Desert Journeys 27
April 6th 2017
The desert has many teachings
In the desert,
Turn toward emptiness,
Fleeing the self.
Stand alone, Ask no one’s help,
And your being will quiet,
Free from the bondage of things.
Those who cling to the world,
Endeavour to free them;
Those who are free, praise.
Care for the sick, But live alone,
Happy to drink from the waters of sorrow,
To kindle Love’s fire With the twigs of a simple life.
Thus you will live in the desert.
This lovely little poem was written by Mechthild of Magdeburg who was born around 1208 and died in 1282 at the convent of Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony-Anhalt. For about 40 year she lived and worked as a Beguine in Magdeburg.
Mechtild’s theological works were written in vernacular German and not in Latin. She sometimes referred to a divine authorisation for her mission and her criticism of church dignitaries, religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that there were calls for her writing to be burned.
In the context of a simple, solitary existence in the desert, Mechtild identifies, in this poem, the virtues of caring for the sick and freeing those who seek to cling to the world. The poem praises the goal in living in an imaginary desert and how this might be achieved. The language of the poem beautifully captures the simplicity of desert life – the phrase “the twigs of a simple life” is particularly powerful.
The messages from the 13th. Century of seeking freedom from the bondage of things and breaking the bonds that cause us to cling on the world seems remarkably prescient today. The simply expressed insights into desert life and the parallels which are drawn identify this poem as a particularly appropriate to study and ponder during Lent.