers. This seminar will be offered again on Zoom and also in person at the Center for Spiritual Development.

Here is the link for more information and registration.

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The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Father Gordon Moreland, SJ

(The following blog is from a chapter in my new book, Desert Spirituality for Men, to be published by Wipf and Stock in February 2022)

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

—Gospel of John[1]

The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant.

—Henri Nouwen[2]

The most important advice I can give to a man seeking a deeper relationship with God is to work faithfully and consistently with a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication with him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”[3]

Father Gordon Moreland, Fr. Brad Karelius and Erik Karelius

Spiritual direction can help you explore your experiences of God, discern important decisions, heal trauma from the past, and grow into God’s deepest desires for you.

The process begins in your prayers as you listen to God’s call for you. Speak with a member of the clergy or someone you know who has been under spiritual direction. Local retreat centers can help you find a spiritual director: someone who has been through a certification program for spiritual direction. Above all, expect that opening yourself up to spiritual direction will take time and commitment.

Spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen advises:

“The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation—the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart. A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practice and accountability.”[4]

Nouwen believes there are three disciplines that will complement your experience with spiritual direction: the discipline of the Heart, the discipline of the Book and the discipline of the Church.

The discipline of the Heart involves contemplative prayer, inviting God into our total being, including all that has been hidden and secret.

The discipline of the Book involves reading the scriptures and spiritual writings. You will find that as you read, the Spirit may connect words and phrases to where you now are in your life, what you are currently seeking and pondering. After I began spiritual direction, meditation on scripture helped me to hear those words in a new way, as if they were written for me.

The discipline of the Church will be a challenge for some readers of this book. You may be a spiritual seeker of God, but you do not have a life in a religious community, or, for some reason, you have left that community. The problem is that the Christian faith is communal, not solitary, requiring that if we are to grow with God, we need to have life in community. In regular worship in the Church, we experience the Gospel narratives of Jesus through the liturgical year, an annual calendar of seasons commemorating the life and teachings of Jesus. Our sometimes-messy experience of human relations in a religious community is rich fodder for reflection with a spiritual director.

In our individualistic culture, we can be drawn to the self-reliance of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, how they found a rich spiritual life in their deprivation, silence and solitude. Eventually, they found that physical and spiritual survival in the desert required the help of others, which birthed the first Christian monastic communities. It may be ironic, but successful solitude is always dependent on others. In contrast with the iconic New Yorker Magazine’s cartoons of the solitary guru living in a cave who is visited by eccentric spiritual seekers, Jesus called a community of disciples to follow him.

Nouwen continues:

“The more we let the events of Christ’s life inform and form us, the more we will be able to connect our own daily stories with the great story of God’s presence in our lives. Thus, the discipline of the Church, as a community of faith, functions as our spiritual director by directing our hearts and minds to the One who makes our lives truly eventful.”[5]

In 1990, my psychiatrist Robert Phillips, MD, recommended spiritual direction for me and sent me across the street from his office to the Center for Spiritual Development on the campus of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, California. I had a general idea about spiritual direction, but little experience. I knew it was something deeper than pastoral counseling. I was apprehensive that someone was going to criticize me about my imperfect life or dictate a curriculum for perfection.

Somehow, I ended up with Sister Jeanne Fallon who had recently returned from missionary work in New Guinea. I sensed the fire of God within her. My own life was a frenzy of multi-tasking busyness for the Church. God was in the far distance, and Erik was in and out of the hospital. Sister Jeanne’s exploratory interview awakened in me the realization and the fear that I was actually trying to hide from God. Even after two years of intensive psychotherapy, something lurked in the dark shadows of my consciousness which made me anxious about proceeding. Since that moment of enlightenment, I have asked many clergy about their spiritual directors: most do not have one or if they do, they see them infrequently.

The Spirit urged me to stay with Sister Jeanne. She invited me to begin the year long Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola which take a year to complete. During our weekly meetings, she guided me through this five-hundred-year-old Jesuit program of daily meditation on scripture and contemplative prayer. This experience opened my heart to the actual presence of Jesus as companion and friend, and the secrets in the dark recesses of my soul came out into the light of God’s compassionate love. After I finished the Exercises, Sister Jeanne sent me to a Jesuit priest and recovering alcoholic. At that point, I was attending Twelve-Step meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, newly aware of long-term compulsions and addictions. I took a Moral Inventory, admitting to myself, to God and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.[6]

I began the Confession with this prayer: “Almighty God, my inventory has shown me who I am, I admit to my wrongs, yet I ask for Your help in admitting my wrongs to another person and to You. Assure me, and be with me, in this step, for without this step I cannot progress in my recovery. With Your Help, I can do this.”[7]

With this priest, I shared a detailed confession. I had written everything down so that I would not try to evade the hard reality of past behaviors. It was this priest who sent me on to Father Gordon Moreland SJ at the House of Prayer for Priests in the Diocese of Orange, located in the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains.

