Friday, September 30, 2011

How are the Desert Fathers Relevant Today?

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 .

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

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 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. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Adult Learning

Dr. Zack Mezirow professor emeritus of Columbia Teachers College Believes the essential element of adult learning is to challenge our own ingrained perceptions and examine our insights critically. Dr. Mez says adults learn best when faced with what he calls a disorienting dilema - something that helps you critically reflect on assumptions you've acquired. ( Barbara Strauch New York Times)

In taking a Directed Studies Course with a close look at specific Christian Traditions I met my first " disorienting dilema " in re visiting the Desert Fathers. My disorientation was confusing at first. Something had happened to the Desert Fathers since my last visit. This time they had become friends. Dry, ascetic, weird men I had been told once lived in the desert and their sayings,practices and lifestyle had planted the roots for the monastic movement in the Church. The change was I had come to believe in the Communion of Saints. This changes how one studies people whose names begin with Saint or Blessed. Their words had started to life off the page and follow me around during my day. Standing at the gravesite of  an old monk the words of the readings and sayings of the desert fathers felt fresh ,appropriate , fitting for such a moment. Here was a living example of a life lived in
the shadow of their teachings. How could I view what they had to say as irrelevant and archaic. What were these men and women all about. They were about a change of heart. Changing ones life to follow a simpler more humble.less judgmental  path. Listening to the words they spoke with my heart instead of my head started to find their simple but deep saying creeping up in my daily life. They6 used a kind of physically austere hyperbole to make a point. They wanted to find a way to remove distractions from their life that seperated them from God and weakened their battle with darkness. They founded the monastic life.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Father Boniface

Wednesday was the monastic funeral of Father Boniface the former 90 year old librarian of the Westminster /Christ the King Seminary in Mission. Father Boniface was a librarian , teacher and deep listener of souls. His spirit was always too large for his body and although he seemed to be a fairly frail older man the light of his spirit filled his twinkly blue eyes and any room he was sitting in. I used to think he floated a few inches from the floor around the library. When I first started to be allowed to use his library , a grace I believe I was allowed because I was a seeker and a trusted someone referred me. The library is not a public use facility. In an all male monastery an extra special gift of trust. I borrowed books from there for almost ten years. Although I have taken other courses in religion and spend my days working in an educational setting as a support staff few other places have educated me as well as my time in the monastic library. I was like a child left alone in a candy shop. I could eat up all the mystics I liked. Which were many and abundant. It was here I got to know the desert fathers, female mystics, patrons of religious orders like St. Benedict , Bernard and Bruno. Here I found others like me , although often veiled in archaic language, ancient customs and often cloistered behind the walls of a convent their hearts were in love with Christ and they dared to try to express in words that for many sounded like the words of Lovers. This a reoccurring theme of female mystics in a kind of courtly love language as Christ was indeed their Lover.

Standing around the grave of a very old monk one is again reminded of how much Love kept him there. How promises of stability to a monastery he had served were kept , even when his heart longed often for the soil on the other side of Mt Angel. Father Boniface told me a little story once( he is famous for his little stories) of how when he was a very small boy his father held him on his shoulders so they could watch together the sad occurrence of the burning of the Mt Angel Monastery library. I believe this little vignette was a driving force in Father Boniface's compiling role of the wonderful Abbey library. Towards the last few years of Father Boniface's life I slowed down on my book borrowing and spend a bit more time just visiting as I sensed Father felt uncomfortable about letting his book children out the door in case perhaps he might pass and the books might never make it home to their right stall. He taught me that a misplaced book is a lost book and how to be very careful in my returning of them to their home on the shelves. One a couple of hot summer days I received access to the rare book room and thought perhaps I had died and gone to heaven. My early days in the library I was trying to tackle the big spiritual hitters like St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila's Interior Castles. He would give me a picture book of St. John of the Cross and a commentary to go along with Interior Castles. He knew what I needed when I didn't . After awhile of returning whatever I borrowed I could select something which he was happier with when it had double copies or more so the students would not be without a book. I found books in the women topics that were less read and not key seminary reading and it was garden of delights. It was like some long ago relative of mine had a thing for scriptoriums. I was born to be in one. When there I was perfectly content. By some coincidence a relative send us a well researched family genealogy and eons of relatives had lived within a stones throw of Glendough an ancient monastic village in the old country. So that might explain my love of monastic libraries. Except for one thing. Now that Fr. Boniface has gone and I know I will no longer see his smiling face and twinkly eyes among the books the library seems a much dustier and less pressing in interest place to visit. I have found my books in other ways and the doors of access seemed to have closed under the new monitor. While closing those doors other windows have opened and I am actually aware that my time of Grace there was something special and beautiful. As we stood around the grave side of Father Boniface each person tossed a bit of dirt on to his simple wood casket. Hesitant, I held back and composed myself for the final goodbye. There was something providing deep closure about tossing that clot of dirt on a box. I knew with all certainty that Father Boniface was not there. His frail little body might be in the box but that was all. A saint had gone home. An awareness that this was not a goodbye , but a Hello again in heaven swept over me and I look forward , one day in the words of St. Benedict "keeping death ever before my eyes , " standing with that great cloud of witnesses around the throne of God Fr. Boniface being fully restored among them . I am sure glad I took back all my books. Because , I am sure they will have Boniface on the gates. Checking out to see if your name is on the cards...." I think you have some fines here"....Awe. NO stamped Paid In Full. Enter In . I know that will be what was said to Boniface." Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest. "Father Boniface has gone home and the world is an emptier place without him.