I love the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, here I describe my encounter with them and provide links to some of the things I have written about them over the past 10 years
Growing with the Desert Fathers
My serious engagement with the Desert Fathers began with a three week solitary retreat on the border between Wales and England where I wrote poetry and meditations and began to reflect on desert spirituality, although previously I had encountered their sayings through Thomas Merton. In preparation for this I read up on them, then during my retreat I read Like a Pelican in the Wilderness by the Greek writer Stelios Ramfos
One of the greatest of the Desert Fathers, Abba Poemen, made it a cornerstone of his teaching that spiritual maturity could not be attained merely by theoretical knowledge: "A person who teaches and does not practice what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses everybody can quench their thirst but cannot purify itself"
Poemen has increasingly become the lens through which I interpret the rest of the Sayings -- there are more sayings from Poemen then any other individual. There is something wonderfully generous and humane about his sayings and he has the longest entry in Ramfos's index, he is, perhaps, most famous for this story
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen said to him 'When we see brothers who are dozing at our gatherings, shall we rouse them so that they will be watchful?' He said to them, 'For my part when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest'.
Poemen avoided theological controversy and was only prepared to talk to people when they spoke from their hearts rather than intellectualizing.
From this three week retreat I have found myself continually reflecting on the Desert Fathers.
The Coptic tradition is still alive in Egypt and I encountered it when I worked for the Middle East Council of Churches in Cyprus and remember being given a Coptic cross by a Coptic Bishop which I greatly treasured. He had a presence about him which I still remember.
There were certainly things in the Desert Fathers that I struggled with, they did at times seem extreme and fanatical, and have a rather unattractive disdain for the body. Yet I still found in them a great spiritual wisdom which I wanted to make my own. This led to me re-writing the sayings as if the Desert Fathers were inhabiting east London where I was living at the time. For a number of years I tried to write one of these reinterpretations every day and this led to an article published in the Fairacres Chronicles (a journal published by the Sisters of the Love of God, the order of Benedicta Ward). I also wrote up sayings and experiences I had had during my 25 years experience of urban mission in a similar format.
Although Poemen is the Desert Father I admire the most, it is perhaps Arsenius with whom I most closely identify
One day have Arsenius came to a place where there will reeds blowing in the wind . The old man said to the brothers, 'What is this noise?' They said 'Some reeds'. Then the old man said to them 'When one who is living in silent prayer hears the song of a little sparrow, his heart to no longer he experiences the same peace. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds'.
This spoke into my heart because I often find myself struggling with noise which other people hardly seem to notice. It was a great comfort to me to find that this great old man had the same struggles as me. I therefore wrote my own reinterpretation of Arsenius as a city bigshot who came to live in East London
I also began to find the Desert Fathers invading my poetry and other writings, they became a symbol for my true spiritual heart: that place where I am most truly myself, overcoming my failures and weaknesses and living a whole and free human life. But it is not always an easy ride. The Sayings are certainly challenging. When I am struggling with something my wife will sometimes ask me 'What would the Old Men do?' and I often find that this brings me up short and helps me get some perspective on what I am facing. Perhaps what I struggle with most in the Sayings is a tendency towards Pelagianism which, perhaps, teaches that we can reach heaven by our own efforts. I am still enough of a Protestant to feel that grace is all important, but perhaps this just makes me spiritually lazy, not willing to fully commit myself in the way the Desert Fathers did.
This reference to Pelagianism reminds us of the influence of the Desert Fathers in the British Isles which was where Pelagius came from. The great Celtic saints were strongly influenced by the heroic asceticism of their Egyptian forebears and the stories of St. Cuthbert and St. David take you right back to the wild deserts of Egypt even if the environment is a whole lot wetter! There is something very masculine about this spirituality and it seems to me there is a close connection between Egyptian and Celtic asceticism and present day participants in mountaineering and extreme sports. There is the same desire to push and test the body and in that find a spiritual liberation -- even if present day participants in extreme sports are more likely to imbibe the spirit of alcohol than the altogether more interesting and fecund Holy Spirit. Now that I live in a remote part of Wales this tradition has become even more important for me.
The early British saint, influenced by the Desert Fathers and mothers, that has most attracted my attention has been St. Guthlac. He lived on an island in the Fenlands where he struggled with the demons of his own heart, lived at peace with the wildlife and became a counselor to kings and bishops. I have been inspired by the way he is withdrawn and yet not isolated, his very remoteness and withdrawal from the political world enabled him to play a crucial role in the wider society. Although not expecting to be a counselor to kings and bishops (!) I have drawn inspiration from this in my own work and life. My disabilities and chronic illness have forced withdrawal upon me but this does not mean I cannot be part of the world, I just relate to it in a different way which has its own value.
I think one of the main reasons why I have been attracted to the Desert Fathers is my own long struggles with chronic illness and disability. This is my reinterpretation of one of the Sayings
Holy Joanna of Thurrock said. "There are three kinds of people who make God happy: First those who've given up the need to be in control of their lives. Second those who work hard for the benefit of others without expecting to get praised in return. Third those who are ill and feel like despairing but still manage to give thanks."
This has been an important saying for me as it opens the door for me to begin to make sense of my experience as I follow this third way of pleasing God. The nature of my illnesses have also made me think that they are in some way intrinsic to me and as they push me deeper and deeper into the wilderness so I more and more become who I truly am.
I have continued to read and meditate on the 'old men' for this webpage I have prepared some new documents including a bibliography and set of theses which I am hoping may lead into a more extended piece of work. I also found myself writing something which explored contemporary attitudes to the Desert Fathers.