Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Bridge of the Desert Fathers between Christ and the World

Reading the Desert Fathers brings one into ancient orthodox thinking that expands the mind into areas not explored within , say, and evangelical Protestant box which is my background. While going out to meet the Desert fathers in the Desert one has to go on a spiritual pilgrimage from our current way of thinking into a land that looks different from the way we think think of what Christian looks like in the 21st Century.

Think of the word North American Christianity on a Sunday morning. Generally something with a steeple comes to mind , pews, maybe a stain glass window. Depending on your tradition you are going to have either a lot of worship music or a lot of liturgy. If your really lucky you get both but rarely. Folks are over all well dressed, well fed, drive to church in a comfortable vehicle and seem to like to get together for fellowship dinners and coffee. There is a lot of chatting, if your in a high energy worship music church there is not a lot of quiet, and there are either a lot of Bibles in the pews, Bibles in hand or scripture in a prayer book or missal. There might be an offering for the poor, or a food bank donation , or a missions project. Maybe the church encourages people to be involved in social justice. Church is a few hours on Sunday, maybe some volunteer hours through the week and that is if you are really being good. Your trying that's what is important.

   The we have the Desert Fathers. They live way out in the wilderness , often in a cave or small one or two room dwelling, later monasteries but these were still very spartan. You eat a bit of dry bread, a few dates and some oil when you decide its a good day to eat. Fasting is how you bring your body into submission and your spirit follows course. You deprive yourself of sleep . You pray for hours at a time. You have memorized and internalized large sections of scripture which are few and far between. Sometimes you live in a community where you see each other on Sunday. Sometimes you may not see another face for years . The weather is brutal, your bath  may be a periodic desert rain, you have rags for clothes and harsh temptations test your mind and sap your spiritual strength. Strange things haunt your dreams. Bandits come and take away what little you have , visitors come and intrude on your privacy,and the work of your hands may be weaving the same mat over and over again. Markets to sell your wares may  be a long ways away, medical assistance even further. You have to rely on daily miracles to stay alive. This is the Desert Father of the third and fourth century. Pilgrims came to them across burning deserts for a simple word, a word full of life and the Holy Spirit. These men who had left all their goods behind and gave away to the poor the little they had left in search for a holiness and intimacy with God they felt only could be found in silence, poverty, fasting and coming out from the world.

        The contrast between what the average Christian type is today and the dramatic asceticism of the Desert Fathers is so sharp it is easy to think that perhaps one has no relation to the other. Before dismissing them it might be a good idea to ask a few interior questions. For safety margins on our theological quest let us take with us the boundaries of the Creed of the Church.Which Creed.?Which Bible, which books and  letters are going in the Bible which will stay out. How will we decide on the nature of Christ . What wording will we use to describe the Holy Spirit in relation to the other members of the Trinity. Who is in charge. Being a Heretic was something that bounced back and forth in the councils of the church for sometime. One day you weren't one day you were. Being on the wrong side could cost you your life or you reputation. It was a good time to find a quiet cave in the backside of the desert and stay there for seventy five years. What we now consider written in stone wasn't yet. People became tired of the ecclesiastical city life and wanted to live a simple life in a close relationship with Christ.The desert provided this. It provided the promise of a deep intimacy with God within the silence. The desert Fathers were able to share this assimilation of their wisdom in sayings taken by pilgrims like Cassian back to their parts of the known world and influence the foundation of monastic practice.
and the Christian world.

             To step into the world of the Desert Fathers one has to step into what we now think of an Orthodox Way of thinking. Eternity is present. Angels, Demons, wild beasts becoming friends, miracles that were common place events and the ever present onslaught of temptation balance against the desire for God. The monks influence Orthodox thought today where the current monks of the desert in St. Anthony's monastery still see him appear from time to time on the high towers of their walls . Their ideas of how we deal with sin and how we battle forces of darkness still is reflected in penance and fasts in the Church.

