Thursday, October 22, 2009

the Desert Fathers (according to Merton)

“In the fourth century A.D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation...”

This is the way Thomas Merton begins The Wisdom of the Desert, a book that was published in 1960. It was one of Merton’s favorites among his own books, showing how deeply he identified with the 4th century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.

Merton introduces his translations Desert Fathers sayings with a rather lengthy discussion of just who these hermits were:
These were men who believed to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply disaster. ...

It should seem to us much stranger than it does, this paradoxical flight from the world that attained its greatest dimension (I almost said frenzy) when the “world” became officially Christian. These men seem to have thought that there is really no such thing as a “Christian state”. ...


They were not rebels against society ... one of the reasons why they fled from the world of men was that in the world men were divided into those who were successful and those who had to give in and be imposed upon. The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over others themselves. ...


What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self fabricated under social compulsion in “the world”. ...


Their flight to the arid horizons of the desert meant also a refusal to be content with arguments, concepts, and technical verbiage. ...


... such a path could only be traveled by one who was very alert and very sensitive to the landmarks of a trackless wilderness ...

The proximate end to all this striving was “purity of heart” - a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ ...
Merton senses the commonality of the Desert Fathers and the Indian Yogis and Zen monks of China and Japan. In 20th century America, though, such beings are tragically rare. He notes that there is a primitive wisdom among some of the Native American tribes, but it is different from that of the Desert Fathers, who made a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to “swim for one’s life in an apparently irrational Void.”

He uses words like “fabulous originality” to describe these “primitive souls”. And even though he says that the world still needs solitaries and hermits, he admits that simply imitating their simplicity, austerity and prayer would be an unsatisfactory answer to today’s problems:

“We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

...we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown.” pp. 23-24

2 comments:

  1. So are there no desert fathers among us?

    ReplyDelete
  2. don't seem to be any ... Merton says that you'd think that you would find a few in the monasteries, but the monasteries had become their own kind of society, with rules and power games, etc. Tragically rare, he says.

    Next post I'm going to put some of the saying of the Fathers ...

    ReplyDelete

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