On Returning to the Desert

About two months ago, I returned to the desert after being away in what seemed like exile.  Some might think that I was really “living it up” on the modern and beautiful California coast, but the truth is, I was never “at home” or with my own people.  I was always an outsider, and in many cases, an outcast.  I lived and moved among people who did not have my best interest in mind, and in some cases actively sought my destruction.

Since returning to this high mountain desert, where things are pretty well spelled out for you (live or die) I have been stretched, like a shirt that is too small over a growing frame.  Now, more than ever, I look out at the expanse of the mountains and the desert floor and I imagine the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  This morning, I walked out to a secluded spot, and lit my incense.  It was raw frankincense and myrrh in basic,  plain bowl.

I inhaled and tried to pray in that way that is personal and so filled with hurt that you don’t want anyone to hear,  that speaks to God directly about our self-inflicted wounds and our sins.  After awhile, I opened my eyes and I tried to imagine going back in time and visiting a real Desert Father or Mother.  I tried to imagine what their lives were like, and what their daily routine was.  I thought about how they might view my personal situation and how practical their writings seem to be, and so I pulled out my copy and read a bit of their sayings.  They were so deeply practical and they did not waste a lot of time on philosophy or pointless arguing.  They LIVED their lives!  They embraced their humanity and spent their lives in self-examination.  Such devotion to the Christian ideal (Be ye perfect, as I am perfect!) is exhausting and yet these monks and nuns, the desert dwellers, they found the strength to not only accomplish it, but in many cases, lived looooong lives in spite of the hardships they faced.

I can feel the artist side of me wanting to burst out and create new things.  The artist in me wants to experiment with fragrances in ways I have not done before, simply because I was afraid to attempt them.  At the same time, these things are not really new.  They are very ancient.  I want to leave Athonite style incense to the monks of Mt. Athos and go back to the deserts of Egypt and make bakhoors and find rare resins to work with, to make desert style ,  worshipful scents.    I want to sink my feet in the sands of Ethiopia and find the fragrances of the earliest monks and nuns.

I’m not talking about “biblical perfume” nonsense.  I am talking about creating that desert inside my own soul and walking a desert path within it toward the summit of Sinai.  I had started feeling this way about a month ago, and I spoke to my priest who smiled and said, “Well, it’s about time!  I’ve been waiting for this….”  Funny, how he seems to know what I will do before I do it. (laugh!)

The truth is, for a long time, I have simply copied the monks of Mt. Athos and the nuns of Greece and Cyprus.  I am not them.  I can make their product, and it’s so similar only they would know the difference.  But it is not “Athonite” any more than “Cooks” is “champagne”.  True Champagne only comes from that lovely valley in France.  So too, Athonite incense only comes from the Holy Mountain, straight from the hands of the monks who make it.

My “Athonite” incense is very good, and I do my best praying over it.  But they are not the prayers of the monks or nuns.  They are simply the prayers of good will, by your friend, Columbina.  So when it comes down to it, I want to follow that path in the desert that St. Moses and Abba Dorotheus, and Abba Poemen, and Abba Athony, and Amma Syncletia set for us “normal people”.  The desert is attainable.  The Holy Mountain is too high for me and I don’t belong there.  I can never go there, and breathe it’s fragrance.  But I am from the desert and I know it intimately, literally.  I can put that intimacy into a new set of fragrances that speak to other wounded souls.  Maybe by doing that, I can find healing for my own.

So, although some customers may leave and go somewhere else, that is allright…I leave their path to God and turn aside to set my face toward the desert of the Danakil where I can hear a monk off in the distance sing,

Ba-weho! (Glory!)  Ba-weho a Xristos! (Glory to Christ!)

I have no idea how to explain this to my customers.  I hope they will still write to me and let me know how they are, what makes their souls sing!  Some of them really are not going to understand but I will be working on importing true monk’s incense from a monastery in Mt. Athos.    Maybe that would make them happy.

Ba-weho! (Glory!)  Ba-weho a Xristos! (Glory to Christ!)

Sundown in the Danakil desert of Ethiopia 1977

Sundown in the Danakil desert of Ethiopia 1977


One Response to “On Returning to the Desert”

  1. Reconversion Says:

    My heart cries out at reading this my dearest Columbina. I know you can not possibly know the struggles I am enduring right now, but your word are mine as well. I long for things I do not think I can have. I desire the desert. Literally. I am not whole where i am. I do not feel at home here. There are struggles here, but there will be struggles no matter where we go. It is very difficult, but trust me please when i tell you I know what you are going through and I am redoubling my prayers for you. With much love and affection in Christ, Juvenaly

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