Monthly Archives: April 2012


A. The recent activity on the part of the Vatican with regard to American women religious is just another dismal chapter in a rather long, sad story, now extending almost 50 years. After 4 years of “study” and investigation, the Vatican issued a document accusing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of numerous “grave” breaches of doctrine and practice–sounds serious! This group represents about 80% of American Catholic sisters. What happens next, no one knows, but it sure doesn’t bode well for the sisters. What the Vatican’s male authoritarian spirit has done to these sisters over the years is truly wrong, but what these sisters have done to themselves is also unfortunate.

A few facts and some history: With Vatican II there was this call for a renewal of religious life, and our American sisters took to this with a great deal of zeal and energy. This is a complex history with many sides to it, I am sure, and so I will not go into it here in this brief note. Suffice it to say that for all the good things that they did or tried to do, some of their choices were not the wisest, and perhaps their vision got clouded because of the battle with male authoritarian structures. At times this battle seemed to become an end in itself. I still recall the IHMs in Los Angeles and their battle with Cardinal McIntyre(a true dinosaur of a cardinal by the way!)over the wearing of the habit, among other things. This became symbolic of a whole relationship with church authority, and in the course of things they left formal Catholic religious life as a group. Now of course so many other sisters stayed and fought and compromised and adjusted, but truly there was a great change in American religious life for women by the mid 1970s. And the changes were very uneven and often neglecting the real contemplative heart of all religious life. In fact the activism of the ’70s and ’80s was marked by a strong suspicion of “inner spirituality.” I remember very well in my first year at the most progressive seminary in the US and fresh out of the monastery’s environment, being confronted by a modern progressive nun about the validity of “my way of life.” I was taken aback that anyone, much less a nun, would question the validity of contemplative life–it was like she had questioned my breathing!!

But I also recall the four American women religious who were brutally murdered in El Salvador about 1980—I still think of them. Their kind of work for the poor, which was not just a “hand-out of charity” but a challenge to the power of the wealthy, would have been almost inconceivable before Vatican II. In a sense they were also challenging the Church about where it stood in this regard. When they said that the Gospel does not present “neutrality” as an option, they were labelled as “marxists” and you know what they do to those kind of folk…. Anyway, even with this kind of heroic stance and the heroic efforts of so many other sisters in various ministries, no young women were attracted to this life. That is an undeniable fact. What was wrong/what is wrong? It seems that one has only two possible choices: either you can say that the whole culture is so godless, anti-religious, so pervasively enticing with self-fullfillment dynamics that the example and voices of religious life become impossible to see or hear. The secularization of society is so thorough that the religious dimension of life itself becomes almost invisible. Considering our situation today this is a very plausible explanation given some adjustments. However, the other explanatory choice may be that there is something missing in that religious life, that it no longer addresses the heart of the young person who seeks to transcend their stagnant secular self. This is not a pleasant alternative to ponder for the sisters concerned but it is there as a possibility. Maybe it is some combination of both. In any case, consider this: in 1975 there were 135,000 sisters in the American Catholic community. Already many had left after Vatican II, so this seemed like a new foundation for a new beginning. However, in 2011 there were only 56,000 sisters. A huge drop. And this is the most staggering statistic: there are today more sisters over the age of 90 than under the age of 60! Surely this is not what “renewal” was suppose to lead to!

Now some might say that what’s keeping people from coming to these groups is precisely that they are so much under the thumb of male authoritarianism. Again, partly true, but that doesn’t explain why some traditional groups are doing so much better number wise than these so-called more progressive, more renewed groups. It was often said in the ’60s that religious groups had to change in order to attract young people. Well, they changed, and young people stayed away in even larger numbers! Conservative Catholics point to this as a “sign from Heaven.” I can’t speak for other countries, but one does hear about the flourishing of vocations in Third World countries, and these tend to be very traditional kinds of situations. There may be a whole lot of complex reasons for this phenomenon, but suffice it to say that here in the US sisters’ groups that favor such things as habits and traditional communal structures and living together are attracting more young people. These are superficial things on their own, but I think what they really seek in all this is that somehow their lives are oriented toward something “beyond” their social existence. The symbolization and ritual expression of that “beyond” is needed at the beginning especially and yearned for in the heart even in a very inarticulate way. Thus a group that may actually be regressive and reactionary in its ecclesiology and theology and its authority structures and maybe even neurotic in its lived experience, still will find people drifting into it’s circle because it offers some sense of a life that is oriented “toward the beyond.” And guess what, every human heart has that yearning buried deep within. Needless to say there is also that dubious thing of an “unassailable certainty” that these groups offer, and also a feeling of a kind of superiority that is unhealthy but magnetic and able to draw people.

Now what the Vatican has done seems not only petty and vindictive toward these American nuns, but the sad fact is that it was also totally useless and unnecessary. The frank and sad fact is that they are dying out. American religious life for women as represented by the LCWR is not only an “endangered species”–it is for all practical purposes done, finished. But instead of feeling sad we should remember that really these women are a harbinger of some bigger change and movement, that God is the Ultimate Reality behind all this, that what is to come we cannot foresee. And the authoritarian machinery that ground them down over the years, well, that too is a very human fabrication. And recall that other very symbolic human fabrication of recent years, the Berlin Wall, how it somehow when the time came seemed to crumble on its own…..

