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By the fourth century A.D., devout Christians--men and women alike--had begun to retreat from cities and villages to the deserts of North Africa and Asia Minor, where they sought liberation from their corrupt society and the confining shell of the social self. The Desert Fathers is the perfect introduction to the stories and sayings of these heroic pioneers of the contemplative tradition. Selected and translated by Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers opens a window onto early Christianity while presenting us with touchingly human models of faith, humility, and compassion. With a new Preface by the Cistercian monk, writer, and revered teacher of contemplative prayer M. Basil Pennington, author of O Holy Mountain and Challenges in Prayer.

"God is our home but many of us have strayed from our native land.  The venerable authors of these Spiritual Classics are expert guides--may we follow their directions home."
--Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375700194
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 480,825
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

Helen Waddell (1889–1965), author and translator, was born in Tokyo and educated at Victoria College and Queen's University, Belfast, and at Somerville College, Oxford. She was once described as "the Middle Ages' most persuasive interpreter" by the president of Columbia University, where she was a fellow. She wrote, among others, the nonfiction books The Wandering Scholars and Medieval Latin Lyrics; the novel Peter Abelard, Beasts and Saints; and, in 1936, The Desert Fathers, a translation of her own selections from a seventeenth-century Latin collection by Heribert Rosweyde, Vitae Patrum ("Lives of the Fathers," 2nd edition, 1628).

M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. (1931–2005), was Abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. He authored over 20 books, including O Holy Mountain and Daily We Touch Him.

Read an Excerpt


by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.

It is indeed an honor to be asked to add a new introduction to a book already blessed with the eloquent and erudite introduction of Helen Waddell, so rich in literary associations. At the same time it is quite humbling. But perhaps a simple, more pragmatic word might be useful to the average reader to make this rich contribution from our living Christian tradition more immediately relevant to his or her own journey in the realm of the Spirit. The value of this literature is not to know it or to know about it but to know that it was lived and to incorporate its values into our own lives.

As the fourth century unfolded, it seemed like Christianity was finally gaining some respectability. Yet in this same fourth century, to many in the Mediterranean area it seemed like the whole fabric of society was coming apart. The Roman Empire was splitting in two as barbarian hordes threatened it on every side, though which threatened Christian life more-the new respectability or the barbarian-it would be hard to say. The Founder's dictum "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" was more and more difficult to follow as taxes soared, ever-increasing military service was demanded, and a worldly Christianity began to flourish at the court and elsewhere in the Empire.

It is not surprising, then, that the desert began to receive devout Christians, inspired by the example of John the Baptizer-of whom "there was none greater born of woman"-and of the Master himself, who spent forty days in the desert before he began his public ministry.

When the young Alexandrine Anthony heard afresh the words "Go, sell what you have and follow me," he did just that. At first he disposed of the greater part of his wealth, saving only a portion to ensure care for his sister, and withdrew to the outer edges of the city. But again the evangelical word resounded in his soul, and he sold all he had, placed his sister in competent hands, and went forth into the desert. He was not the first there; he encountered the ancient Paul, but Patriarch Athanasius's Life of Anthony led to his being the most influential example.

As the fourth century progressed, the desert became increasingly peopled, first by hermits, who often grouped themselves in loosely connected associations, and then by cenobites, that is, monks who lived in organized communities, often guided by the rules developed by the saintly Pachomius. Besides the many who went to the desert to settle, the latter part of the century began to see a steady flow of pilgrims, seeking to be edified by immediate contact with these already fabled saints and to partake of their wisdom. Not only did these pilgrims write accounts of their journeys, giving us many colorful details from the lives of the fathers and mothers of the desert, but men like John Cassian sought to retain their wisdom in collections of conferences and sayings.

The wisdom of the desert enshrined in these varied writings continued to flow through Western Christian life even during what has been called the Dark Ages, and it shed a strong light on the renaissance the Church experienced as it moved into the glorious twelfth century. But with the last of the Fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux and his contemporaries, the patristic age came to a final close. Then the era of medieval scholasticism, perhaps drier than the deserts of the Fathers, began to hold sway. There were moments when the desert fathers were heard again, as with de Ranc? in the seventeenth century, but for the most part this wisdom lay dormant during the whole of the scholastic parenthesis.

With the inspirited renewal of our century, welcoming again the full humanism of the patristic age, there was a new hearing for the wisdom of the desert. In this, as in so much else, Helen Waddell was in the forefront, decades before such a call came from the Church-shaking Second Vatican Council. A Spirit-filled woman, she recognized how much of the wisdom of the Spirit is incarnated in the sayings and lives of the fathers and mothers of the desert. Powerfully, effectively, and practically, she has made it available to us.

