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.




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