Many Biblical scholars acknowledge that Jesus most likely followed in the Essene footsteps of John the Baptist. The height of Essene practice is to fast and pray for forty days and nights in the desert. The Essene fast requires not just fasting from food, but fasting from thoughts and resting in silence. In fact, the only way a person can survive forty days without sustenance is to rest in silence. This conserves precious energy to sustain life throughout the fast.
It takes vigorous training to build up to a forty day desert fast. If we tried it cold-turkey we’d die. Those who fast for health reasons today understand if they fast too long, before their body is prepared, they can easily lapse into toxemia (Toxins are stored in the body’s fat cells. During a long fast from food, these toxins are released into the body. For more on fasting in contemporary context see Bragg, The Miracle of Fasting). Essene practitioners built up to the forty day fast after years of preparation and training.
Jesus fasted (from thoughts as well as food) in order to build up to the forty day fast (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). This fast is the central departure point of Jesus’ ministry. After his fast from all food, sensory stimulation, and thoughts, Jesus was “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:14). We could say the Holy Spirit’s presence is contingent upon this kind of fasting. Of course this insight has precedent throughout the Bible in the prophets of the desert, many of whom, like Elijah, were hermits. John the Baptist, Anthony of Egypt, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century were essentially hermits.
Many Christians who practice silent prayer are aware of its ancient precedent within the tradition. Yet most Christians are not. This is unfortunate because silent prayer is where the juice is.
Most don’t realize Christianity has rich contemporary resources for the deepest forms of silent prayer. Thanks to the work of Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, William Meninger, Thomas Merton, William Johnson, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and others, many have been turning back to the roots of silent prayer in Christian tradition. My hope is that more and more will connect the dots of contemporary devotion to silent prayer and the mystic theology of The Early Mystics.