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The Desert Fathers (Vintage Spiritual Classics)by John F. Thornton
PREFACE TO THE VINTAGE SPIRITUAL CLASSICS EDITION
by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
It is indeed an honor to be asked to add a new introduction to a book already blessed with the eloquent and erudite introduction of Helen Waddell, so rich in literary associations. At the same time it is quite humbling. But perhaps a simple, more pragmatic word might be useful to the average reader to make this rich contribution from our living Christian tradition more immediately relevant to his or her own journey in the realm of the Spirit. The value of this literature is not to know it or to know about it but to know that it was lived and to incorporate its values into our own lives.
As the fourth century unfolded, it seemed like Christianity was finally gaining some respectability. Yet in this same fourth century, to many in the Mediterranean area it seemed like the whole fabric of society was coming apart. The Roman Empire was splitting in two as barbarian hordes threatened it on every side, though which threatened Christian life more-the new respectability or the barbarian-it would be hard to say. The Founder's dictum "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" was more and more difficult to follow as taxes soared, ever-increasing military service was demanded, and a worldly Christianity began to flourish at the court and elsewhere in the Empire.
It is not surprising, then, that the desert began to receive devout Christians, inspired by the example of John the Baptizer-of whom "there was none greater born of woman"-and of the Master himself, who spent forty days in the desert before he began his public ministry.
When the young Alexandrine Anthony heard afresh the words "Go, sell what you have and follow me," he did just that. At first he disposed of the greater part of his wealth, saving only a portion to ensure care for his sister, and withdrew to the outer edges of the city. But again the evangelical word resounded in his soul, and he sold all he had, placed his sister in competent hands, and went forth into the desert. He was not the first there; he encountered the ancient Paul, but Patriarch Athanasius's Life of Anthony led to his being the most influential example.
As the fourth century progressed, the desert became increasingly peopled, first by hermits, who often grouped themselves in loosely connected associations, and then by cenobites, that is, monks who lived in organized communities, often guided by the rules developed by the saintly Pachomius. Besides the many who went to the desert to settle, the latter part of the century began to see a steady flow of pilgrims, seeking to be edified by immediate contact with these already fabled saints and to partake of their wisdom. Not only did these pilgrims write accounts of their journeys, giving us many colorful details from the lives of the fathers and mothers of the desert, but men like John Cassian sought to retain their wisdom in collections of conferences and sayings.
The wisdom of the desert enshrined in these varied writings continued to flow through Western Christian life even during what has been called the Dark Ages, and it shed a strong light on the renaissance the Church experienced as it moved into the glorious twelfth century. But with the last of the Fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux and his contemporaries, the patristic age came to a final close. Then the era of medieval scholasticism, perhaps drier than the deserts of the Fathers, began to hold sway. There were moments when the desert fathers were heard again, as with de Ranc? in the seventeenth century, but for the most part this wisdom lay dormant during the whole of the scholastic parenthesis.
With the inspirited renewal of our century, welcoming again the full humanism of the patristic age, there was a new hearing for the wisdom of the desert. In this, as in so much else, Helen Waddell was in the forefront, decades before such a call came from the Church-shaking Second Vatican Council. A Spirit-filled woman, she recognized how much of the wisdom of the Spirit is incarnated in the sayings and lives of the fathers and mothers of the desert. Powerfully, effectively, and practically, she has made it available to us.
At first one might feel the heroic way of these desert giants is too far removed from the quest of the everyday seeker living in this world's society. However, the fathers and mothers themselves, along with their early historians, sought to make it clear to us that this is not the case. Noteworthy in this regard is the rather lengthy account in the chapter entitled "History of the Monks of Egypt" of the last days of the fabled desert hermit Abba Paphnutius. We are told that as his end approached he "entreated the Lord that He would show him his like upon earth." And whom did the Lord show the saintly father? A street musician who had been a thief, the very busy headman of a local village, and a wealthy Alexandrine merchant. The historian goes on to tell us that, as the priests gathered around the dying saint, he told them:
All that the Lord had revealed to him, saying to them that no one in this world ought to be despised, let him be a thief, or an actor on the stage, or one that tilled the ground, and was bound to a wife, or was a merchant and served a trade: for in every condition of human life there are souls that please God and have their hidden deeds wherein He takes delight: whence is it plain that it is not so much profession or habit that is pleasing to God as the sincerity and affection of the soul and honesty of deed. And when he had spoken thus about each in turn, he gave up his spirit.
The final word of a great and saintly father-a teaching could not be given greater emphasis.
Everyone baptized into Christ, every true seeker, is called to the freedom of the children of God. This was essentially the quest of the desert: freedom-to be free to be oneself, to be who we truly are, to celebrate our oneness in our common humanity and in our call to share in the bliss of the divinity.
What is most evident and distinctive about these fathers and mothers is that they went apart, that they shunned a society that placed its values in the goods of this world and in prestige in their transient society. Most of us cannot go apart so radically, but we do need to separate ourselves from enslavement to this world's values. We may have to be in the world, but we cannot be of the world. Yes, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but render unto God, as fully and completely as we can, the things that are God's. This is the clearest witness of the men and women who fled from an increasingly worldly Church to the freedom of the desert.
