This Lent, I decided to read The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, edited by Benedicta Ward, SLG. I bought this book last May at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. My wife is currently pursuing her doctorate in history (and I think she's gaining on it), and her specific area of interest is medieval England. For the past few years (three? four?) we have been attending the ICMS at Kalamazoo, and this past year we both presented papers: hers was on the Book of Hours belonging to Sir William Porter and what it reveals about him ("Affinity, Nationalism, and Religious Devotion"), and mine was on an eschatological perspective on JRR Tolkien's use of geography in his Middle Earth literature. Sadly, we are not attending this year, as we have too many things on our plates, and too many plates in the air.
WMU is home to an Institute of Cistercian Studies, and there is a good showing of Cistercians at the ICMS each year. One of the book vendors is Cistercian Publications. It was at their booth last May that I found The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. I don't tend to buy too many books at the ICMS because most of them are, to be honest, over my head and out of my realm of interest. I do get a few each year, though. Last year I also bought a commentary on Second Corinthians (by CCSS) and a book about the medieval literature behind the writing of JRR Tolkien, The Keys of Middle-Earth.
These books are in good company in my man-cave in the unfinished basement of our house. A man-cave I have not spent much time in lately, because it's been winter, and because we sometimes get floods down there, and because my part of the basement is a federal disaster relief site. It's a real mess. Now that the temperature is warming up, I might be able to straighten it up a bit. A lot.
But about my books. I have a lot of books down there, but many of them are unread or barely started. I've decided to create a virtual bookshelf program (using Google Books' API) so that my wife and I can keep track of the books we own, categorize them, log a history of which ones we're reading, how far we are, and when we've finished them. With a simple program in place (and enhancements to come in time), I've resolved to enter the books I own into the system, read them, and make notes about them.
So that brings us to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. This 250 page alphabetical collection of sayings (not necessarily "wisdom" sayings, but sayings) from the eremitical men and women of the Egypt from the third through fifth centuries is the sort of book I like. It introduces me to the writings and thoughts of people and potentially whets my appetite for more. Case in point, my wife has suggested I read Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony, who has some 38 sayings in this book, four of which I marked as particularly meaningful to me. The book is dog-eared and pencil-marked now: I put asterisks next to scriptural citations (for entry into a database later), and I turn down the corner of a page on which I find a saying that resonates with me, and draw a line down the margin next to it.
I imagine there are about two thousand sayings in this book, and they range from the utterly practical to the astonishingly absurd. Some are amusing anecdotes about the trials of living as a well-known and sought-after hermit; a couple of these end up sounding like a fourth-century rendition of "Get off my lawn!" Others are mind-blowing accounts of the severe ascetism of these secluded monks: eating only once every other day, fighting off sleep, not speaking a word unless it would be a sin not to do so (hospitality to one's neighbor — a funny concept among people living mostly solitary lives — was very big among the Desert Fathers and Mothers), and refusing to accept gifts or retain possessions.
Some are quite fantastic, like the story of Abba Sisoes of Calamon who, to avoid sleep, hung himself over a precipice. It is related that "an angel came to take him down and ordered him not to do that again and not to transmit such teaching to others." (p. 219) Others are quite mundane, like the story of Abba Macarius who had nothing in his cell but some stagnant water. Two brothers noticed this and invited him to accompany them to a village where they would get clean water for him. Abba Macarius asked if they knew the man who owned the bakery in the village; they did. He asked if they knew of the field which lay adjacent to the river; they did. Then he said to them, "I know it too. So when I want to, I can go there myself, without your help."
A simple "No thanks" would have sufficed!
There are many real gems among these sayings as well. Love of neighbor as love of Christ comes up often. The radical nature of life for Christ alone, to the exclusion of virtually every worldly comfort, is a constant theme. And then there are frequent reminders that we should be concerned for, and weep for, our own sins, rather than judge another person. I was surprised at the sort of laissez-faire attitude towards sin that several of these sayings contain, along the lines of "If you see a brother sinning, say nothing to him." A brother is being judged by the other brethren, and the abba shows up and asks to be judged too; or the abba appears carrying a large sack of sand on his back and holding a small satchel of sand in front of him: "In this sack with contains much sand, are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them." (Abba Pior, p. 199)
I found one saying near the end of the book that aligns with the popular saying, "hate the sin, love the sinner." Amma Syncletica says, "Hate sickness but not the sick person." (p. 233) There were also striking encounters with sinners (often harlots) wherein the abba converts the sinner by sorrow for his or her life of sin and concern for his or her immortal soul.
There is practical wisdom to be found as well. Abba Silvanus said, "Unhappy is the man whose reputation is greater than his work." (p. 224) Abba Pambo lamented that a courtesan had greater desire to please wicked men than he had to please God. (p. 196) Abba Poemen states matter-of-factly that "where there are enemies, I become a solider." (p. 194)
A few sayings remind me of the encounter between Jean Valjean and the bishop in Les misérables. Valjean is shown hospitality by the bishop but in return steals some silverware and runs off in the night. When Valjean is apprehended by lawmen and returned to the bishop, the bishop insists that the silver was a gift. Not having read the book, but having seen the musical (does that count?), the event is told in this way:
Constables: Tell his reverence your story, let us see if he's impressed.
You were lodging here last night; you were the honest bishop's guest.
And then out of Christian goodness, when he learned about your plight,
You maintain he made a present of this silver.
Bishop: That is right.
But my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind?
So messieurs, you may release, for this man has spoken true.
I commend you for your duty: may God's blessing go with you.
And remember this, my brother: see in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood,
God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.
This is the sort of reaction some of the abbas have toward a brother who is sinning. One brother is suspected of having given into the temptation of fornication, and the other brothers decide to search his cell for the woman. The local abba, Ammonas, knowing what has happened, enters the cell first and sits upon a barrel; he knows the brother has hid the woman inside. He lets the other brothers in to search the cell, but they do not find the woman. When they leave, Abba Ammonas takes the brother by the hand and says, "Brother, be on your guard." (p. 28) Other stories relate how an abba, upon seeing his cell being raided by thieves, would not cry out in alarm, but assist the thieves in stowing what little possessions he had on their camel.
Clearly this way of life is not for everyone. The extreme asceticism and the "look the other way" mentality do not apply to every situation of life. Still, there is a great deal to be learned from these wise (and probably thin) men and women of the desert. They emphasize the need to cast off vices and grow in virtue, preferably in all the virtues a little, rather than in one particular virtue a lot. They praise obedience and humility.
I give Abba Silvanus the last remark. Abba Moses asked him, "Can a man lay a new foundation every day?" Abba Silvanus replied, "If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment." (p. 224)