Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert

My knowledge of the Desert Fathers has heretofore been restricted to some shocking examples of asceticism-run-amuck cited in Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines and a single issue of Christian History magazine.  I’ve had some hazy concepts of St. Anthony battling demons and of Simon Stylite sitting on top of a column for way too long in some heroic but misguided attempt at mortifying the flesh.  My understanding of these fascinating people was in desperate need of some balance and perspective.  And so, on a recent and rare day off, I found myself driving to the picturesque Callaway Gardens for a day of walking the woods in solitude and in the hope of enjoying some rest.  I soon found myself seated in the unbelievably beautiful “thin place” of the Callaway Gardens chapel (which is – I kid you not – about as close to Rivendell as we have on this earth) with a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert in my hand.  When I stood up to leave, I had finished this amazing little work and I knew I would be forever changed.

The Wisdom of the Desert is a collection of (mainly brief) sayings from the desert fathers.  The introductory essay by Merton is illuminating and strangely moving.  Merton argues that the desert fathers have been wrongly maligned as anti-social and fanatics.  He persuasively argues that instead of being anti-social, they were looking instead for authentic society (thus the presence of sayings that the abbots passed on to one another and to the brethren), and that instead of being fanatics, they were simply intensely focused on living the crucified life.

Merton has hit the mark, and I daresay that I will be more cautious the next time I am tempted to laugh off these men who retreated from the world.  What, after all, is true society and authentic relationship?  What if, after all, our uncritical immersion in the crumbling pagan polis not only isn’t true society but renders such essentially impossible?

Merton presents these sayings, then, not in an effort to call for a literal repetition of the particulars of the Desert Fathers’ circumstances, but rather so that we might be moved to know and, in so many ways, live the life they so admirably modelled.

The sayings themselves are pithy, concise, and brimming over with wisdom.  Merton attributes this brevity to the humility of the Fathers and the fact that the closer we come to God, the less gregarious we inevitably become.

Some of the consistent themes of this selection of sayings are anger, gluttony, humility, and control of the tongue.  The sayings are frequently winsome, occasionally humorous, and inevitably inspiring.

A few of my favorites:

“It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.” (XV)

“Abbot Ammonas said that he had spent fourteen years in Scete praying to God day and night to be delivered from anger.” (XXIV)

And my hands-down favorite:

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said:  Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts:  now what more should I do?  The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said:  Why not be totally changed into fire?” (LXXII)

I like that.  I like it a lot.  It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”  Or perhaps John Wesley’s, “If I had 300 men who feared nobody but God and hated nothing but sin and were determined to have nothing known among men but Christ and him crucified, I could set the world on fire.”  Or the anonymous, “When God sets a man on fire, people will show up to watch him burn.”

On and on it goes in all of its wonderful proverbial glory.  Some of the sayings are more purely didactic and others are anecdotal.  Regardless, it is a powerful collection, less because it reveals who these fascinating people were than because it gives the reader fresh arrows for the quiver.  Above all, it is Christ-honoring and God-glorifying.

Check out the Desert Fathers.  This would be a great place to start.

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