The Desert Fathers found their strength in their time with God in their saturated lives of Prayer. This is where they did battle. They battled from inside their place of prayer . They were so inside the Presence of God that it was their wall and high tower, their refuge. They built periodically prayer towers . ladders up to prayer caves in the Syrian desert, high towers in the Celtic monastic villages such as Glendough reflected the monastic desire to find places removed and physical places of prayer , solitude and protection. These reflected their spiritual ladders, and refuge which was already built and hidden in Christ.  Scripture and the Eucharist when they could come together was as source of strength and power for the Desert Fathers in their battle. The Fathers became known for their apparent ability to sometimes defy the rules of nature in their ability to pray for long hours standing without sleep, little food and sometimes even go places that were far away , without apparently leaving such as an Abbot who did business in far of Alexandria without apparently leaving the monastery. Such events appear in saints of other periods over Church History and have the same marks of being able to be present in one place while influencing the events or appearing in another location.,
The Desert Fathers were extremely modest about their abilities won in prayer and often tried to cover anything unusual as an understandable event.

          These influences carried down into the monastic practices of the Benedictines, Cistercians and Carmelties in their rules and influence  hermitages of the present day. The core message of the Desert Fathers beyond their extreme eremitical practice was a consistent practice of the practice of poverty. The Life of Anthony tells of his hearing the word of Christ to the rich young man to sell all he has, give it to the poor and follow Christ. This is a core feature in the Rule of St. Benedict and the life of the Desert Fathers. This poverty held that not even a pen would be kept without the permission of the Abbot . The desert Fathers seemed to compete to see who could have less not who could have more. They were able to live with a mat, perhaps a hand woven piece of clothes , and the most basic forms of shelter. Yet still from this they practiced hospitality and gave of what they had in gracious hospitality. The challenge to live with less and simplify our lives rings loudly from the heritage of the Desert.

             Yet with all these gifts of grace I found myself sitting with the Desert Fathers asking them for a word for my current life. Beyond the importance of what the Desert Fathers had left in their legacy to Cistercians and thus to Lay Cistercians and contemplatives this focus on the poor touches the world I work in even more. The monks of the Desert pulled their desire to fillow Christ in his love for the poor from the Gospels. I understood poor in the face of the homeless , the street engaged and single parent moms standing in line at the foodbank. I knew I had come to the desert for  a reason and I knew the Fathers had one last thing to say to me before I left them and went on to another page in History. The current government in British Columbia is in
serious cutback to agencies and services to those who serve the poor and marginalized. Shelters, Womens's, Transition Houses and Services for the Disabled are directly affected. It is true that we do not really understand something until it affects us.

I came home a few days ago with a lay off notice for my job of seventeen years, along with all the staff in that particular home. Forty five group homes had been closed that year, fifty more the next, parents of disabled adults and children were marching in the streets. The wait list to get into programs for a family was 2600 people long. In this mindset I came and sat infront of my stack of Desert Fathers books, Thomas Mertons talks to the Novices , their influence on Pre - Benedictine Monasticism , the Wisdom of the Desert, Seeking God by Esther de Waal and and lines of similar books on library shelves. If I now had come to join the spiritual view of the coming with a listening heart to really hear a word from these saints. They who stand with the communion of saints in the presence of God could they beyond the books and the stories give me a Word. There was silence. Long painful silence. No voice from the past. It was hard not to be skeptical.
I had forgotten the rule of the Desert. You have to wait for the Word. Sitting on a city bus in the quiet early on a Sunday morning after a long night a word came " You can use this to enter into the suffering of those you are with". Without this feeling of being displaced you would not understand , Be an advocate...the Disabled are the Poor. The Disabled are the Poor. All the Gospels of Christ healing the lame, restoring the blind, curing the leper, rose up and hit me like a living word spoken directly to my heart. This was the bridge between my life and the Lives of the Fathers. The healing call of the Gospel of Christ to Broken people. The Disabled are the Poor. A simple word to light the direction of my life in time of  desert. A voice calling from the wilderness. The word of the Gospel has not changed over time. It still speaks to our hearts in our times of needed direction.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Merton and Cistercian Formation

