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The Desert Fathers (Vintage Spiritual Classics)by Helen Waddell
Reading Group Guide
1. The most insistent response many modern readers have to the stories of The Desert Fathers is one of alienation or disbelief--a feeling that it is impossible for those who cannot give up worldly responsibilities and things to learn from these saints in the wilderness. What aspects of the lives of the Fathers might be integrated into a busy contemporary life? How do you understand the words of St. Antony, "Fear not this goodness as a thing impossible--it hangeth on our own arbitrament--the Kingdom of God is within" [p. 6]?
2. The abbot Antony said, "Who sits in solitude and is quiet hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: yet against one thing shall he continually battle: that is, his own heart." How do hearing, speaking, and seeing distract from the work of the soul? Is it the distraction of the world, or the distraction of our own selves, that is the heart of the problem in the search for spiritual purity and peace?
3. It may seem odd that companionship, or the importance of other people, emerges as one of the most moving aspects of this book. What strikes you about the meeting between Saints Paul and Antony [pp. 37-43]? How does the life of deliberate solitude change our relations with other people? Why, as in the case of the abbot John [pp. 128-9], are the desert monks so extraordinarily attentive to the feelings of others?
4. Does the story of the bishop who marvels at Pelagia's beauty come as a surprise here? The anecdote serves as a caution against spiritual pride and failure to praise the beauty of God's creation. This is a particular danger for those who are able to deny the body and the senses and who pride themselves on their control. How does this lesson balance with the emphasis elsewhere in The Desert Fathers that the senses are not to be indulged? Is there a proper and improper use of the enjoyment that the senses bring?
5. Paradoxically, renunciation is the gateway to the most radical sort of freedom. As M. Basil Pennington writes in his Preface to this edition, "every true seeker is called to the freedom of the children of God," a freedom "to be who we truly are" [p. xvi]. What might this sort of freedom feel like, and how does it differ from the freedom that is usually valued in American life--the freedom supposedly gained through material wealth? How does the true self of spiritual life differ from the false self we have learned to display to the world? What role do solitude and silence play in bringing true freedom and the true self into being?
6. The solitude of The Desert Fathers was based on the desire to live as though "I alone and God are in this world" [p. 113]. As Helen Waddell points out, this radical rejection of the polis, the civil community, went against the Roman civic conscience. If the fathers were concerned only for their personal integrity, for their own spiritual afterlives, how can we reconcile their rejection of the world with the aspects of the Gospels which concern our responsiblity for others? What examples do we find here of ways in which we can care for our own souls and still be in the service of others?
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