The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks.

Four tales on Anthony the Great 
by Vitale da Bologna 14TH Century).
Let me start by saying that The Desert Fathers is one tough read, but however tough a read, it is much harder to write about. It's short, less than 200 pages, but my word it's dense.

The Desert Fathers, and indeed Desert Mothers, lived largely in the Scetes desert of Egypt in the 3rd Century. They were monks and nuns who were drawn there to live an essentially monastic life, together and yet separate. It's thought that the first of the monks to do this was Anthony the Great (others argue that it was Paul of Thebes who was the first Christian hermit) who, having heard a sermon on Matthew 19:21, "Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.", he did just that and went to live in the Egyptian desert. He and his followers attracted much attention and yet more followers, and there they lived in a state of extreme asceticism renouncing not only money and possessions but also basic human comforts, devoting their lives to prayer and oneness with God. Their sayings and teachings were recorded in the 5th Century in Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Fathers) from the Collectio Monastica and the Asceticon by Abba Isaiah of Scetes, though there was also recorded sayings existing in the 4th Century.

My edition of Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (published by Penguin Classics in 2003) is divided into eighteen sections:
Progress in Perfection
Quiet
Compunction
Self-Control
Lust
Possessing Nothing
Fortitude
Nothing Done for Show
Non-Judgement
Discretion
Sober Living
Unceasing Prayer
Hospitality
Obedience
Humility
Patience
Charity
Visions
Here are a few examples of the sayings:
"If someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may drive out his malice."
"A hermit said, 'Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons."
"Let fear and humility, fasting, and weeping take root in you."
"Poemen said, 'If a monk hates two things, he can be free of this world.' A brother inquired, 'What are they?' He said, 'Bodily comfort and conceit.'
"Agatho said, 'I tried never to go to sleep while I kept a grievance against anyone. Nor did I let anyone go to sleep while he had a grievance against me.'" 
"Ceaseless prayer soon heals the mind."
Some of the sayings are very short, a line or two, others run over several pages. Some are very beautiful and striking, some inspiring, and some, as one would expect really, quite harsh. They are, I would say, characteristic of those who withdraw from society and practice meditation, silence, and prayer (known as Hesychasm), and these sayings and the monks themselves had a great influence on theology; the importance of charity and forgiveness, temperance, withdrawing from society, and with it the challenge of inhabiting the wilderness, often associated with temptation and demons. It's a fascinating work, strange and wonderful, inspiring at times, and as I've said, quite brutal at others. I do very much recommend it though it is not an easy work. It took about a month or so for me to read, and a month almost to digest before I wrote this post. Even then I certainly think it needs another few reads, and I look forward to doing so.


Comments

  1. What wonderful paintings you found to accompany your review! I read The Sayings of the Desert Fathers edited by Benedicta Ward. I've seen it recommended but I have no idea why one would want to read it over other editions. I've always thought that ascetics were isolated from society, yet I learned by reading my edition, that while they did withdraw from society, society tended to come to them for wisdom and advice, and quite possibly just from curiosity. So they did in their own way have limited contact with the outside world.

    I'm curious as to what you found harsh about the sayings you quoted? I can't remember anything particularly brutal from my reading but it's been so long and I'm sure there were some things that surprised me.

    And did you read any sayings from Desert Sisters? My edition included a couple of women. Very interesting! :-)

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    1. Yes, I thought this edition was excellent - I wouldn't want to try out another.

      As for the sayings I've quoted - that was a bad sentence construction I'm afraid - I meant 'here are a few general examples', not here are a few harsh examples :) Better change that... As for some of the sayings I found harsh... you're testing me - it's been a while since I read it and I can't think of any good examples. What I'm thinking, though, is... well, there was one that reproved a monk for noticing the nuns, saying if the monk was truly holy he wouldn't have noticed they were women. That seemed harsh - the idea of suppressing what is natural to that extent.

      I wish I could think of a better example. I do understand their ideas of perfection and holiness aren't going to be easily obtained, but some of the things were particularly hard.

      (I know I didn't do a good job explaining there!)

      And no, not read anything from the Desert Sisters but would definitely like to! :)

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  2. This is so interesting! And I find that some of the sayings that you have quoted have much in common with some of Hindu Religious Philosophy!! I am sure this kind of reading is dense and i am as usual super impressed at you diligence!

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    1. Thank you :) I'm afraid to say I know very little about Hinduism - when i was at uni I did study religion but it was largely confined to the Abrahamic religions, ancient religions, and anthropology. I do need to get better acquainted with Hinduism - it's interesting that there's some similarities with this :)

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