During Lent we took up some extra reading (apart from the daily readings of the Rule), and we’ve pretty much tried to keep it up even after Lent. Having read two encyclicals (Arcanum and Casti conubii, both dealing with Matrimony), we have moved on to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
I won’t go into an explanation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) “phenomenon” simply because I couldn’t do justice to the theme, and there are already enough sources for that on the Internet. If you would like to get a taste of what a modern Desert Father is like, check out the video below, about Fr. Lazarus.
I would like to comment, however, on our impression of them. I was already somewhat acquainted with the Desert Fathers, having read bits and bobs of their sayings over the years, but for my wife this is something new. Reading the sayings with her has helped me to remember the freshness and wonder (and even oddity) I felt when I first discovered them.
What do these men and women of extraordinary ascetical feats have to teach us? While some of the sayings seem to us strange as we don’t know the context in which they were said, others make one reflect deeper on one’s own life. We find the Fathers severe, sometimes coarse even, and yet on the other hand they are merciful almost to the point of being blind to others’ sins. Their lives, if one is able to see beyond the supericial differences with ours, have much to teach us. They remind us that the spiritual life is one of struggle, that it is a battle against the flesh, the world and the Enemy (a message that I was not getting when I returned to the Church). They remind us that severity is not for the other, but for ourselves, as we tend to squander the graces God gives us. They remind us that just as God is merciful with us, so too must we be with our brothers and sisters. They remind us of the need of tears, of compunction, for our sins (I often wonder if frequent confession hasn’t done away with, from a psychological point of view, crying over one’s sins. Perhaps the thought of knowing one can have recourse to Confession at any time keeps one from dwelling too much on the reality that is sin in our lives.) They remind us that the Christian life isn’t simply an ethical life, a life of “rules”, of dos-and-don’ts, but rather it is about conversatio morum – a conversion of life.
In closing, I would like to leave you with some of the sayings that have caught my attention so far:
[Abba Anthony] said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”
Three Fathers used to go and visit Blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’
A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of fornication and he arose and went to Abba Anthony. The brethren also came from the monastery to correct him and bring him back. They set about proving that he had done this thing, but he defended himself and denied he had done anything of the kind. Now Abba Paphnutius, who is called Cephalus, happened to be there, and he told them this parable: “I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in, up to his neck.’ Then Abba Anthony said this about Abba Paphnutius: ‘Here is a real man, who can care for souls and save them.’ All those present were pierced to the heart by the words of the old man and they asked forgiveness of the brother. So, admonished by the Fathers, they took the brother back to the monastery.
Someone said to blessed Arsenius, “How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?” Abba Arsenius said to him, “We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.”
One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’