When someone utters the term “Christian monasticism,” the Western mind probably conjures up images of dimly-lit temples and Gothic architecture, candles illuminating monks in brown robes as they transcribe ancient texts into medieval tomes, Gregorian chants, and the occasional pillaging and burning by Vikings. While this describes an important aspect of Catholic monasticism during the middle ages, the Christian tradition monks serving God in secluded hermitages extends as far back as at least the third century, beginning in the Egyptian desert west of the Nile and some ways northwest of Memphis. The establishment of Nitria, Kellia, and perhaps most noteworthy, Scetis, marked the beginning of Christian asceticism that, in various forms, has endured even into today.
Sometime around the year 270, a young Egyptian man and his sister inherited what was left of their parent’s estate upon their untimely demise. Hearing a sermon from a Christian preacher, he took this opportunity to give everything that he had away to the poor, which included land and money. His sister he set up with a group of Christian virgins, and for himself, he walked off into the desert to live a life of extreme seclusion and poverty. This man was St. Anthony the Great, whose biography by the indomitable St. Athanasius helped propel his life into the consciousness of Christians all over the Mediterranean.
It is with St. Anthony that asceticism in the Christian tradition effectively begins, and somewhat coincidentally, it’s also with him that this edition of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers begins. I say coincidentally because the collection is organized alphabetically, which just so happens to put St. Anthony front and center.
The Sayings consists of short, usually half-page long anecdotes of events or conversations attributed to the various Fathers of the desert life. Some are humorous, others somewhat melancholic, but each is transcribed with the intent to reveal the insights of the physical component of desert asceticism—and asceticism on the whole. As Anthony of Sourozh points out in the preface to this volume, so much of the Sayings consists of “what seem to be incredible feats of physical endurance,” and the reason that such emphasis is placed on the physicality of these spiritual hermits is “[b]ecause the life of the Spirit cannot be conveyed” (xv). It would do no one any good to attempt to recount the interior lives of the desert Fathers, because the interior life cannot be conveyed in writing and, generally, should not even be discussed at length with anyone who isn’t your confessor. That said, elucidations on how to practice the interior life can be helpful, such as some of what is contained here, in addition to the plethora of writings by Catholic mystics over the millennia, but these all fall short of active descriptions of the writer’s interior experience.
Since the book is only a couple hundred pages in length, and since it includes short pieces covering dozens of Fathers, it’s easy to imagine how little has made it into the volume. Many of these men have but a few short lines attributed to them, sometimes in the form of an aphorism lacking context, and sometimes simply in the form of a brief dialogue with another Father. There too many examples to even try listing, since that consists of most of the book.
That said, several Fathers have much more to say than others. St. Anthony, of course, as well as Macarius the Great and Poemon the Shepard both have very lengthy sections with numerous pieces attributed to their lives. This shouldn’t be a surprise given their importance to the early Christian asceticism as well as the popularity they enjoyed (or detested, as the case may be) in their lives.
In reading this work, I was reminded somewhat of the old Zen classics, the Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Records. I can’t recommend those books to anyone except the most dispassionate researcher, but they share similarities in the depiction of an ascetic community of eccentric hermits. Though where Zen’s teachings are intentionally contradictory, following the notion that true fulfillment can only be attained when the reasoning capacity of the mind is distracted by contradictions, the lives of the Christian ascetics in the desert aren’t so meta-psychologically depicted. Certainly, there are plenty instances of short anecdotes written with moralistic sentiment, but even these do more to reveal that these men should followed by example. They aren’t simply characters in a nonsensical psychological drama as the personages trapped in labyrinthine befuddlement of Zen koans are.
For the practicing Catholic, the examples these men serve is even better understood than many of the saints described in the pages of Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The radical nature of their devotion, their utter rejection of the pagan and contemporaneous world, and the embrace of a life of poverty and, often, suffering, crystallizes the essence of what absolute devotion embodies. It’s not a matter of following ideas and philosophizing, though sometimes those are important endeavors. Faith is a form of living, an entire lifestyle, the organizing principle of being. The ascetics, both in antiquity as well as today, embody an embrace of faith so raw and unsullied by worldly distractions that they can’t help but serve as examples for mere laymen such as the rest of us. Their devotion helps put our own lives, cluttered by both earthly desires and secular evils, into perspective.
While this isn’t a text that should be of foremost importance for newcomers to Catholicism, it’s certainly one that should eventually find its spot on your shelf. It sheds light on the figures that informed and influenced the legendary figures of the early Church, such as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and numerous others. For this reason, in addition to its practical value as a reminder of Man’s worldly position as a creature affected by sin, but only tempted and susceptible to it insofar as he is able to overcome it.
The translation of this edition is by Benedicta Ward (SLG), whose other works are worth a look as well. The volume only has a few short papers in the form of a preface and introduction to help orient the reader, but little else as supplementary material goes.