B. Speaking of religious groups, I have been reading Abhishiktananda’s little essay, “India and the Carmelite Order.” As usual, truly brilliant….but…. And with Abhishiktananda how often that is the case: “truly brilliant….but….” In this case the “but” has to do with his vision of the Carmelite Order. I don’t know what he was seeing in 1964 in India, but the Carmelite Order in the US in 2012 is a mere shadow of what he projects. I suspect it is one of his grand idealizations–more like what he hoped they would be in his vision of that charism that linked Elijah to John of the Cross and thousands of hermits in between. Yes, there are some exceptional individuals in the Carmelite Order, even here in the US, but the Order as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.

C. We all know that Jesus is called “the Word of God,” in the New Testament. Though this is the classic rendering of the original Greek, it nevertheless is actually a very poor translation–even though there is no real alternative. The same is probably true of all the other renderings in all the other modern languages. Jesus is called the Logos of God, and the Gospel of John begins with the echoes of Genesis in the background: In the beginning was the Logos…. Now to translate “logos” as “word” is to seriously impoverish the term. It is not incorrect to translate it as such, but it is also an incredible diminishment of the symbolization and reference power that the word “logos” carries. It is one of the richest words in ancient Greek. Think of that tradition of thought and usage from Heraclitus, through Plato and Aristotle and the Tragedians, and the poets and common usage, all the way to the Gospel of John, a period spanning over seven centuries, think of how much “weight of meaning” that word is by then carrying. If you truly know ancient Greek, you won’t want to translate but simply call Jesus the Logos of God. And then there is the incredible, “and the Logos became sarx…” It reveals a new meaning to the human condition. I wonder if one could say the Logos became maya.… Just wondering…. Adopting and adapting the Sufi saying: It is one thing to know God “beyond” the veil; it is quite another to know God in the veil itself.

But we have something else to consider: Jesus is also the Silence of God. (We are not talking about the so-called “silence of God” that 20th century existentialist thinkers were so focused on.) Abhishiktananda loved this statement, and of course it comes from St. Ignatius of Antioch in one of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament. Also, in his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius says that the one who truly possesses the word of Jesus is also able to hear his silence, “that he may be perfect,” meaning complete, fulfilled, etc. So there is a “beyond” to the words of Jesus, and this we will discover in the “silence of Jesus.” Much to ponder here. On the one hand, there is the Logos bringing a horizon of Silence, indeed also bearing within itself Silence; on the other hand there is also the Logos of Silence itself. Much, much to ponder.

D. There is this remarkable quote by Abhishiktananda in his essay on “India and the Carmelite Order”: “The prophets of Yahweh were the heralds of the Word; the rishis of India, the privileged witnesses of the Silence of God. Had they met, probably neither Elijah the Prophet nor Yasnavalkya, the Rishi, would have recognized or understood each other for, humanly speaking, they were approaching each other from totally opposite slopes of the holy Mountain. Nevertheless both of them were precursors of Christ.”
What a statement! I wonder if Abhishiktananda really has a sense here of the full implications of what he is saying!? Usually it is said that ideally speaking interreligious dialogue should take place on the basis of the true and deep experience of each side. However, who could be said to have a deeper experience of their respective traditions than Elijah or Yasnavalkya; and it seems, from what Abhishiktananda says here, that had they met they wouldn’t have even been able to recognize each other’s religious experience. So what is the real basis, the real ground of all dialogue. Interesting. So something else is needed beside their own individual spiritual experience, or else even the most holy person can get “locked inside” their own tradition. Note that Abhishiktananda says that “both of them were precursors of Christ.” Indeed, but NEITHER of them would know THIS Christ. He is always the “third” in every encounter, in every dialogue, in every movement toward communion. Or perhaps we should say it is the Holy Spirit given by Christ. Isn’t a “third” always there in every communion whether it be in word or in silence?

E. Speaking of silence(!), let me quote again that marvellous poem by Gekka Gensho:

Making the busy streets my home
right down in the heart of things
only one friend shares my poverty
a scrawny wooden staff;
having learned the ways of silence
amidst the noise of urban life
taking things as they come to me
now everywhere I am is true.

Gekka lived in the 1700s in Kyoto. Having been a Zen monk for 40 years, he left and became a layman selling tea and writing poetry. That last line is a direct quote from Lin-chi, from the 9th century. We are invited to “learn the ways of silence.” This is the Zen way of dealing with the “veil.” Now my beloved Han-shan, a hermit from the Tang Dynasty of the 7th century, reversed the process. First, for years he was a busy man, a government bureaucrat, an intellectual, and a practitioner of popular Taoism– until one day he left everything and became a hermit. Here is his own account of it:

In my first thirty years of life,
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked by rivers through deep green grass
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.
(Gary Snyder translation)

Either way is good! Both are True Men of No-Rank. If you look for them by way of credentials and in the world of credentials, you will not find them. Like the monk who asked to see where Anthony was and could not see him, they are there where Anthony is. Amen!

