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In grade school an English teacher taught me that a desert has only one ‘s’ and dessert has two because people want more than one dessert but no one wants the desert. My school teacher didn’t mean anything significant by this. It was only a joke to teach us grammar, but it’s interesting to note society’s natural aversion to the desert, a place that is historically rich with spiritual transformation. With Henri Nouwen as my guide, I begin my journey in the way of the heart of the desert fathers and mothers with solitude.
Like many people, I can imagine a desert. I’ve been in the vastness. It’s a place so empty that one can begin to feel and touch the nothingness. It’s no wonder the ancient mothers and fathers of Christianity (and many others of all sorts of religious backgrounds) sought refuge in the solitude of the desert. But that was long ago and not all people are called to the monastic life. How can I find the desert again: in Nashville, in Los Angeles, in Guatemala City?
First, like many great teachers, Nouwen must unpack this word solitude and explain the common misconceptions created by the modern world. To grasp what something is, it’s best to start with what it is not. Solitude is not:

Solitude is struggle. In solitude Nouwen talks about “getting rid of his scaffolding” and reducing his self (or ego) to nothing. “It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.” My life is busy and filled with responsibilities. I try to entertain myself. When I enter into solitude, it must resemble letting go. This is the struggle. Since infancy, we are taught to control. We are taught to hold on. Solitude is an unnatural setting for a human being, but I might argue that it only appears to be unnatural due to our estrangement from ourselves. Solitude, from this point of view, might be the most natural thing that a human being can do. Yet, despite knowing this, I will always try “…to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.”
This is not easy and it takes deliberate practice. The culture in which one is born greatly affects one’s identity of self. Living in a capitalist society that over values materialism and consumerism, one gains a sense of self that reflects those ideals. And those ideals are fruitless and fleeting. “Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same–more work, more money, more friends.” This inevitably leads to what Nouwen describes as the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed.
So how do I persevere? How can I overcome anger and greed? Nouwen would simply say, begin with solitude. In embracing solitude, my nothingness, I can truly express compassion. Putting all doctrines and beliefs aside, there is one thing that everyone at Athentikos wants to bring to the youth of Guatemala: compassion. Our greatest service this fall will be shown through genuine compassion and love. And while those are wonderful words that most everyone can get behind and support, it’s much more difficult to enact.
“…In order to be of service to others we have to die to them. […] To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgement because judgement creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” Solitude, as Nouwen has described it, is this act of dying. It is a practical and concrete practice that can be easily incorporated into a daily routine. “In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart.”
In an attempt to breakdown all of this theological and philosophical jargon, I want to simplify these concepts into two words: let go. I have to tell myself this everyday and often more than once. It becomes what the desert monks might call a mantra or a prayer. Not everyone has access to a desert but true solitude is not restricted by place. Letting go can (and should) happen anywhere, but it needs to happen deliberately. Here are some good first steps:

Before I go, I have one word of warning and it comes from personal experience. I have let go many times, but mostly in the wrong way. I turned my solitude into escapism, clouding myself in entitlement and the illusion of compassion and virtue. This, at least for me, is too easy to do. Our greatest and most deeply seeded vices appear to us as virtues. To think our demons conquered is to submit to their will. Solitude should lead me to my lack of virtue, to my nothingness, my humanity.
We owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to build a desert in a city.

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