A couple of weeks ago I went to Pietermaritzburg to see my mother, travelling by bus instead of flying as I had done on recent trips. And, while driving through the Karoo, I realised that, while I had travelled through it by bus shortly after coming back to South Africa, that had been at night. I realised with something of a shock that it must have been at least fifteen years since I had travelled through it by day.
I have always loved the Karoo, that vast expanse of emptiness and semi-desert at the heart of South Africa. I remember driving through it as a child and, long before I had heard of the Desert Fathers or learnt the language of monasticism, longing to wander off into it, plunging myself into its arid emptiness. This was not an obviously religious longing, at least not in terms of the religious vocabulary that I knew at the time. And yet I somehow think that it may account for quite a lot. Later on I used to fantasize about a monastery in the Karoo, although I have learnt in the meantime that fantasies are not a good basis for monasteries.
Driving through the Karoo I became aware of how air travel has distorted our sense of time and space, although I suppose that our ancestors could have said similar things about any automated travel. It is so easy to hop between cities without realizing what is between them, and to rarely experience the endlessness of a road that stretches on and on. And it is so easy to assume that the concerns of the “city” – and of instant communication that now encroaches even into the “desert” – are indeed the real and only ones.
I have been reflecting a bit in recent months on the need for a thorough consideration on how the patristic teaching on the passions relates to the various “issues” that are thrown at me through the daily news. From rape and violence, to greed and corruption, to the way we are programmed to become consumers, to the various discussions around sexuality, to what often seems like a mindless cultivation of anger and aggression … the list could continue and I suspect that many of them are intertwined. And yet all too often the response of religious leaders is mere platitudes and moralism, whether of the “right” or of the “left.”
Driving through the Karoo and thinking about these thoughts that had been going through my mind, I was reminded that the systematization of Christian thinking around the passions and the virtues originated in the desert. It was in the starkness of the Egyptian desert that the early monks came to insight into what it means to be human, the forces that shape and control us, and how we can engage them at their roots and be transformed by actively cooperating with God.
The proper locus of theology, in an Orthodox understanding, is in the desert. This is not just the emptiness or the endless permutations of postmodern thought. The desert has a history and a clearly dogmatic content. But it is a content that leads to transformation. And somehow, if we are to speak of transforming society, we surely need to pay attention to this content.