The Desert Fathers: Anthony

Let us take a look and reflect a bit on the sayings and stories gathered under the name of Anthony. Since he is considered the “patriarch of Christian monks,” these sayings and stories have a certain added authority and significance. (We will ignore the Life of Anthony by Athanasius as this would complicate our task.) But first let us emphasize a few preliminary points:

a.) No one should feel that they must “like” the Desert Father sayings and stories. They are not everyone’s cup of tea, and there is no sense trying to force oneself to like them. But whether you’re not sure about them or whether you feel very much attracted to them, still a certain of amount of work needs to be done to “decode” their language. And then an enormous treasure-house of spiritual wisdom will open up.

b.) In the previous posting, in a kind of introduction to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I suggested that we look at an image of a bunch of concentric circles–as pictured below:


I suggested that this was the most apt visual representation of what is going on in the Desert Father sayings/stories. A mistake is to read them as “pointers,” as directional signals of some kind, pointing you in the way to go spiritually. Read them that way and you will eventually become disconcerted, puzzled, discouraged, even maybe disgusted with a seeming absurd triviality, and so on. However, these stories/sayings are not meant as formulas, as recipes, as directions, as a “cookbook” for the spiritual life, as “how to” manuals. You do not “line up your spiritual sights” along some seeming straight lines that they give you. Rather consider each story as a kind of circle in a large pattern of concentric circles about a common, mysterious center. The sayings/stories more or less “circle around” that center, some closer to the center, perhaps very close; some far from the center, perhaps very far indeed. With a little bit of spiritual wisdom you will begin to sense which stories/sayings are the close ones and which are the far ones. Now what is interesting is that in one’s growth and deepening and truly having an awakening of the heart, one will eventually be surprised at times to discover that what you thought was close and what was distant at the beginning of your spiritual journey, might now seem a bit different. So there is a kind of personal, subjective element there also. What you see in these stories may partly depend on where you are on the spiritual journey. Things can change! There are such surprises, a few.

c.) One implication of the above is that no story/saying should be isolated and read and interpreted in an isolated way. What is most important is the overall pattern of the sayings, and while one can and should focus on certain sayings, as we shortly will be doing, it is important to keep in mind the overall pattern and its Center.


Let us now plunge into that group of stories gathered under the name of Anthony(using Benedicta Ward’s translations). And let us begin by quoting from a letter that Abhishiktananda wrote to his sister just a few weeks before his ultimately fatal heart attack: “The other day in a Hindu ashram, I met a Christian monk who also lives in total poverty and goes from ashram to ashram, happy all the time, whether he has something to eat or not. Naturally he has no job. He doesn’t even have the formal status of sannyasi, but he is the most authentic Christian Indian monk I have met, though no one knows him. It is solitary monks such as this who will one day bring about the true Indian Christian monasticism….” Such was the journey of Anthony though in some ways the externals of his life were so different.


Consider Saying #38, the very last one: “And he said this, ‘If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it.'” Now a saying like this can really turn people off–on the surface it smacks of absurdity and obsession. And if someone just reading this would try to imitate it, soon he/she would become a thorough neurotic very likely! A saying like this should not bother us or concern us except to note that this is language within the context of a deep spiritual father/guru relationship which calls for a thorough uprooting of “self-possession.” It indicates the seriousness of that relationship as it extends over all one does and all one is–in other words we are not just talking about “spiritual direction” as generally practiced in the modern West. Such language makes sense only within the context of the non-dual guru-disciple relationship, and such a relationship can be very precarious and demanding as other stories illustrate also and there are plenty of warnings about “playing” at this or “pretending it.” Apart from that, though, one should not bother much with such a saying unless the Spirit has led one into such a relationship and then one’s guide will appropriately interpret the implied demands in such a life in an appropriate way for oneself.


Another view of this relationship can be found in Saying #27: “Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.'” Here we begin to feel that we are “swimming in the depths”! The spiritual father/guru can and often does instruct the person coming to him. He can serve all kinds of functions as a matter of fact, depending on the circumstances and the condition of the person coming to him. Again I refer to that beautiful depiction of Fr. Zosima in Brothers Karamazov. A person may be coming just for some advice, but what they receive is a “taste” of what is at that Center. The authentic spiritual father will break through the duality of that master-disciple relationship not through “chuminess” or pretense but through his own realization of that Center. The same Center that is in the heart of the disciple; the same Center that is in the “in-between” them. And no words, no matter how profound, how learned, how pious can ever convey that Reality. Thus: “It is enough for me to see you, Father.”


