Friday, September 14, 2012

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianity
by Jonathan Harrison

I feel I have to tone down the cynicism and snarkiness for today's selection since it's all about peace, silence, and joy. I find it kind of hard to be cynical about that.  

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers compiles a list of, you guessed it, short sayings by a group of men and women who lived in the Egyptian desert anywhere from the fourth and sixth centuries (that's a very basic overview). A lot of these sayings are spiritually uplifting tidbits that go something like this:
"He also said, 'When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will, he then allows it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.' "

I find that to be true and good advice for your spirituality, and I'm sorry that I didn't write down the actual desert father that said it. However, you also have sayings like this one:

"He who gorges himself and talks with a boy has already in his thought committed fornication with him." -Abba John the Dwarf

What???? I have to admit I wasn't expecting anything like that from this book, but TSofTDF is full of such sayings. This book is definitely not your Barney & Friends version of spirituality. The desert fathers knew sin, knew that they were sinners, and weren't afraid to talk about pedophilia (among other things).  

I have to admit, when I first saw the word "fornication" I thought it was some vague metaphor for some obscure thought that ripped you away from oneness with God for a few seconds. Of course, then I read the story of the monk who, to paraphrase, approaches his spiritual father, says "I want to commit fornication," and then returns to his cell to find a woman he doesn't know laying (lying?) on his mat before he subsequently runs away screaming into the wilderness. Yea, fornication means low-down and dirty sex.

Which brings about another point: the more prominent the desert father the more in touch they were with the enormity of their sins. The book is full fathers--men who fasted every day, never stopped praying, and lived lives of extreme asceticism--forgiving horrible sins on the basis of "Who am I to judge?" I think that is incredibly beautiful and sorely lacking in the world today (I'm including myself in that one). There is something about reading the lives of certain saints that puts you in your place spiritually.

So yes, I would say TSofTDF is spiritually uplifting. It's filled with things that shock you, and it's also filled with things, like most spiritual books, with which you don't agree.  Take this little joyful anecdote:

"There was at Scetis with Paphnutius a brother who had to fight against fornication and he said, ‘Even if I take ten wives, I shall not satisfy my desire.’ The old man encouraged him saying, ‘No, my child, this warfare come from the demons.’ But he did not let himself be persuaded and he left for Egypt to take a wife. After a time it happened that the old man went up to Egypt and met him carrying baskets of shell-fish. He did not recognize him at all, but the other said to him, ‘I am so and so, your disciple.’ And the old man, seeing him in such disgrace, wept and said, ‘How have you lost your dignity and come to such humiliation? No doubt you have taken ten wives?’ And groaning, he said, ‘Truly I have only taken one, and I have a great deal of trouble satisfying her with food.’ The old man said, ‘Come back with us.’ He said, ‘Is it possible to repent abba?’ He said that it was. And leaving everything, the brother followed him and returned to Scetis, and thanks to his experience he became a proved monk."  -- Paphnutius

I had to quote it because I don't think any reader would believe a paraphrase. The way I see it, and I'm fully aware that I could be missing something here, a monk wants to have sex (which my secular self thinks is a perfectly OK desire), so he goes off and finds a wife. Later he runs into his spiritual father who asks him, "Why do you look so horrible?" Dude says, "My wife eats so much that I can barely work enough to feed her," and the spiritual father is like "Leave her and come back to the mountain." 

So the dude leaves his wife and goes back to being a monk. Which makes me wonder: "What about the poor wife? Isn't marriage a sacrament?" Among other things. But hey, a monks got to do what a monks got to do.
Before you think I'm being all unforgiving on the desert fathers, I have to say that The Sayings is something that needs to be read intensively, i.e. one of those books you could take to a desert island. Normally I would have read something this short in a few days, but I could run into a saying that would make me put down the book and think, I mean really think, for a long period of time. I ran into things which had never occurred to me before (a pretty rare occurrence), and at times the reading itself was transcendent. I'll leave you with a few of the things I wrote down.

"Abba Sarmatas said ‘I prefer a sinful man who knows he has sinned and repents, to a man who has not sinned and considers himself to be righteous.’"

"He also said, ‘Unhappy is the man whose reputation is greater than his work.'"
-Abba Silvanus

"The same abba said 'A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.'"

"When the demons who are at war with men tried to make him afraid, suggesting that, after all this, he would still go to hell, he replied, ‘Even if I am sent there, I shall find you beneath me.’ "
-Isidore the Priest (pwnt!)

"She also said, “It is good to live in peace, for the wise man practises perpetual prayer. It is truly a great thing for a virgin or a monk to live in peace, especially for the younger ones. However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie, faintheartdness and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these tempations fall away."
Amma Theodora*

Goodnight & Peace

*Also needs to be stated that the book contains the sayings of several desert mothers who were a part of the society at the time. 

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonateharrison. He also writes at Dried Humor and Libranding.

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