I remember my first encounter with Father Gordon, welcoming me at the entrance to a compound of Southwestern-styled buildings. As I sat in a chair facing him in his office, the windows behind him revealed a vast desert garden. We shared a common interest in desert landscapes and plants. Over months and years, that chair became a sacred space for encounters with the Lord.

Father Gordon Moreland

For many years, Father Gordon had been novice master to young Jesuits, fostering their spiritual formation (some of them would become bishops and cardinals). He spent thirty-five of his sixty-nine years as a Jesuit in the Diocese of Orange where he became a revered retreat leader for its priests. In 2021, he moved to the Jesuit retirement residence in Los Gatos, California.

I remember that my early years with him were filled with tears and anxiety about Erik’s health crises, and epithets and curses of anger and frustration about my parish and diocesan ministries. I would arrive with heart ache or rage-driven fantasies and leave with a spiritual infusion of God’s love and affirmation from Father Gordon. He did not act as a therapist, analyzing my interior life and making prescriptions. In Father Gordon I found a mellow, mature soul to whom I wanted to be accountable. That is something I learned from the Twelve-Step experience: to be accountable for my life and practice bringing everything into the light. As I look back, I believe that as I talked with Father Gordon, I was practicing being real and honest with God.

For twenty-seven years, I committed myself to meeting with Gordon every month.

The four gospels of the New Testament in the Bible are presented as eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are also persons who come into our life as “eyewitnesses” to the living Christ, persons whose deep encounters with the Lord radiate their living faith to us and, by their words and presence, draw us closer in faith and friendship with Jesus. A Gospel is an evangelium, “Good News.” Father Gordon Moreland, SJ has been an evangelion of Jesus to me.

As I sat with Father Gordon, I always held a yellow legal pad on my lap. I would write down phrases he said, scripture passages, and spiritual reading to be explored later. Writing helped me to listen. From these notes during my last year With Father Gordon, I have gleaned only a small part of The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus ChristAccording to Father Gordon Moreland SJ, but here are some of the things he would tell me.

God is love and joy. Most people think of God as power, an entity to cope with, to dread, or to hold in awe. St. Paul shares his own experience of God in the Epistle to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[8]

God is joy. Joy wants to diffuse itself into creation, creating humans who are capable of joy. What God wants from us is joy. Erik radiates that joy to everyone around him. I frequently talked about that nagging critical voice in my head, reminding me of past sins or being negative about people close to me. Gordon’s advice: focus more on seeing myself as the Lord sees me. It helps to remember with gratitude moments of joy.

God is love, personified. God is joy, personified. God is mercy, personified. This creates a new matrix for thinking about God as other than the serious, chastising Judge, watching our every move.

Gordon remembers notorious criminals in prayer at his daily mass. For instance, he remembered in prayer Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997. Father Gordon prayed for him during an early morning mass. He sensed Cunanan’s presence, who was so full of guilt that he could not accept the Lord’s help. Gordon experienced the blessing of the Lord on his prayer friendship with murderers and the unfaithful departed. He wants to help them let go of their sins to the Lord and pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord. “You cannot welcome the Lord Jesus if you are still given over to your corporal sins.”

I often arrived at the House of Prayer heart-heavy. Memories of dark, depressing times would rise up and become vividly real again. Was this the work of the dark spirit creating resistance to Father Gordon’s words of light and hope? Gordon responded: Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[9]  He shared his memory of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591), who knew dark times when he was beaten and persecuted by his Carmelite community for his reforming efforts. Yet, locked up in a dark cell next to the monastery latrine, he wrote the Spiritual Canticle, proclaiming his love of God in dark times. As a teenager, St. John had worked in a hospital caring for men with syphilis and dementia. He would clean them with such reverence that people were much taken by his servant persona. In John’s love for these dirty, sick men, he saw Christ in them. This experience made him aware of God’s love.

In my imagination, I see John of the Cross locked up in a tiny, dark room next to the nauseating smell of the monastery latrine. At night, he was in total darkness. His food was bread and water and salted fish. God seemed distant and the fire of his faith was almost out—only embers remained. But the living flame of God’s love did not abandon him. Later, when he escaped captivity, the fiery ardor for God rekindled, inspiring the mystical poem The Living Flame of Love (c1585).

Father Gordon advised:

“It is so important to be in touch with God’s love for us more than our love for God.”

“Let yourself be loved by God. Know yourself as beloved.

“The Lord loves me more than I love me. I am safe in His hands.”

“The Lord loves Erik more than I love Erik. Erick is safe in His hands.”