Let us now consider Saying #1: “When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do no leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.” The very first thing we need to underline in this story is the word, “saved.” This is one of those very important words that keeps appearing in the Desert Father sayings, but note the peculiar resonance it has here(and in all the other locations it appears). I mean what kind of “salvation” are we talking about here? Evangelical Christians should feel a bit apprehensive because “salvation” here doesn’t seem to rely on “believing in Jesus,” etc. Yes, there is mention of “sinful thoughts,” but the emphasis is on the mere presence of such thoughts…it is the very flow of such thoughts that seems to be the problem. So the concern here is not so much for a “theological salvation” as for something much more existential, something experienced here and now. So what does that mean? Anthony is trying to live a life totally oriented to God, mind and heart attuned to the Ultimate Unnameable Mystery. There is a vector, a direction for that orientation which remains beyond conceptuality–thus it is not easily graspable by the mind or the emotions. And we are afterall body and mind and psyche and all that implies, filled with mostly unruly feelings, emotions, desires, fears, neurotic tendencies, chaotic responses, etc. etc. All this will tend to scatter our focus. And believe me we will not be successful in merely forcing a kind of imaginary attentiveness. Largely this inner chaos is the result of having a kind of “mistaken identity,” of answering the question “Who am I” in everything we do and say and think in an illusory kind of way. This is one of the points of the Awakening of the Heart, and there is a whole pedagogy that goes with that, some very simple, some not so simple. Thus, for example, the devout Muslim(and Sufi) will face Mecca five times daily in prayer. It is not that God is in Mecca and not right there where the Sufi is, but that his body is learning and reinforcing that “inner directionality” and attentiveness that is called for that leads to the Great Awakening which abides in his prayer. So our story here teaches us first of all that we will be “afflicted” by our inner chaos which will then turn us in all kinds of directions and that slip us deeper and deeper into inner chaos where we are at the mercy of whatever feelings rise up; secondly that we will need to learn how to deal with that; and third that it may involve some very simple, practical steps that lead to this “salvation.”


And here is another story about “being saved”–Saying #19: “The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’ They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,’ and they said, ‘We cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.'” What a remarkable story! A whole book could be written on this story alone! I will touch only a few bases here. So we have a few “beginners” in the spiritual life(meaning “us”!!) and they want to know “how to be saved.” The first thing to note is that they seek instruction and direction from a living person, a book will not do, even a holy book: “Speak a word….” Indeed Anthony does something that Evangelicals would largely approve: he still points them in the direction of the Scriptures. Basically he is saying, you have all you need right there in the Holy Book. They don’t deny that assertion; they merely say: we want to hear from you TOO! The words of the Book have to pass through the lens of a true life in order for us to see what they really mean. There are words, and then there are words! We want to know what “you” made of those words…. (By reference, note again the earlier story where we had the visitor say to Anthony he didn’t even need his words, all he had to do was to see him!—guess which story is closer to that mysterious Center?!!) Now comes a difficult point to make: ideally speaking the spiritual life is best learned from another human being who has made that journey and is well on the way. But for most of us such figures are simply not available. We get along with a little bit of help from our friends, perhaps with a bit of help from someone more experienced than ourselves. Very, very few have an “Anthony figure” in their life. Does that mean that they are cut off from the depths of the spiritual life. Hardly. Let me use a Hasidic story told by Martin Buber to make a point: Long time ago there was a deeply mystical Hasidic Zaddik who, whenever his community was in peril, would go to a certain spot in the woods and pray some kind of mystical prayer and the community was always saved. Long after his death, when that community was again threatened, his disciples would go to the same spot in the woods to pray that prayer but somehow they forgot the exact words but it was enough that they went there and the community was saved. Still many years later, again in a time of danger, the disciples of the disciples decided that they would seek Heavenly help in the same manner. However, they not only forgot the words of the prayer but they also forgot the place in the woods. They stayed home and simply repeated the old story, and the narrative concludes, “And it was enough.” The community was saved. Something similar holds for us. We very likely do not have contact with a living example of “Anthony,” but if we “repeat” his story it will be enough! Such is the importance of these stories and the value of penetrating their meaning. Now the next thing we can note is exactly what Anthony gives them. Truly he does not veer from the Scriptures; he does not speak on his own authority, but note what he chooses from the Gospel. Nothing about belief or faith, but a very concrete existential demand about turning the other cheek–from the Sermon on the Mount. So Anthony is truly evangelical but in a way that many miss. Here it all depends on how you read the Sermon on the Mount. If you read the Sermon as a container of idealized ethical norms or a depiction of some far-off goal of human behavior that might be achieveable with heroic effort, you will miss what Anthony is getting at. If however, the Sermon is a depiction of a humanity that is “God-filled” and totally God-oriented and one with God, then this will be an existential sign of such a humanity. Or what theologians might call i: the Risen Life. Or as Paul put it: I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me. So this is a concrete manifestation of that life.


Now note that the newcomers do not really understand what Anthony is presenting to them, and their reply is on the level of ethical behavior and the quest for sufficient willpower to do something “hard.” They are at least very realistic and honest about their condition. So Anthony takes them by the hand as it were and leads them down this path of “effort” until they fully recognize that on their own they have no resources for such a life. At that point he is ready to start instructing them in that which will bring them into the heart of the Gospel. He says, “Lets eat, and then I will tell you about this reality of prayer.” That last phrase which is a summons to the reality of prayer can be read in a superficial way as a kind of plea/petition for God’s help in living the life, but I think there is something much more profound going on. The prayer that Anthony is pointing to is not just saying words to God but that life and communion with God which ends in being lost in the Mystery of God–and that life which manifests itself in “turning the other cheek.” And there’s so much more to this story but we will proceed on.