At first one might feel the heroic way of these desert giants is too far removed from the quest of the everyday seeker living in this world's society. However, the fathers and mothers themselves, along with their early historians, sought to make it clear to us that this is not the case. Noteworthy in this regard is the rather lengthy account in the chapter entitled "History of the Monks of Egypt" of the last days of the fabled desert hermit Abba Paphnutius. We are told that as his end approached he "entreated the Lord that He would show him his like upon earth." And whom did the Lord show the saintly father? A street musician who had been a thief, the very busy headman of a local village, and a wealthy Alexandrine merchant. The historian goes on to tell us that, as the priests gathered around the dying saint, he told them:

All that the Lord had revealed to him, saying to them that no one in this world ought to be despised, let him be a thief, or an actor on the stage, or one that tilled the ground, and was bound to a wife, or was a merchant and served a trade: for in every condition of human life there are souls that please God and have their hidden deeds wherein He takes delight: whence is it plain that it is not so much profession or habit that is pleasing to God as the sincerity and affection of the soul and honesty of deed. And when he had spoken thus about each in turn, he gave up his spirit.

The final word of a great and saintly father-a teaching could not be given greater emphasis.

Everyone baptized into Christ, every true seeker, is called to the freedom of the children of God. This was essentially the quest of the desert: freedom-to be free to be oneself, to be who we truly are, to celebrate our oneness in our common humanity and in our call to share in the bliss of the divinity.

What is most evident and distinctive about these fathers and mothers is that they went apart, that they shunned a society that placed its values in the goods of this world and in prestige in their transient society. Most of us cannot go apart so radically, but we do need to separate ourselves from enslavement to this world's values. We may have to be in the world, but we cannot be of the world. Yes, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but render unto God, as fully and completely as we can, the things that are God's. This is the clearest witness of the men and women who fled from an increasingly worldly Church to the freedom of the desert.

This is no easy journey. Even if we were to spend as much time at the Lord's feet reading the Scriptures as we do watching the TV enthroned in our home, it would still be a losing battle. For the TV is armed by the masters of the art of persuasion and all the sophistication of the ever-more modern media, and it calls forth as its ally the incalculable pressure of our peers to win us over to its hierarchy of values. It is only by the powerful grace of the Spirit that the Word of God, a double-edged sword, can pierce through and separate our spirit from the clutches of the worldly spirit. And that Holy Spirit will operate within as a liberating force only if we seek and welcome it. As a desert father of this century, Thomas Merton, put it: "Today, more than ever, we need to recognize that the gift of solitude is not ordered to the acquisition of strange, contemplative powers, but, first of all, to the recovery of one's deep self, and to the renewal of an authenticity which is presently twisted out of shape by the pretentious routines of a disordered togetherness."

Each of us needs to carve out some time apart to escape from the bombardment of the world and come to our true self. Our place apart can be a corner of our room where Bible or icon proclaim a Presence. Our going apart could mean just turning our chair away from our desk with all its affairs, leaving the world behind for a few minutes while we rest in the Presence and know ourselves to be held in a great and tender love. Or we may find our going apart in a short walk to a church, a library, or a park-some spot where we can sit for a bit in the quietness and know something of the quies of the desert.

The men and women of the desert wanted the liberating force of the Spirit to have the greatest possible freedom to work in their lives. So they went apart, separating themselves from the society of this world. Most of the fathers and mothers we hear of in these pages went so far as to shun even the society of fellow monks or nuns in the monastic communities that were coming into being in this period. They went apart to their solitary cells. But they were not haters of their fellow humans. It is noteworthy that in her magnificent introduction the first stories Helen Waddell recalls are of compassion, care, and mercy. As examples of these traits, the men and women of the desert were absolutely outstanding. Story after story, saying after saying, bespeaks these fundamental virtues, this expression of a Christlike love. The fathers and mothers showed an immensely loving and truly touching care not only for the newcomers who came into their midst and for the venerable ancients among them but for any troubled one. Edifying, to say the least, was their response to visitors, whether they were humble seekers, true pilgrims, or just the curious and those who wanted to go home and tell their story. One cannot help but be touched by the ready way in which these desert dwellers set aside their own much-loved practices and their precious solitude to welcome these visitors and make them as comfortable as their limited means and inhospitable setting allowed. I think if I had to fasten on one single virtue to ascribe preeminently to these women and men, it would be the virtue of compassion. The author of the "History of the Monks of Egypt" expresses this beautifully:

But of their humanity, their courtesy, their loving-kindness, what am I to say, when each man of them would have brought us into his own cell, not only to fulfil the due of hospitality, but still more out of humbleness, wherein they are indeed masters, and from gentleness and its kindred qualities which are learned among them with diverse grace but one and the same doctrine, as if they had come apart from the world for this same end. Nowhere have I seen love so in flower, nowhere so quick compassion, or hospitality so eager.

