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The Desert Fathers Paperback – March 24, 1998
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The Desert Fathers is a handy introduction to the sayings and stories of the earliest contemplatives--the men and women who, in the fourth century, escaped towns and cities to seek God and wrestle with demons in the deserts of Africa and Asia Minor. Some of these stories (such as the life of St. Anthony, the first monk) read almost like sci-fi, with their exuberant miracles exploding in exotic locations. All of them help readers understand the value and danger of liberating oneself from the constrictions of society. --Michael Joseph Gross
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Latin
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Waddell's translation can be difficult to understand at times, but overall the book is interesting and insightful, and at points bizarre and unsettling. For example, St. Jerome's account of the hermit Antony's encounter with a hippocentaur and a faun/satyrs is extremely peculiar. Jerome even claims that a faun/satyrs was captured alive and brought to Alexandria during the reign of Constantius. The creature was either killed, or just died, and its remains were then preserved in salt (Waddell, 37-38). Furthermore, Jerome states that lions came and dug the grave for the hermit St. Paul (Waddell, 42). These reports are extremely difficult for the modern-day reader to accept as being historically accurate, and the reader is left wondering if this account is meant to be allegory, and not an actual historical account.
However, it is interesting to read how the monks had some competitiveness among themselves, and of Jerome's love of classical works (Waddell, 45-46). There are several accounts of monks being well educated and possessing codices of Scripture. The monk Gelasius had a "codex in parchment worth eighteen solidi" (Waddell, 125-127). The monk Arsenius is described as a "great scholar" of Latin and Greek (Waddell, 122).
Even though there was infighting among some of the monks, it appears that the majority of the Desert Fathers, in their solitary lives, showed great compassion and concern for one another:
If by chance any one is missing in that gathering, straightway they understand that he has been detained by some unevenness of his body and they all go to visit him, not indeed all of them together but at different times, and each carrying with him whatever he may have by him at home that might seem grateful to the sick. (Waddell, 58)
There kindness to each other and those in need is commendable.
Racism seems to have always been with us. Pelagius wrote of the monk Moses "the `long black man' who was converted from among the robbers, and was liable to gibes about his colour" (Waddell 65). This same desert abbott Moses was humble, but so revered that a provincial judge sought to meet with him (Waddell, 99).
The desert monks' lives were lives of fasting, and it appears from the writings that since fasting was such a huge part of their lives they developed a fixation on food. Many of the stories relate to how they often only ate very small portions of food, and frequently that was mere bread and salt. One story relates how an old ailing monk, at the urging of the his fellow monk, ate some cake in hopes of aiding in his recovery, but the cake was accidently spread with linseed oil instead of honey--which likely killed the old monk. The underlying, and untold, moral is that such an indulgence deserved punishment (Waddell, 142).
Woman, too, are a source of temptation for the monks. There are several stories about the monks' struggles with lust. One young monk who refused to be tempted by women went on a journey with his mother, and wrapped his hands in his cloak to prevent from touching his own mother's hands--for fear of lust, "Because the body of a woman is fire. And even from my touching thee, came the memory of other women into my soul" (Waddell 79). There are also some more fanciful accounts of desert monks being tempted by women. In another account, the temptress actually dies and the monk raises her from the dead to live a new chaste life (Waddell 86-87). This same theme is found at the end of the book in the story of The Life of St. Mary the Harlot (Waddell 199-209). However, there are also accounts of pious women who also lived the desert life (Waddell, 131, 138).
The life of the dessert monk was one of denial and sacrifice, but also compassion and love for others. This interesting book gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of this devoted men and women.