Consider now Saying #28: “They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’ He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.'” I hesitate even to touch this story, so profound it is. Just a few notes. First of all this story should not be taken as putting Anthony on a pedestal in comparison to the other Fathers of the Desert. It is merely that he is the model, the paradigmatic one, and so really what we indicate through him and his behavior and his words is “the point of it all.” Truly each of us is meant for that “place” where Anthony is, “where God is.” Note now that there is a kind of “invisibility” about all that. If you look for this place by way of names and credentials, you will see nothing. Recall that Scripture tells us that “God is a consuming fire, and none can behold God and live.” This does not refer to the simple biological life of the flesh, but what is consumed by that fire is that selfhood which we think we are, that “I” that we think and pronounce throughout the day. The Awakening to God in the depths of our being brings about a very real apophaticism of identity then, the true self is a no-self, the hidden unnameable Self lost in the Absolute Unnameable Mystery(recall that unknown Christian monk Abhishiktananda mentions in the quote above).


Now consider Saying #15: “The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.'” A seemingly very mundane saying. But an astute principle of spiritual discernment and one of amazing universality. I have read very similar observations by Gandhi, by a Tibetan lama, by a Zen master…. They all tend to point to the fact that the most important person in your life may be your so-called “enemy,” the person who gives you the hardest time, the one who really dislikes you, the one who hurts you, etc. It is this person, or rather your real response to this person that actually gauges your spiritual state—certainly more so than any heaped up praises or adulations of friends. And there are numerous other Desert Father stories and sayings that illustrate this same point. And they all basically point to one thing: once you have a handle on that question, Who am I?, once your answer is attuned to the Real, then neither praise nor insult will throw one off balance.


And just one more story for our reflection—Saying #24: “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” A truly remarkable saying! I have already mentioned this saying in an earlier posting where I commented on Fr. Tiso’s reflections on monasticism, interreligious dialogue and Panikkar. This story is so good and so important it deserves a fuller visit here, and we will take it word by word, phrase by phrase(and really most of these sayings deserve such attention but I have just barely indicated some passing points and reflections). First of all, “It was revealed to Abba Anthony….” The point the story is going to make is not something that Anthony, as holy and clairvoyant and insightful as he is, can figure out on his own. It is not only not obvious to be sure; but especially it needs “revealing” because it is a reality “of God.” And “the message” coming directly from God renders it even more authoritative as if even having the name of Anthony attached to it was not enough, so important it is.


The next thing to note is Anthony is “in the desert” and there is this doctor “in the city.” A kind of line is drawn, a distinction is made; two different places are indicated. To be sure the difference geographically speaking may have been very small, or it may have been very great. No matter. What matters more is that these two places indicate certain ways of life with certain characteristics. The so-called desert is already the established place of people called monks. Lets remind ourselves that we are not talking about formal religious orders, cloisters, even rules and customs. And the city is the place of “non-monks.” The story presents this distinction, and then deconstructs it. The story says the doctor in the city was “equal” to Anthony in the desert. What an astonishing thing to say in the context of this literature! (There’s a few professional monks living today who could use that kind of illumination!)


Note now that the story does not directly name in what way the two were “equal.” It is a bit more subtle because it is pointing at a profound reality. First of all it tells us that this person is a doctor, meaning he has a profession, a place in that society and economy. People know him as a doctor; he has a social identity. In that regard he is not like Anthony who is out there in the desert, supposedly lost to human view(as the myth would have it). The contrast is implicit and part of the equation. The difference is real and undeniable. The story does NOT say that Anthony should come into the city and be like the doctor; or the doctor leave his practice and go out into the desert. Their unity and their “equality” is at a much deeper level–a much bigger point is being made. Next to note is that this doctor is not acclaimed for his austerity or asceticism. When you look at the whole text of sayings you see that austerity, asceticism, renunciation, etc. play a fairly large role in the identity of these people. It’s almost astonishing how “easy” this guy’s life is! Some of the hardened old guys of the desert would consider this doctor a real slacker and not give him much hope. That’s why a “revelation” was needed to see the true reality! Anyway, all the story says is that this doctor “whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor.” His divestment is very modest indeed; it is not the radical renunciation of a sannyasi. He meets his basic needs, and then he gives the rest to the poor–we hear at this point a resonance of the Gospel with its call concerning the poor. Now we come to the climactic point: “and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” If you think this is merely a liturgical reference you really have missed the point of this story! Rather, these words refer to that which makes these two men “equal.”


Now this is an “every day” matter—these words are not merely “throw-away” words, as in “every day I drink juice,” kind of indicating frequency. No, these words are more like saying “all the time,” as in “continual prayer,” as in abiding in the Presence. The Biblical image of the angels and the Sanctus is limiting only if we are crude literalists or lack any sensitivity to poetic language. Otherwise this language points us in the direction of Abhishiktananda’s advaita, the Further Shore, the Ultimate Mystery. Or rather, as I indicated at the beginning of this blog, the language circles around that Mysterious Center which is the Source of all we are and do.