A friend to China. Gordon made more than a dozen month-long trips to China, touring the back roads-less-traveled with Chinese friends as guides. He carried in his heart remembrance of Matteo Ricci (1552-1620), the Italian Jesuit priest whose profound missionary work pierced the confines of the Forbidden City to encounter and counsel the Emperor, syncretizing Confucian values and traditions with Christian values and traditions. In his travels, Gordon asked the Lord that he might be a friend to China and waited for confirmation from the Spirit.

At the end of one visit, he was at dinner with his friends and several military officers. You can imagine some tension there between Chinese officials and this lone American. Gordon did not speak Chinese, but his expressive face communicated the love and joy of the Lord. All the people at the table stood, raising their glasses, toasting Gordon: “Welcome to a friend of China.” The Lord Jesus seemed to confirm Father Gordon as spiritual ambassador to China. At the end of the evening, he was asked, “What did you think of this evening?”

Gordon responded, “I am a religious man, a Jesuit priest. Before I came to China, I asked the Lord that I could be a friend to China. One thing I am certain of is of God’s love for all of us.”

A guest answered, “On behalf of the Third Regiment, I welcome you as a friend of China.” Gordon told me this story several times, radiating some of the joy he must have communicated at that memorable dinner. The Spirit must have infused the dinner guests with the joy of the Lord, because two men in their fifties approached Gordon as he sat in a car ready to leave. Smiling, they greeted Gordon, saying, “We love you.”

There has been a lot of progress in the country of 1.5 billion Chinese. Though four-hundred million live on one dollar a day, there is a burgeoning middle-class and indeed more billionaires in China than anywhere else. A systemic command-economy has pulled two-thirds of the people out of poverty in just seventy years. The United States has not been able to do that. We need to acknowledge, even applaud this accomplishment.

Rather than “spiritual direction,”Gordon preferred the term, “spiritual conversations.” As a teenager working on his family’s farm in eastern Washington State, he planted new grapevines. Gordon slowly learned how to train two lower branches and two upper branches of the new vine plant on a long wire trellis. The trick is to guess which sprouting buds can be encouraged by pruning correctly. If you choose poorly, then you can lose part of the crop. Working at vine cultivation requires developing intuition, learning to see how the plant wants to grow. The analogy is clear: the task of spiritual direction is to draw out a person’s deepest desires.

Gordon referred to the special dignity of the penitent. I remember hearing private confessions at my parish in Santa Ana. Some people carry their sins like heavy rocks in their spiritual backpack. Shame and guilt wear them down. Previous counseling from other clergy often added to the shame of these penitents. When I look back to that spiritual inventory of the Fifth Step with the Jesuit priest, I remember feeling like Lazarus: The Lord had set me free. As I arrived at a Twelve-Step meeting in Dana Point, California, on a dense foggy night. Several men were outside the entrance welcoming everyone, glad that they had shown up. Listening to those testimonies of recovering alcoholics that night, one of whom was at the time a student of mine at the college, reminded me of an Easter Sunday service, but there was more Easter resurrection there than I have ever felt in church.

When Father Gordon transitioned from the Northwest to southern California, on Ash Wednesday, as he imposed ashes on parishioners, he was especially struck by Latinos, and how they would wear the penitential mark on their foreheads with pride. These ashes are not mortification, as taught by ancient theologies. We glory in our penance. We are worth the blood of the cross of Jesus. It is not that we forgive and forget our sins; it is better to know you are forgiven and remember your liberation from sin and death. I am remembering how through our many years of marriage; Jan and I continue to learn about forgiveness with each other.

Gordon tells a story about a crooked, bent tree that grew beyond the corner of a house, a “wounded tree,” obscured under the lattice of the roof. It worked its way out into the light. The forestry person pronounced the tree as “broken,” but now the tree had become strong, growing to one-hundred feet in height.

From his own life with God, through all the struggles for faith within his own humanity, Father Gordon experienced the love and forgiveness of the Lord. He has lived his evangelion through a radical love for the unfaithful departed, helping them to let go of their sins and embrace the joy of the Lord. You may ask him: What does God want from us? More obedience, following the rules, spiritual perfection? God wants a relationship with you. The trick is this: We love because God has given us the ability to love.

My prayer is that these words and my experience with Father Gordon will encourage you to seek a spiritual director and to make that time together a priority. You and I need the help of these spiritual friends to be reminded again and again that we are beloved by God.

[1] John 20:30-31 NIV

[2] Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

[3] William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 8.

[4] Nouwen, Spiritual Direction, xiii.

[5] Nouwen, ibid, xvii.

[6] Step five in Alcoholic Anonymous is called “Confession”, when we “admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.” This step involves a written inventory of our wrong and should be shared as early as possible in recovery.


[8] Romans 15:13 NIV.

[9] John 8:12 NIV

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