Wisdom of the Desert

March 21, 2007


Thomas Merton was perhaps the best known monastic of the last century. That he was a Trappist perhaps puts him in the best contemporary context from which to understand the Desert Fathers – the kind of hermit/distance existence that they had does not really exist in the world today (true, there are a few who carry on the tradition in the deserts of Egypt and a few other places, but often even they advise against this becoming a trend in Christian practice again). The Trappists are among those for whom silence and solitude are intentional practices, much like the Desert Fathers.

Merton, a talented writer on matters spiritual, states in the Author’s note that his intention was not to produce a new ‘edition’ by academic standards, or to do any piece of new research. Rather, Merton set out to produce an accessible collection of wisdom sayings that had been contained in the collection ‘Verba Seniorum’, a Latin text of stories and proverbs handed down from the Desert Fathers and those who knew and wrote about them.

In the fourth century, while Christianity was still struggling as a minority (sometimes a violently oppressed minority) in the Empire, there were those who saw that the greater threat to the new faith was not the imperial officials and their forces, but rather the attractions and lure of the cities. It was very easy to put forth the claim that the world was not a Christian one, and that one would have to renounce the world to live an authentically Christian life – the Desert Fathers tended to do this renunciation in rather dramatic fashion (and, to varying extent, this is what monastics continue to do to this day). This renunciation was true even with official tolerance and imperial imprimatur, for Christianity was still the decided minority.

Merton states that it is a mistake to think that the Desert Fathers were isolationist individuals, however – ‘the very fact that they uttered these “words” of advice to one another is proof that they were eminently social.’ They sought an equality amongst themselves under God, and were welcoming toward those who sought them for instruction and wisdom.

In this collection, the ‘Verba Seniorum’ are perhaps the most true to the actual words of the Desert Fathers that we can get. Most writing about them came from people who added literary flourishes and often hagiographic legendary material into the mix; these are much more simple. They are ‘the plain, unpretentious reports that went from mouth to mouth in the Coptic tradition before being committed to writing in Syriac, Greek and Latin.’

Over and over again, the Desert Fathers stress love above all. Their love reaches out for tolerance toward others, even as they sometimes seem to be intolerant toward themselves. Perhaps their generosity toward others came from a recognition of the faults of their own and the hope that God will deal more generously with them as they strive to deal generously with others.

‘One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community. So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner!’

This is a wonderful, heartfelt, wise collection. It is not organised according to any overarching theme or systematic theological paradigm, but rather like a collecton of ‘quotable quotes’, often seemingly random. I often take the book and open it at random, to see what insights I can gain from it that day.