The desert as metaphor is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert I had never known existed.
In that place, I discover that I’m no longer alone. In the wilderness, I’ve meet other wizened souls who have weathered sun and heat, all of them healed of the same wound. There is a wildness in their eyes. They hardly give a damn for things they used to find so terribly important. Scarcely fit for polite company, they nonetheless love with a fierceness …what the Church has been summoned to be; a community of broken people, painfully honest, undomesticated, rid of the pretense and suffocating niceness to which “religion” is so often prone. They love, inexplicably and unflinchingly, because of having been so loved themselves.
In my desert experiences, unquestionably, it is a hard place. Its discipline is harsh and unrelenting. Through all its stern lessons in attentiveness and indifference, however, the desert points to a beauty and wholeness found only on the far side of emptiness. In desert wildness I’ve met an untamed God who upsets every expectation, destroys all order as I call it.
The indifference practiced by the desert colony of believers took shape in response to the social and political preoccupations of a compulsive world. In their reading of the gospel, they knew that a person’s worth could never be measured by reference to any contemporary cult of success. The esteem with which they were held by others remained a matter of utter inconsequence. They came to regard glib praise as swift cause for distrust.
Becoming equally indifferent to the praise (and blame) of the world was one of the primary goals of spiritual discipline in the desert. Learning not to care was a matter of utmost importance. Yet the desert masters were careful to distinguish between “true” and “false” indifference. True indifference was a fruit of contemplation, a direct result of disciplined attentiveness. The “no” of desert apatheia could emerge only out of deep certainty about the “yes” of the gospel. Detachment from the world and its values required informed, deliberate choices about what does and does not matter in light of Jesus and the in-breaking of his Kingdom. True indifference is rooted in a very conscious caring.
False indifference, by contrast, was seen as an easy, casual matter of choosing haphazardly by neglect False indifference is the scourge of domesticated Christianity, tired and worn out, readily accommodating itself to its culture, bowing to the social pressures of the status quo. It remains so tame as to fear nothing so much as the disdain of sophisticated unbelief. This is the indifference that allows the church to abandon its call to radical obedience to Christ in the world. It becomes the driving force behind every injustice, allowing dominant cultural forms to remain un-challenged by people too indifferent to care.