Picture of desert father from foreign blog.
Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Wisdom of the Desert

Readers of this blog may remember that I wrote about Kerouack’s book of haikus a while back. I’ve had a fondness for haikus and for Zen since back in high school. I was a bookish sort of guy, rebellious, in a bookish way, and obsessed with girls. Now that I’ve grown up I’m still bookish, but I’m no longer obsessed with girls. Now I’m obsessed with women, particularly my wife.

I experimented with a lot of different beliefs in high school and college befire finally returning to Catholicism back in1980. Among them Buddhism and Zen, which I found particularly attractive. I once showed somebody I knew a passage from one of my Zen books, and she came back later on with a quote from Epictetus. (I don’t remember the passage from Epictetus.) We were a bookish lot in my Catholic high school back in the 1960s.

So having said all of this by way of explanation, let me get into the book.

The desert fathers were hermits, they lived alone and had no formal communities, though Merton, in his introduction, mentions that there were novices living nearby who would take instruction from the hermit. This life is distinguished from the cenobitical or monastic life, which is lived in community. Merton mentions that the desert fathers had a reputation for fanaticism. In that context some may remember St. Simeon Stylites about whom Phyllis McGinley wrote a poem. That can be found here.

Not all of the desert fathers were as extreme as St. Simeon, and their stories and saying were collected over the years. Merton chose to translate from a volume called Verba Seniorum (Words of the Elders, if I remember my Latin correctly). So what we have here are a number of relatively short, pithy stories and sayings that have something like the feeling of a Zen koan.

“A brother asked one of the elders: How does fear of the Lord get into a man? And the elder said: If a man have humility and poverty, and judge not another, that is how fear of the Lord gets into him.”

“A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

“Abbot Macarius said: If, wishing to correct another, you are moved to anger, you gratify your own passion. Do not lose yourself in order to save another.”

There’s a Zen story in which two monks are travelling, and they come across a beautiful girl who is trying to cross a raging stream. One of the monks picks her up, and carries her across, and they part ways. A few miles later on the monk is reproached, “Monks should have nothing to do with girls like that.” The monk replies, “I put the girl down at the bridge.” This has a rather neat parallel in this story:

“A monk ran into a party of handmaids of the Lord on a journey. Seeing them he left the road and gave them a wide berth. But the Abbess said to him: If you were a perfect monk, you would not even have looked close enough to see that we were women.”

There are 150 stories and sayings in Merton’s translation, and I’ve just given a sample of them.

Is the book worth reading, will it help your spiritual life? I think everyone has a tendency to read things like this and say, “Oh yes, that’s me. I’m so good. My friend on the other hand is really bad.” If you can avoid that trap, yes it will.

Merton published this in 1960, and died in 1968, but interest in Zen and Catholicism continued for a long while. There’s even a book out called Zen Catholicism. I read it some years ago, and have it in my library, but I can’t recall enough about it to recommend it or not. The Amazon link is up there on the right though. (Note: Zen Catholicism is apparently out of print. The link takes you to other resellers.)

The desert fathers were part of the Eastern side of the Church. We get the Jesus prayer, which readers of Franny and Zooey, or The Way of the Pilgrim, may remember, and hesychasm from them. The Mountain of Silence, over there on the right, is an interesting book about Mount Athos, and Eastern Orthodox spirituality. What he says about Roman Catholicism is not necessarily accurate though.

In July I think I may do either The Life of Moses, or the first volume of The Golden Legend.