I think another surprising element in the lives of these solitaries is their very real and practical concern for the poor. They took to heart the Lord's description of the judgment in Matthew 25 and sought to feed the hungry Christ and clothe him and even leave their solitude to go into the city to visit him in prison. In their solitary cells monks would weave extra baskets or mats to be sold for the benefit of the poor. During the harvest season some of them would even hire themselves out to farmers along the Nile in order to earn money for the poor. And from their own harvest they sent a good bit of produce to the poor in the cities while contenting themselves with very little. Certainly they challenge us all to consider what indeed we are doing to feed, to clothe, to comfort, and to care.

The fathers and mothers of the desert exemplify for us in so many, many ways a true hierarchy of values and balance in their practice of the virtuous life. If there are reports of exaggerations and distortions-and some writers have always been prone to make these the substance of their reports-these tales join the edifying accounts in teaching through their contrast and through their evidence of the rejection of such activity by all the holier and wiser of the fathers and mothers.

The "Sayings of the Fathers," those rough-hewn words of life or words of salvation that cut so ruthlessly through all our pretenses, make up the bulk of this volume. And that is well. They are far more precious than the sometimes starry-eyed, always colored accounts of the pilgrims and storytellers. These sayings are very nearly if not actually the words that passed through the desert wastes from the lips of one disciple to another, once they fell from the lips of some revered father or mother. Their jagged angularity has its audacious way of intruding with a cutting edge into some of our most sacred preserves. As the great Barsanufius wrote to Archimandrite Dorotheos: "For those capable of understanding these words and keeping them, there is joy and great profit."

An eagerness for a "word of life" should mark every Christian. We can with great profit turn to the sayings gathered here and in other collections mentioned in "Suggestions for Further Reading." Or like the fathers and mothers themselves, we can turn to that ever-fruitful source, the Holy Scriptures. The author of the "History of the Monks in Egypt," with perhaps a bit of enthusiastic exaggeration, tells of the monks' and nuns' eagerness in this regard: "And nowhere have I seen such meditation upon Holy Writ or understanding of it, or such discipline of sacred learning: wellnigh might you judge each one of them a doctor in the wisdom of God." A daily meeting with the Lord in the Gospels, as a true disciple seeking a word of life from the Master, is perhaps the surest way for each one of us to grow into the mind of Christ.

If we wanted a listing of the virtues we need to pursue in order to develop a full Christlike freedom, they come forth like a litany in the chapter headings of Pelagius and John's translation of the Greek collection: "Of Quiet . . . Of Compunction . . . Of Self-Restraint . . . Not to Be a Show-off . . . Not to judge . . . Of Discretion . . . Of Sobriety . . . To Pray Without Ceasing . . . Hospitality and Mercy with Cheerfulness [how wonderful is that addition: "with Cheerfulness"!] . . . Of Obedience . . . Of Humility . . . Of Patience . . . Of Love . . . Of Contemplation." And for the practice of each, the sayings offer us some wise and challenging counsel.

Reading Group Guide

"God is our home but many of us have strayed from our native land. The venerable authors of these Spiritual Classics are expert guides--may we follow their directions home."--Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The Vintage Spiritual Classics present the testimony of writers across the centuries who have pondered the mysterious ways, unfathomable mercies, and deep consolations afforded by God to those who call upon Him from out of the depths of their lives. These writers are our companions, even our champions, in a common effort to discern the meaning of God in personal experience.

The questions, discussion topics, and background information that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of the six works that make up the first series in Vintage Spiritual Classics. We hope they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about these ancient and important texts.

We offer this word about the act of reading these spiritual classics. From the very earliest accounts of monastic practice--dating back to the fourth century--it is evident that a form of reading called lectio divina ("divine" or "spiritual" reading) was essential to any deliberate spiritual life. This kind of reading is quite different from that of scanning a text for useful facts and bits of information, or advancing along an exciting plot line to a climax in the action. It is, rather, a meditative approach, by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. There are four steps in lectio divina: first, to read, next to meditate, then to rest in the sense of God's nearness, and, ultimately, to resolve to govern one's actions in the light of new understanding. This kind of reading is itself an act of prayer. And, indeed, it is in prayer that God manifests His Presence to us.

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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