This is no easy journey. Even if we were to spend as much time at the Lord's feet reading the Scriptures as we do watching the TV enthroned in our home, it would still be a losing battle. For the TV is armed by the masters of the art of persuasion and all the sophistication of the ever-more modern media, and it calls forth as its ally the incalculable pressure of our peers to win us over to its hierarchy of values. It is only by the powerful grace of the Spirit that the Word of God, a double-edged sword, can pierce through and separate our spirit from the clutches of the worldly spirit. And that Holy Spirit will operate within as a liberating force only if we seek and welcome it. As a desert father of this century, Thomas Merton, put it: "Today, more than ever, we need to recognize that the gift of solitude is not ordered to the acquisition of strange, contemplative powers, but, first of all, to the recovery of one's deep self, and to the renewal of an authenticity which is presently twisted out of shape by the pretentious routines of a disordered togetherness."
Each of us needs to carve out some time apart to escape from the bombardment of the world and come to our true self. Our place apart can be a corner of our room where Bible or icon proclaim a Presence. Our going apart could mean just turning our chair away from our desk with all its affairs, leaving the world behind for a few minutes while we rest in the Presence and know ourselves to be held in a great and tender love. Or we may find our going apart in a short walk to a church, a library, or a park-some spot where we can sit for a bit in the quietness and know something of the quies of the desert.
The men and women of the desert wanted the liberating force of the Spirit to have the greatest possible freedom to work in their lives. So they went apart, separating themselves from the society of this world. Most of the fathers and mothers we hear of in these pages went so far as to shun even the society of fellow monks or nuns in the monastic communities that were coming into being in this period. They went apart to their solitary cells. But they were not haters of their fellow humans. It is noteworthy that in her magnificent introduction the first stories Helen Waddell recalls are of compassion, care, and mercy. As examples of these traits, the men and women of the desert were absolutely outstanding. Story after story, saying after saying, bespeaks these fundamental virtues, this expression of a Christlike love. The fathers and mothers showed an immensely loving and truly touching care not only for the newcomers who came into their midst and for the venerable ancients among them but for any troubled one. Edifying, to say the least, was their response to visitors, whether they were humble seekers, true pilgrims, or just the curious and those who wanted to go home and tell their story. One cannot help but be touched by the ready way in which these desert dwellers set aside their own much-loved practices and their precious solitude to welcome these visitors and make them as comfortable as their limited means and inhospitable setting allowed. I think if I had to fasten on one single virtue to ascribe preeminently to these women and men, it would be the virtue of compassion. The author of the "History of the Monks of Egypt" expresses this beautifully:
But of their humanity, their courtesy, their loving-kindness, what am I to say, when each man of them would have brought us into his own cell, not only to fulfil the due of hospitality, but still more out of humbleness, wherein they are indeed masters, and from gentleness and its kindred qualities which are learned among them with diverse grace but one and the same doctrine, as if they had come apart from the world for this same end. Nowhere have I seen love so in flower, nowhere so quick compassion, or hospitality so eager.
I think another surprising element in the lives of these solitaries is their very real and practical concern for the poor. They took to heart the Lord's description of the judgment in Matthew 25 and sought to feed the hungry Christ and clothe him and even leave their solitude to go into the city to visit him in prison. In their solitary cells monks would weave extra baskets or mats to be sold for the benefit of the poor. During the harvest season some of them would even hire themselves out to farmers along the Nile in order to earn money for the poor. And from their own harvest they sent a good bit of produce to the poor in the cities while contenting themselves with very little. Certainly they challenge us all to consider what indeed we are doing to feed, to clothe, to comfort, and to care.
The fathers and mothers of the desert exemplify for us in so many, many ways a true hierarchy of values and balance in their practice of the virtuous life. If there are reports of exaggerations and distortions-and some writers have always been prone to make these the substance of their reports-these tales join the edifying accounts in teaching through their contrast and through their evidence of the rejection of such activity by all the holier and wiser of the fathers and mothers.
The "Sayings of the Fathers," those rough-hewn words of life or words of salvation that cut so ruthlessly through all our pretenses, make up the bulk of this volume. And that is well. They are far more precious than the sometimes starry-eyed, always colored accounts of the pilgrims and storytellers. These sayings are very nearly if not actually the words that passed through the desert wastes from the lips of one disciple to another, once they fell from the lips of some revered father or mother. Their jagged angularity has its audacious way of intruding with a cutting edge into some of our most sacred preserves. As the great Barsanufius wrote to Archimandrite Dorotheos: "For those capable of understanding these words and keeping them, there is joy and great profit."
An eagerness for a "word of life" should mark every Christian. We can with great profit turn to the sayings gathered here and in other collections mentioned in "Suggestions for Further Reading." Or like the fathers and mothers themselves, we can turn to that ever-fruitful source, the Holy Scriptures. The author of the "History of the Monks in Egypt," with perhaps a bit of enthusiastic exaggeration, tells of the monks' and nuns' eagerness in this regard: "And nowhere have I seen such meditation upon Holy Writ or understanding of it, or such discipline of sacred learning: wellnigh might you judge each one of them a doctor in the wisdom of God." A daily meeting with the Lord in the Gospels, as a true disciple seeking a word of life from the Master, is perhaps the surest way for each one of us to grow into the mind of Christ.
If we wanted a listing of the virtues we need to pursue in order to develop a full Christlike freedom, they come forth like a litany in the chapter headings of Pelagius and John's translation of the Greek collection: "Of Quiet . . . Of Compunction . . . Of Self-Restraint . . . Not to Be a Show-off . . . Not to judge . . . Of Discretion . . . Of Sobriety . . . To Pray Without Ceasing . . . Hospitality and Mercy with Cheerfulness [how wonderful is that addition: "with Cheerfulness"!] . . . Of Obedience . . . Of Humility . . . Of Patience . . . Of Love . . . Of Contemplation." And for the practice of each, the sayings offer us some wise and challenging counsel.
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