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The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions) Paperback – January 17, 1970
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“In fact, Thomas Merton does not so much introduce the Fathers of the desert; he stands in their midst, one of them.”
- Father Daniel Berrigan
About the Author
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) entered the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, following his conversion to Catholicism and was ordained Father M. Louis in 1949. During the 1960s, he was increasingly drawn into a dialogue between Eastern and Western religions and domestic issues of war and racism. In 1968, the Dalai Lama praised Merton for having a more profound knowledge of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. Thomas Merton is the author of the beloved classic The Seven Storey Mountain.
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He talks about when Christianity was not only legalized by the Emperor, but made the official religion so that it became a means of temporal power. The monks fled into the desert to retain a purer expression of the faith. “In other words, for them the only Christian society was spiritual and extramundane: the Mystical Body of Christ (page 4).”
“They were not rebels against society. True, they were in a certain sense ‘anarchists,’ and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values (pages 4-5).”
“What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ (page 5).”
“In any case these Fathers distilled for themselves a very practical and unassuming wisdom that is at once primitive and timeless, and which enables us to reopen the sources that have been polluted or blocked up altogether by the accumulated mental and spiritual refuse of our technological barbarism. Our time is in desperate need of this kind of simplicity…The important thing is that they were lived. That they flow from an experience of the deeper levels of life (page 11).”
Anyway, the quotes from the fathers that follow are usually brief, some one sentence long, most are a paragraph. The advice is often given as a story, but very succinctly. Some advice appears contradictory, what is good for one person may not be good for another. But altogether the virtues of humility, compassion, fasting, prayer, generosity, work, consistently shine through this short volume.
As I read more and more books by and about Thomas Merton, it’s nice to know that he has built his spiritual foundation on the lives and teachings of these Early Christian Desert Fathers. We could all benefit from doing the same.
"Wisdom of the Desert" begins with a profound and fascinating essay which sets the writings of the Desert Fathers in context. There Father Merton tells us that the Desert writers have always been one of his favorite group of writers, and that what follows is a collection of his favorite "sayings". I went through the book this morning (it's only 81 pages long) and selected some of my favorite "sayings". These Zen like quotes tell us something about the spiritual experience of the Fathers and their desire to live authentic spiritual lives. For me, this feature is the magnet of the book, which keeps me coming back for more.
Here are a few:
A brother asked one of the elders, How does fear of the Lord get into a man? And the elder said; If a man have humility and poverty, and judge not another, that is how fear of the Lord gets into him.
A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him; Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.
Abbot Pastor said: The virtue of a monk is made manifest by temptations.
An Elder said: Just as a tree cannot bear frut if it is often transplanted, so neither can a monk bear fruit if he frequently changes his abode.
Once some robbers came into the monastery and said to one of the elders; We have come to take away everything that is in your cell. And he said: My sons, take all you want. So they took everything they could find in the cell and started off. But they left behind a little bad that was hidden in the cell. The elder picked it up and followed after them, crying out: My sons, take this, you forgot it in the cell! Amazed at the patience of the elder, they brought everything back into his cell and did penance, saying: This one really is a man of God!
These "sayings" invite us to an inner-directed Christianity one you may not be familiar with, but one which is sorely needed. "Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything"! In other words, you already possess in you, all that you need. One just has to ruminate! And it is my experience, this is what drives folks to be part of monastic communities today. To be more "real".
I love these "sayings" and reading them often sparks off other thoughts. Check saying XXVIII, on the principle of stablity. St. Benedict later made this the backbone of his religious order, and helped to transform Europe. And how about saying XCIV? Ever seen that one before? Reminds me of that great scene in Hugo's "Les Miserables" when Bishop Myriel gives his silver candlesticks to Jean Valigean. Who knows, maybe Hugo got his idea for that scene from here.
This is a great book, a fine place to start if you've never read anything by the sage from Gethsemani Abbey.
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