Now to illustrate further the significance of this story, we will have recourse to another important story outside the Anthony collection: “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all fire.'” This story is a classic treatment of the perennial question of “what does it mean to be a monk?” It is an incredible treasure trove of spiritual insights, but the only thing I want to point out here is that it points us in the same direction (or circles around at the same level!) as the Anthony story but with different Biblical symbolism. What makes the Anthony story more remarkable is that it deconstructs that line we draw between “monks” and “non-monks,” that line between those two mythical places, the city and the desert, and it focuses us on the ultimate point of it all, the Absolute Mystery at the Center of our hearts where we sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy…”

The Desert Fathers & Additional Matters


It is time to do a bit of reflecting on the Desert Fathers.  I have mentioned them in passing quite a few times but never really stopped to focus on them or their meaning and contribution to our spiritual way.  They are the “bread and butter” of the Christian “monk’s way”(but of course these guys would be horrified to hear any monk using butter on his bread!!)  They are classically considered as the paradigmatic Christian monks, the founders of the Christian monastic movement.  In one sense this is true; in another their story has become pure myth.  They are the victims of a sweeping mythic reinterpretation that almost obscures what they were really about.  When I was a novice monk, I was drawn to these marvelous figures but our formation was more focused on the “Benedictine tradition” which is already a reinterpretation of an interpretation of the Desert Father tradition.  Someone will say, surely things do change over time, and yes that is true, but the question arises, exactly what role should they have in forming contemporary monastic life?  It seems that the Church used the Benedictine tradition to “tame” monasticism, to control it, and use it as a cultural and ecclesial vehicle.  Some of the results were good; many were not.  I was told in so many words that these figures were too often “inhuman” and their stories “impossible” and their spirituality tainted with “gnosticism,”  etc.  Some of that is undeniable, but actually that is a superficial way of reading them and misses their meaning by “the width of the universe.”


Surely what I am leading up to is not merely “imitation”–that would represent another kind of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what the Desert Fathers were about.  I won’t spend more time on this now, but let me illustrate something of what I mean by reference to the West in American literature and film.  There is the “mythic West” and then there is the real West of history.  The mythic West appears in films and stories and reflects more the dreams and fears and hopes and hang-ups of their creators, right down to the present times(like the film High Noon from 1954 is a kind of allegory of McCarthy Era America where it took extraordinary courage to stand up to the bullying and threats of the “Un-American Activities” folks).  The real West of history at times intersects with the myth and illumines the same reality, but at other times is completely different and shows actually a more interesting and deeper reality.  Did you know, for example, that most cowboys did not wear guns, that in fact most men in the West did not wear guns(in the mythic West it seems that every man is carrying a gun and uses it readily!)?  That foreign exploiters were behind the big ranches of the West?  That corporate railroads pretty much ran the show once they came on the scene?  That we killed Native Americans (people who were “different”) with great ease and frequency?  That a few women were elected to a number of important positions, like sheriff, long before they even got  to vote in the East?  And so on.  The real history of the West helps us to see the real problems better facing us today because in many ways they are the same.  The myth can be very helpful, but it can also be used to obfuscate the reality in front of your nose.


Merton, not surprisingly, understood the Desert Monks quite deeply, and he knew that contemporary monasticism was only paying lip service to their reality:  “If we were to seek their like in twentieth-century America, we would have to look in strange, out of the way places.  Such beings are tragically rare.…  Though I might be expected to claim that men like this could be found in some of our monasteries of contemplatives, I will not be so bold.  With us it is often rather a case of men leaving the society of the ‘world’ in order to fit themselves into another kind of society, that of the religious family which they enter.  They exchange the values, concepts and rites of the one for those of the other.  And since we now have centuries of monasticism behind us, this puts the whole thing in a different light.  The social ‘norms’ of a monastic family are also apt to be  conventional and to live by them does not involve a leap into the void–only a radical change of customs and standards.  The words and examples of the Desert Fathers have been such a part of monastic tradition that time has turned them into stereotypes for us, and we are no longer able to notice their fabulous originality.  We have buried them, so to speak, in our own routines, and thus securely insulated ourselves against any form of spiritual shock from their lack of conventionality.”


Now Merton points to several interesting things here, somewhat indirectly.  First of all there is the complex relationship of the Desert Fathers to their culture and society (and by the way although the term “Desert Fathers” usually refers strictly to the Egyptian scene of the 4th and 5th Centuries, I think we can include the Palestinian and Syrian scenes also ranging from the 2nd to the 7th Centuries—which came first and who owed what to whom we need not worry about here).  On the one hand they are truly people of their culture and society and you will not understand them if you ignore that fact.  But, and this gets very intriguing, they are also very much in “rebellion” against their society, “contra mundum,”  and in a social order marked by frictions, competitions, vengeance, violence, and status-seeking, these folk present another vision and postulate another goal, another point to human life.  Again, Merton:  “With the Desert Fathers, you have the characteristic of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one’s life into an apparently irrational void.”