On my coffee table are four of Merton's writings on the Desert Fathers.again. I have been sitting out in the desert now with the Fathers and Merton for about two months. Anything by Merton I dig into like a hungry dog on a bone and approached these with the same ardour. I found a different Merton then the one I am accustomed to in his journals.These books are the works Merton as a Novice Director used in the monastic formation of the Novices of Gethsemene Abbey. This is the Father Louis the Teacher. There is a different side of him reflected in the work he does as a formation director.

The Tom I got to know in his journals is not really all that pleased with parts of his Cistercian life. He complains about having to get away from the hussle and bustle of the Cheese Factory, he tell side splitting funny stories about trying to drive a tractor, his frustrations with being silenced in his pacifist anti-war activism and his ongoing muse about some other form of monastic life.  It is the realness that endears us to Tom or Louis or whatever the name of the day is. It is his honesty and willingness to expose his soul that wins us over. My favorite book of Thomas Mertons is one of his journals called Entering the Silence when he is still a fairly new monk caught up in the mystery of the Faith. I was moved to tears by his rendition of St. Bernards Amori Christi, where Christ leans from the Cross and embraces him. Toms mystical nature flares into hot and high flames in moments before the Eucharist and you can feel the heat over death and time.
So when one encounters several writings of Merton's as a Novice Director the difference is between the private self and the business self of Merton. In his work as a Novice Director he pulls out his best intellectual and research self, polishes off his love for the hermit life and presents his entering monks with a brilliant work of formation into the Cisterican life. As  Lay Cistercian involved in a pioneer work of forming a Lay Cistercian community online and forming some thirty people ( the average size of a monastery)in a community Mertons work as a Novice Director was exactly the insights I needed to learn from. Merton was dedicated to taking the Novices back to the origins of monastic life. He does this well in his deep research on the sayings and practices of the Desert Fathers. He lays down the foundations in his first book on Cassian and then  moves into Pre- Benedictine monasticism found also spread across from Egypt into the Palestinian deserts. Thinking about a the Desert Fathers topic we had for our Lay Cistercians I went back to check the talk by Dom Armand Veilleux. Dom Armand is out of Scourmont Abbey and has a large online resource reference library on monastic topics in his own right. He mentioned that the monastic life started more or less at the same time in all the early churches and was not necessarily started in Egypt and then Palestine and then the East. He also suggested that when we look back to a time for when the monastic movement started we can go to the Baptism of Christ. Interesting. We can go there  because John the Baptist was from the desert Baptism movement and when the Early Church wanted to adopt some of the radical gospel of Christ they followed this renounciation of the world in the gospel that called them to "Give all you have to the poor and come and follow me", and the follow for them was modelling  a solitary  or desert direction.

Armond Veilleux carries a fondness for the Pachomonian cenobic lifestyle as a cenobic monk while Merton tended to be more focused on the hermit an orientation he was finally able to realize within a monastic community in his hermitage. Merton restored to the Cistercian formation the taste of the desert in the souls of his Novices. Much Jesuit and pious teaching had been forming Cistercian novices and Merton in his typical way wanted to shake it up a little. In bringing the Desert Fathers back into the early formation of the monks Merton followed  the direction of the early Cistercian reformers such as Stephen Harding.He took a few monks into a desert like wilderness in France to struggle in the brambles and barrenes of the land to follow the Rule of St. Benedict in a deeper,stricter way then it was in some of the monasteries of the time. 
 There reformation was so difficult and their ability to survive in their harsh chosen existance was becoming desperate when St. Bernard with thirty of his friends and male family members came knocking on the door and saved the fresh new movement from faltering. There are over the history of the Church when hope seems to be lost of the faithful have lost their way a fresh voice in the dark like a light that says "go this way". Merton was such a voice. Merton in his role of Novice Master brings us the best of the Desert Fathers both the Egyptian and the Palestinian and the Eastern forms . He crosses the bridges from the Egyptian desert to mystics like Simeon the Stylite who sat on the top of pillars for a lifetime sometimes speaking to the masses below sometimes silent. The desert Saint are no less saintly be they Egyptian ,or Syrian or more Eastern yet. They are all Fathers whose words are to rembered internalized and respected. 

