How are the Desert Fathers Relevant Today?
This was the question that seemed to resonate about me as I visited the Desert Fathers for perhaps the third time. They came to me well recommended by a friend who knew I loved Church History but had a thin spreading of in in a few years of Bible College. I visited them for the first time in Church History course and somewhat lost them in the dust as we breezed past them into larger monasteries. I struggled to remember the difference between Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine and Augustus and Peter naughty Appleyard or someone like that. Anthony made a brief appearance with a rather odd lifestyle but he be sunk to the bottom the list as I learned much more about Cluny and the Crusades working our way up rapidly to Dorothy Day and her work with the poor. Anthony and Dorothy has more in common then I was able to process at the time . Coming into Church History as a Pentecostal /Evangelical and emerging out the other end some twenty years later with an active interest in the how's and whys of a modern Contemplative life style the Desert Fathers kept popping up at every turn welcoming to come and find them. They started to shake off their dust, rise from the dry bones of the desert and join their written voices into a kind of living voice, initially hidden in language and symbols I could not quite understand. They required time. Monastic kind of time. The kind of time that moves slowly and requires patience and perserverence. I did not have that kind of time. I wanted the answers now. In Coles notes form all the better. There did not seem to be any Coles notes on the Desert Fathers. One had to actually go visit. One had to sit and wait. One had to be willing to visit places well off the beaten path of cosmopolitan living. Sell the field to buy the pearl. The Fathers knew well this truth and require their followers to have a taste of it just to find them.
My approach on what is relevant about the Desert Fathers changes radically on the day I stood over the grace site of Father Boniface a 90 year old monk , who had allowed me to take out many books on the Desert Fathers over a number of years as long as I brought them back in one piece. I had been reading the Desert Fathers then and even now as historical church characters, interesting, a bit odd, who had in many ways shaped the roots of monastic life over the centuries. My error was reading them as dead, dry, old men or women as the case might be. I wanted to hear what they had to say but I was blinded or hearing impaired to what they were saying.Yet they kept calling me back. Being raised Baptist / Pentecostal where the Communion of Saints is not a part of ones theology I came late to the idea. Late like Augustine...who says..Late have I loved you...that kind of late. I had forgotten that the Desert Saints were still present to us in the odd way that Saints are with the Communion of Saints and that the tug on my heart strings that I found when reading them was indeed there to impact my life today. As a struggling married working parent with an orientation towards Contemplative Spirituality the Desert had something to say to me. What I had to do was to sit quiet long enough to "Listen".
The first word of command in St. Benedict's instruction in his rule. So in a obedience to the repeated directions of the Desert Fathers " that all I would need in my spiritual life could be found in my cell", I sat down one more time with the Desert Fathers. This time I did not go our of curiosity to see their weird habits, or to wonder at their extreme fasts or to try to get the whole thing about eremetical living which in itself is a lifetime study. I went to see what they had to say that could help me understand Desert Spirituality or challenges of the Desert in my own life, here and now.
I became sharply aware that I had forgotten the Communion of Saints reality standing around the gravesite of Father Boniface. As each clot of dirt hit his casket. I could here a little phrase from the long list of desert fathers sayings I had been reading. They came as little rocks of living word being cast into my heart. Trying to grasp how I could express the Desert Fathers in language that did not smack of dust and parchment, somehow drag the Desert Fathers into the 21st century venacular I Listened . Gradually, I realized that it was them drawing me and that they were here already present and my job was do what they lived for. That was to change my heart. Have a conversion of life. To understand that is what they were about. They were a conversion sign. A turning from the old life to find Christ in the Desert. Denying their bodies to make their spirits stronger warriors in a daily battle with evil. Learning to become humble, non judgmental men and women who assisted the poor from their poverty, who kept their silence to keep God close and who showed hospitality to desert wanders from the little they had. If I came as a servant, one willing to change my heart and not simply as a desert tourist , I might this time on this visit find help for my life journey.