But insofar as this movement is also “part and parcel” with the times and strangely meets the needs of the times, it attracted  a whole host of people, not all of them finding their way into spiritual depths or any kind of depths.  There was also the problem of sexual perversity and violence among the thousands who went out into the desert–which usually meant going to the edge of the town or village in many cases.  What we call the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is the distillation of a kind of wisdom and teaching that really only a few achieved, and so we have these people as true role models and bearers of a wisdom and teaching that needs decoding as it were.  To understand how “different” our Desert Fathers were from the general mob that called itself “monks”, consider the following example.  Hypatia of Alexandria was a great pagan woman philosopher around the year 400.  She was a Greek Neoplatonist and an accomplished mathematician and head of the Platonist school in Alexandria—many men came to her to be her students and disciples.  Well, she was a thorn in the side of Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria(St. Cyril of Alexandria !, a key figure in Patristic Christology).  Cyril was a big fan of the monks in the desert, their big supporter, and he in turn was very much adulated by the desert dwellers.  One day a mob of so-called Christian monks ambushed Hypatia as she was going about Alexandria and brutally murdered her.  This enabled Cyril to turn Alexandria and all of Egypt into a totally Christian place—the irony of that is astounding!   Of course there is no evidence that Cyril ever ordered her killing–he just saw her as a threat to the Church(!), and Catholic and Orthodox scholars have come to his defense on occasion, but it is striking that he never condemned the killing, and one of his bishops actually approved it.  It might be said that Cyril never new what this mob was about to do—just like popes and bishops never seemed to know what their predator priests were doing to some children in recent years.  At any rate, such were the times!


Another interesting thing about the Desert Fathers is that they are used in the cross-cultural interreligious dialogue as paradigmatic exemplars of a kind of universal monastic charism.  That may be, but this also needs careful scrutiny about what is really going on and what is really being said on both sides of the dialogue.  For example there is the comparison of the Desert Father figure with the Indian sannyasi–Abhishiktananda would allude to this in various places in his writings.  At first glance this looks very promising, but there are serious limitations.  For one thing the sannyasi is totally integrated in Indian/Hindu culture.  No matter how radical his renunciation, the culture understands, accepts, approves and in fact supports his place within that society.  When Sadashiva roamed naked along the banks of the Cavery, everyone understood and accepted what he was about.   With the real Desert Fathers you have a bit of a fracture there, a kind of “No” to the given society, a real possibility of misunderstanding arising between society and these so-called monks.  Although they did not carry a sign around that said “I rebel,” nevertheless there is a bit of that spirit in their lives as Merton alludes.  Of course as time goes on in the later centuries the Church “tames”  the desert monasticism into another ecclesial structure and this aspect of the Desert Fathers is almost lost—except always for that “unruly” hermit bunch appearing on the scene at various times and in various places!  Today we really have something very, very different.  Our society is almost totally without any religious vision or depth.  The monk is totally not comprehensible in such a setting, and reading the Desert Fathers is quite a challenge.  Recall that the sannyasi lives, breathes  and thrives in a truly amazing and deep religious culture(though to what degree it can preserve this in the onslaught of modernity remains to be seen).  The only thing even approaching that in the West would be 19th Century Russia  where there were literally hundreds of thousands of monks and hermits all over the place and literally millions of pilgrims on the roads(recall The Way of a Pilgrim).


Now we come to the heart of the matter:  the Desert Fathers and this thing called “monastic identity.”  At first glance you will note that so many of their sayings are in reply to some such question as:  Who is a monk?  How do I become a monk?  What does it mean to be a monk?  Etc.  But it would be very wrong to take that word “monk” in their sayings and use it as if it meant/referred to/ or pointed at our institutional Catholic monks.  What you really have to understand by their word “monk” would be something like “God-seeker,” “mystic,” “living with God alone,” etc.  Here our Sufi friends can help us.  They explicitly reject the notion of “monasticism” as institutionally practiced within Catholicism—although of course on an individual basis they can have true friends there (like Merton).  The Sufis, and all Islam, says simply that they have no priests and no monks—every human being stands in an unmediated presence and relationship to God.  Every human being is potentially a mystic; and one could say, every human being is potentially a “monk” then.  Consider the following:  Abu Sa’eed Abeel Khair, may God bless him, was asked:  “What is Sufism?”  (A very Desert Father kind of question—what do you do to be a monk?).  And he answered:  “That which you hold in your mind, forsake it; that which you have in your hand, give it; and that which strikes you, it is meant to be.”  Perfect Desert Father tradition in every way!  Note he doesn’t “wax mystical” about God, etc.  This is something that a lot of modern people don’t like about the Desert Fathers–their language seems too dry, too laconic, too simple, and there seems to be nothing there about God!  The language of our Sufi master here is truly existential and down to earth.  Perfect Desert Father stuff.  In its simplicity it actually is very deep and very hard.  One has to go very far and very deep to live these words!