     It is helpful to put oneself inside the group listening to Thomas Merton and although he is an academic ask ourselves a question. Why am I here?. If I am a monk then I am not sitting under this direction for class credit, I am not writing a book on Merton, I am not getting academic credit. Cloistered away in a monastery I am certainly not trying to impress anyone. Why the Desert Fathers. Why for Novices and often when Thomas looked around the room he would find older monks and sometimes the prior. The Fathers taught on how to deal with temptation. They faced the hard realities of the monastic life pre-Vatican 11 and the Fathers helped them understand the "why's of a life of ascetic living. Cistercian's wanted to be spiritual warriors. The Desert Fathers had this as their model. The back of the Benedictian medal holds a liittle known secret sentence of exorcism write in Latin. It is a clear statement that as a follower of St. Benedict they hold no traffic with the devil and all his devices. After Christ and following Christ into the desert the Fathers prepared themselves for spirtual combat by fasting and prayer in a way that studying them would form the novice into a similar warrior of the desert. To leave a young monk uniformed that he is walking into warfare with darkness when he enters a monastery would be to leave him unprepared for the battle he is about to encounter. So Thomas who has battled through many of his own demons to find himself inside the Catholic faith and a monastery knows from experience that in order to succeed in their vocation the monks must be formed in the spirituality of the desert. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Female Pilgrims

Following up on Desert Fathers and Mothers and Julia Bolton Holloway's magnificent site you won't want to miss her webpage on female pilgrims. Its on . Egeria is a Spanish Nun who traveled to Bethlehem within a year of St. Jerome and Paula and her detailed reports on Church liturgical life show us a much more well developed liturgical life then we tend to think of this early in the church. Paula who later set up convents in a kind of "women's study group " with Jerome in Rome and when her husband died she took her daughter with her to Bethlehem and toured many of the sites of the desert fathers. Paula came from a wealthy Roman family and the expectation was that she would remarry and keep her wealth in the hands of the noble Roman circles. Paula had other ideas . We know about Paula from the letters written by Jerome to her daughter. You can find Jerome's extent letters on .  This is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library . Bookmark this link because it has anything you ever wanted to know about the Fathers up to modern day Spiritual writers . If there is some long lost , hard to find Spiritual Classic you want to find the chances of you finding it here are quite high. They are adding books all the time . So put on your pilgrim shoes and take up your search staff because this site is a one of those pearls of great price that is actually free on the net. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Interesting Hermits in the 21st Century

#1  Julia Bolton Holloway Most Interesting Hermit of the 21st Century. 

       The Desert Fathers left a legacy of spiritual life that echos down through history into the lives of monastic and contemplatives today. The words Hermit, Anchorite and Solitaire, Convent , Monastery tend to be often used now in a historical tone, past tense. Medieval studies leave us fascinated with knights, castles, lords and ladies, rich tales of brave deeds and evil sorcerers. These tales usually have a group of Gregorian chanting hooded monks to keep the mystical mood flowing. There is nothing like a bit of Gregorian chant to start a good Medieval mystery,the popularity of the Cadaefil Mysteries books, movies and TV shows. The recent Merlin shows are and example of that kind of fascination. But one could well ask“where did all the Hermit Desert Father types go. Where is that legacy of Desert spirituality?. We may see the occasional street person who looks like our image of a hermit . The kind of long bearded wild’ eyed end times prophet look. Maybe they even carry a sign. “Prepare! the Wrath of God is about to Fall”.  Well they are a kind of Hermit perhaps. But do we have any sane ones.  When going out to look for a Hermit you might want to differentiate between people who are simply reclusive and people who are religious hermits or solitaires. 

