A woman once said, “The desert is a peaceful place.” I wanted to say but didn’t: “It is and it isn’t.”
It isn’t first. It is one great via negativa. Take away water from the ground and the air. Make food scarce. Let the sun range, and rage, overhead. Let few trees grow to provide shade, timber, or shelter. Let people be fewer so that no help is on the way. Let loneliness and the threat of death insinuate themselves, sinking in with frank obduracy. You are alone; there is no one; you may die; and there is no place, as your thoughts and feelings harangue you, for you to turn toward.
Ergo, not peaceful.
It is second. The desert, like the ocean, is an image or symbol of abiding stillness. Movement, one comes to observe, is secondary and, when it occurs, deliberate. Ontologically primary is stillness. Yet it is not that nothing moves (for hawks and ravens and vultures do fly) and it is also not that nothing moves is an allusion to a paucity. Quite the contrary, “nothing moves” should really mean “all, as it is, is perfectly still and present.” In this sense, the desert is a representation of the very spirit of contemplation.
Quite apart from larger historical and religious reasons, these two metaphysical reasons, I have no doubt, explain why the Desert Fathers first came to the desert. To strip bare, yes, and, in a landscape intimating so, to experience the Ground of Being.