Now some people (like Panikkar among others) have wanted to “hold” all these different types in one grasp as it were: the Sufi, the Christian monk, the desert father, the sannyasi, the Zen monk, etc.  They have proposed a kind of universal monastic archetype that is part of the structure of being human and which will get actualized in different ways and to different degrees by different people.  I can see the value and the attraction of this approach, but I already have expressed my disagreement with it in a previous posting concerning Fr. Tiso’s comments on Panikkar and interreligious dialogue.   A problem, indeed a temptation, that this doesn’t get you out of is that you will inevitably be circling around these questions of who is a monk, what makes one a monk, and answering them in an institutional way.  I know from my own experience that in a former monastic life I spent way too much time pondering this monastic identity thing.  Professional Catholic monks can become obsessed about where one “draws the line.”  We all need to be liberated from this–both professional monks and laypeople who gawk at them as if they were some special people.  Because what the Desert Fathers are saying(and what the Sufis are saying—and really Abhishiktananda was circling around this problem toward the end of his life, coming at it from the Hindu/Advaita direction), what all these people are talking about is being a “true God-seeker,”  one whose whole heart is set on God, no matter what other conditions prevail in one’s life.  To use Abhishiktananda’s words: are you willing to “totally surrender the peripheral ego to the Absolute Mystery”?  If you say, Yes, count me in, then the Desert Fathers can be helpful and indeed only then will they begin to make sense.  Their replies to this question underline in various ways that the cost will be steep, the way will seem difficult and dark and uncertain and lonely–this is the Pearl of Great Price in the Gospels, and the treasure buried in the field–it will take a lot “to take possession” of this reality,  but as one of them put it, “Why not be totally changed into Fire?”  Those inside the Desert Father world know what this language means!


Now let us digress a bit to 2nd and 3rd Century Syria, long before the Egyptian desert got populated with our favorite figures.  There were movements afoot in Syria that smacked of radicalism, a truly radical following of Jesus.  Figures that seemed akin to Indian sannyasis began to appear, wandering ascetics, and there were also bewildering communities or gatherings really of these radical followers of Jesus.  The Syriac term for their way of life was: ihidayuta, which literally translates as “singleness.”  Any one of them then was called an “ihidaya.”  Sebastian Brock, the great Syriac scholar calls this  the key term of Syriac Chrisitanity.  You see, these people originally knew no other way; these are not “fringe” people on the edge of society and the Church.  They live all over the place, including within towns and villages—much like the later Sufis!  Sometimes they were also known as the “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant.”  Now what is important is that this is what it meant to be a Christian to them….nothing less would do.  For them our form of Christianity where the majority of the members of the church are “average people,” who try to be good, church going folk, but really are in effect “part-time God-seekers”—afterall there is so much else to do….and then there are full-time God-seekers, the monks, the religious specialists….   No, for the ihidaya folk this would be totally incomprehensible—there was only this one radical way that Jesus himself indicated.  The ihidaya is a follower and imitator of Christ the Ihidaya par excellence….    Now this term, “ihidaya,” has various connotations that focus on one reality:  singleness, uniqueness, single-mindedness, unified, alone, the only one–later it translates into Syriac the Greek word which becomes our word “monk”, monachos—in the creed this term also translates into Syriac what we say about Jesus when we say He is “the only begotten.”  And so on.  It also emphatically points in the direction of “not being married,” being celibate.  And what is interesting is that this asceticism has nothing to do with a rejection of the body or a suppression of natural desires or anything like that.  It is purely and simply a movement into the “already” of the Eschaton, the eschatological life, “when God will be all in all,”  where there is no longer any point to sexual activity!  Look at this from another standpoint.  Sexual activity participates in the world of duality, and in its truest and most beautiful expression it symbolizes and manifests the overcoming of ALL dualities.  However, once the Awakening has taken place, once Advaita is the “place of the heart,” then there is no more role for sexual expression and one is, so to say, “way beyond that.”    Once one has received the Holy Spirit (and recall that the Holy Spirit is the key to Advaita) what is there to do but strip down, give everything up and wander like Sadashiva did along the Cavery.  And what is the Eschaton except precisely the awakening to Advaita in its totality and fullness.  So for these people the normal way of simply being a Christian, indeed just being human, was to be something like the Indian sannyasi, nothing less!  Needless to say you can’t exactly build a society and a civilization OR a Church community on that basis, so the Church eventually transformed all that zeal into other channels and tamed this movement also.  (I can’t imagine being a parish priest and start preaching this stuff—one would cause such an uproar….!)  In the process, I think, the Church lost several very precious and very important things.  It is this which Abhishiktananda was desperately trying to recover for the Church in India but I fear his message was not heard.  And to conclude this section, I just want to emphasize that one of these “losses” was this sense that EVERY human being is to be “intoxicated with God,” and “lost in God.”  Who is a monk and who isn’t a monk is almost a trivial concern in that light.



One concluding thought.  Recall that I said that the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are littered with questions such as “How do I become a monk?” and “Who is a monk?”  And as I have tried to point out that word “monk” in that context should perhaps be better understood as “God-seeker” rather than as some member of some group or institution, etc.  Now to get a really good overall picture of what is going on in the Sayings, imagine an array of concentric circles as pictured below.

The whole array of Sayings can be seen as an enormous array of concentric circles , where each Saying/story is not so much as a “pointer” or a “direction,” a recipe or a formula,  but as a circle around a mysterious center which seems empty.  So some of the Sayings are far from that center; while others are very close; but they all form this pattern that leads one to focus on that mysterious center. And intuitively you will soon be able to pick out the sayings/stories which are nearer that center and which are farther from that center.   One implication of that is that you do not isolate any individual saying/story as if it contained “the message.”  It is the whole pattern that is most important and leads one to focus on that center.  This pattern sets up a kind of “target” for the heart.  But exactly what is at the center?  Alas, that is why they did not “wax mystically”—there is only silence about that, because as the Advaitists and the Taoists would put it:  “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

We shall return to these great figures in greater detail later.