 As a child we used to have two “hermits” come into my father’s shop to get their shoes fixed. They were rather large men with a distinct body odor, fuzzy scraggy beards, well worn farm attire, and bad dental work. They lived high up in the mountains in a badly patched house with a few cows, pigs and sheep and bit of farm land.  I think they traded in vegetables for work done in town. We had another one that lived up in the Blue Mountain caves. A mountain man rarely seen that kept his food cold in the snow that lasted all year in the crevices of these unique caves. Most rural societies have a few of these recluses that keep the town folk talking. These people are interesting but if you are going on a Hermit pilgrimage you need to prepare like a pilgrim. You need to pray. Prepare your heart. Know that you are searching for religious hermits and be willing to spend some time looking and asking where they might be hiding out. Big Hint . Don't even think about looking for Hermits during Lent. No welcome will be extended. Best time to look for Hermits...Ordinary Time if you have a Liturgical Calendar handy. That's if you actually want to talk to one.  

 Modern day hermits living in both rural areas and the busy cities of the world. Some that live in busy cities also do some kind of work with the poor and many who live in rural or sensitive ecological areas are involved in some kind of environmental awareness work. Some live in their own cottage or hut on the far end of a monastery and come in weekly or at set times for Mass and supplies.Thomas Merton the famous Trappist monk had such an arrangement.  Some just keep to prayer and their gardens. Before the time of internet and email one had to go out to their place of solitude or write to a hermit. Now with the wonders of the internet some solitaires have made themselves, in ways of their choosing accessible on their terms. 

One such modern Hermit who is a kind of model to me of what a modern hermit or soilitaire should be and perhaps even more than one could expect to be is a woman by the name of Julian Bolton Holloway. Julian first came to my attention through a search for Julian Of Norwich an early medieval anchorite who was walled up in a few rooms on the side of a church and had wrote about her ecstatic visions of Christ . Julian of Norwich is one of the better known of the medieval mystics and Julian Bolton Holloway is a specialist of her manuscripts among others.

Her website is a thing of beauty to behold and equals about twelve of the usual websites one would link to full of ancient writing, literature of English poets, stories of famous writers long passed that rest in the Swedish ( English ) Cemetery which is a she helped make a World Historical UNESCO site in Florence . Her lectures at Oxford, Medieval Studies Conferences, tours of Dante in on site Cathedrals in Florence are only a small part of her work. Her heart is with the Roma’s she helps raise out of poverty by teaching them employable skills, the books in the library she had put together by friendly book donors all over the globe and her grandchildren. Yes, because Julia at one time was a married woman with children and now grandchildren in the US.  Some solitaires are people who have lived whole other lives before the solitaire call beckoned. Julia although she keeps her prayer times and liturgical seasons like any other  religious solitaire has enough activity around her to keep a small monastery busy let alone one woman. Her Vita , with advanced degrees, published writings and books would be enough for anyone to gladly rest their laurels on . Julia in her seventies is a still very active  woman with a strong belief in the energy saving benefits of bicycles which she rides through the streets and countryside of Florence . Visit Florence, meet Julia who I correspond with periodically over at least ten years is on my Top Ten things to do before I die Bucket List. I am hoping she lives to be a Hundred . She is different then the afore mentioned ( prior post) Coptic Desert Father dubbed" the Last Anchorite" but epitomizes what a solitaire can be in the 21st century and still keep the flavour of the Desert Fathers alive in her desire for quiet, prayers, hospitality, keeping herself by the works of her hands, genuine care for the poor and a deep wisdom that attracts a listening heart.

You can find more about her work on saving the Swedish Cemetery in Florence where such greats as Elizabeth Barret Browning are buried