In this newness of quest I came once again to Anthony and the Hermit St. Paul. Having been given the Desert Fathers by Helen Wadell to read I made the grevious error of skimming through her introductory chapters to get to what one usually goes for like a squirrel after the meat of the nut in the middle. Listening brought me back to a something I had missed. There is a lovely story in the Intoduction about how Pontician in 386 a distiguished civil servant and friend of Augustine came to visit him . Earlier he had read the life of Anthony and had come struggled with the call of the Desert to give up all he had and follow .. Surprised to his intellectual friend reading the works of St. Paul he shared with him the life and words of St. Anthony and the "rich solitude of the Desert , to which so many men had been drawn. It was this meeting and preamble of desert word that flung Augustine into the garden in an"agony of will". In the Confessions Life of St. Augustine we read of the voice that sang to him take and read and the words of St. Paul that so changed his heart and life . These were indeed desert words. "Not in rioting and drunkeness not in chambering or wantoness , not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof. " This was the turning point in the life of the famed St. Augustine. Yes the prayers of his Mother, St. Monica , yes the Word of God, an no less and impact the Life of Anthony changed by hearing scripture and following the Word into the Desert reached helped to bring us one of the bright stars of the church. Again the voice calling from the Desert. Make a straight Path for the Lord. So what does Anthony have to say to us.
Anthony the Great born in Egypt in about 251 is called the "Father of Monks". Listening to the Gospel being read in church one Sunday morning the words" Go sell all you have and give to the poor and come struck Anthony with such directness that he followed the directions, made provision for his sister to live with a cloister of women and began to learn the Desert Life. Anthony seemed to spend a great deal of his early desert life directly wrestling with nasty demon figures that showed up sometimes bodily in his desert refuge. He came our for a brief time to to act as a spiritual father, do battle with heretics and live to one hundred and five. His Life was written by St. Athanasius, and is was a major inspiration in the spread of the monastic life. St. Anthony would not have taken this claim to fame by himself and would have given credit to some of the old men he sat with to learn the hermit existance . Sitting for many years in his refuge out in the desert he discerned there was someone even longer in the desert life then he and went off to find him Paul the Hermit. St. Jerome leaves us with this touching story of the meeting of these two great old men , pictures of which are carried down to the church through various icons and Holy Days especially in the traditions of the Eastern Fathers. Jerome himself a man of the desert understands the great joy of finding another of the same practice and their reunion is soon shortened by the passing of St. Paul in a heavenly ascent with St.Anthony for the rest of his life treasuring the simple handwoven coverings of St. Paul as his reminder of his Holy friend. Again we think of St. Anthony as past. There is today in the Deserts under the jurisdiction of the Coptic church a monastery in the area where St. Anthony lived. These monks hold high his memory and have as their sign of St. Anthony the periodic appearance of St. Anthony himself or odd lights floating around the high pinnacles of their monastery . You can find pictures of this monastery on http://egypttourinfo.com/saint-anthony-monastery.html .
While we taking this online pilgrimage out to the desert to hear a word from the Desert Fathers I found a current type of Desert Father in this very monastery who was willing to share with the world for a brief few minutes his wisdom . He is a Coptic monk who seperated himself from the world , all his status , his family ties and its distractions and lives deep in the desert in St. Anthony's Monastery. He has a few good words for us on UTube. Careful selection on UTube can sometimes net a few worthy gems and this is one of them . It is called the Last Anchorite.
They come in two parts..Be ready to Listen
Part one . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKXf_7Tt0-c
Part two. (the core) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ag6WE__82Q8
Although these clips are called the Last Anchorite there are similar anchorite dwelling in hermitages either alone or in solitude with in a community. There is a such a monk within the higher steppes of St. Catherines monastery in Sinai and a female solitare I have contact with who is of a more Celtic traditon who lives high in the mountains of Slego in Ireland. You can also find Carthusians in Parkminster England living a type of desert spirituality within their communities .
BC has several Hermits. One lives on Oyster Creek between Victoria and Campbell River. He is the only existing ordained Hermit in Canada in the Catholic Church in the last two hundred years. His name is Father Charles Brandt. He has is published , appears in spiritual journals, gives talks on the Contemplative Life, is a specialist on the Winandy Hermits , and his work is both as a stream keeper and book binder. The Desert Spirituality lives on in such rare persons ,even more rare is to find access to them on via modern media . Father Brandt has left us some reflections in his: publications http://www.ariverneversleeps.com/backissues/october01/reviews.shtml. Father Brant is a living reflection of what the Desert Fathers spoke into being over millenia into today.
This is the first in a series of Blogs looking at the Lives and Sayings of the Desert Fathers. In the next few blogs we will look at the various sources that spread the stories of the desert fathers, their impact on monastic life and the marks of the Desert Spirituality in the Contemplative life.