The sayings are simple and concrete, about ordinary life. They remind me of a little book of short Zen anecdotes - Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - that I’ve had in my bathroom for many years. Merton says that they are “plain answers to plain questions.”
It is interesting that the Desert Fathers lived at about the same time (3rd and 4th centuries A.D.) that Zen was developing in the East.
Merton found in the Desert Fathers something akin to what he was seeking in the monastery. A way of seeing and being that was true. A way to live that was not steeped in delusion. I believe that he was reaching for and defining a contemplative consciousness that transcends our usual ego driven Cartesian consciousness, and will be our life line into the future.
Here are a few sayings of the Desert Fathers that I have pulled from Wisdom in the Desert:
Once two brothers were sitting with Abbot Poemen and one praised the other brother saying: He is a good brother, he hates evil. The old man said: What do you mean, he hates evil? And the brother did not know what to reply. So he said: Tell me, Father, what it is to hate evil? The Father said: That man hates evil who hates his own sins, and looks upon every brother as a saint, and loves him as a saint.
Abbot John used to say: We have thrown down a light burden, which is the reprehending of our own selves, and we have chosen instead to bear a heavy burden, by justifying our own selves and condemning others.
Abbot Hor said to his disciple: Take care that you never bring into this ell the words of another.
Blessed Magarius said: This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.
One of the elders said: Pray attentively and you will soon straighten out your thoughts.
Abbot Joseph asked Abbot Pastor: Tell me how I can become a monk. The elder replied: If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? And judge no one.