THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS
I've had a number of encounters with the desert fathers over the years, I think mostly through Aaron Weiss and maybe Thomas Merton, so I'd been intending to read this for a long time, and finally got a copy in October at Eighth Day Books when I went to Wichita for Abby's wedding. Almost immediately I realized that it was less mystical and more monotonous than I'd hoped it would be - a lot like the spiritual life itself, I suppose.
The desert fathers (and mothers) were 4th and 5th century Christians who thought the best way to please God was to live in extreme isolation and spend most of their time praying. Most of them were in the Egyptian desert, but they also lived in Syria and Palestine and Arabia, and almost all of them seem to have spent a lot of time weaving ropes and baskets and worrying about how sinful they were for, like, not fasting for days on end or for wanting to talk to other people. This is a severe and unsmiling and self-focused form of Christianity whose asceticism might occasionally lead to a mystical experience, but whose life has little in common with that of Jesus. Jesus was not aloof or austere and didn't live in isolation, and rejecting beauty, joy and people seems deeply unchristian. Jesus often went off by himself to pray or just to be alone, but he always went back to the company of his friends and his enemies and the crowds of acquaintances and strangers. He loved to tell stories about birds and flowers and trees and towers, and was resented for eating and drinking too much and having too many friends. So it's strange to me that a few centuries later people decided the best way to follow him would be to sit grimly alone in a cave, rejecting all visitors, and carefully restricting the amount of food and sleep that they allowed themselves. I get that humility and self-control are important and worth cultivating, but living next to a river your whole life and refusing to look at it, wishing an illness would last for 30 years, announcing "you should not do work which gives you satisfaction" or instructing others to "despise everything and acquire for yourself a heart of iron," all seem like bizarre and wildly ineffective methods of following Jesus, who fed people and healed people and gave people wine and befriended weirdos and said "I've come so you can have life! A life that's abundant and full!"
other books I read this month: