Not liking the desert fathers

Someone tried to be kind to me a couple of weeks ago.  They sent me, anonymously, a copy of “The desert fathers: sayings of the early Christian monks”[1].  I have to say that I can guess who sent it; and that was supposing from my interest in patristics that I might be amenable to something of the kind. 

What is the book?  Well, it’s a very decent modern translation of the Vitae Patrum volume 5, from the Patrologia Latina vol. 73, cols.851-1024.[2]  The same translator has also translated volume 1[3] and been involved with a translation of volume 2[4]

The introduction is interesting — I learned from it, for instance, that the Lausiac History by Palladius is volume 8 of the same work, and is so called because it was dedicated to a certain Lausus the Chamberlain, an imperial official.[5]  A useful note on the text tells us that the sayings were copied, extracted, attributed to different people and places, and so on, and translated from one language to another, compiled, excerpted and so on.  All this is normal for sayings literature such as gnomologia (“wisdom sayings”).

But there is a price to pay for this form of transmission.  A saying must be striking to survive the process.  It must appeal to those who will preserve it, or it will not be transmitted.  It will be rephrased to adjust to different tastes, it will be attributed to different people, often to famous people.  A certain kind of joke in modern English always becomes associated with Winston Churchill; another sort with Oscar Wilde; but the attribution is made casually in order to make the saying more striking, not as the product of some form of careful research!

What this note on the text does not say, then — and surely it should? — is that we cannot know for certain who actually composed any particular saying, and whether it reflects the views of the monks at all.  Many of these may be the product instead of what we might call the “fan base” — people who were not monks, lived in ordinary society, and simply admired what they believed a monk was.

Much of the material consists of sayings that suggest an attempt at humanising some ridiculously ascetic aspirations.  These, possibly, are indeed by the monks, faced with a torrent of people under the craziest misapprehensions as to what to expect; and awaiting massive disappointment and even psychological or physical injury in consequence. 

I’m afraid that I did not find wisdom in these pages.  It is, perhaps, best to dip into such a book rather than try to read it.  But I’m afraid it irritated me.  Possibly having a book wished on me had that effect; but also the fact that one couldn’t know whether the things were anything but fan-fiction annoyed me.  

These sayings of the fathers did not strike me as holy, or inspired.  I’m sorry, but there it is.  

Asceticism, as the translator rightly notes, is not particularly a Christian thing.  It’s something that human beings are drawn to, often as a reaction to a morally corrupt society.  It does not have spiritual value per se. A busy mother bringing up a brood of brattish children will learn more about mortification than any of these.

But Jesus was not an ascetic, and neither were the apostles.  I don’t see the point.

  1. [1]Translated by Benedicta Ward, Penguin, 2003.
  2. [2]Thus the translator, p.xxvi.
  3. [3]Harlots of the desert, London:Mowbray, 1987, based on PL 73 cols 651-71
  4. [4]The lives of the desert fathers, translated by Norman Russell, London:Mowbray, 1981, based on PL 73, cols. 707-39.
  5. [5]p.xxix.

6 thoughts on “Not liking the desert fathers

  1. Wait wait wait. Are you saying Jesus didn’t go out to the wilderness and fast for forty days? Or are you saying that since it was only forty days out of His life, they didn’t count? Because in that case, I guess we can totally ignore both a certain Friday and a certain Sunday before dawn….

    One of the major points of inspiration for the Christian lifestyle is that people imitate both Christ’s entire life, and little bits of His life. Mother Theresa got the inspiration for her entire spirituality and many good works from the two words “I thirst,” so taking forty whole days in the wilderness as inspiration isn’t all that bizarre. And St. John the Baptist was an ascetic, and St. Paul went out into the wilderness for quite a while between his conversion and when he went to preaching and such. (IIRC.) Also, all the saintly prophets count as Christian saints, so of course lots of people imitate the bit of St. Elijah’s life that’s not as hard to manage as making fire come down from heaven or causing drought. Blah blah et cetera, as I know you know this stuff. 🙂

    It is irritating to have a book of sayings not explicitly explained, and advice from people not of your vocation can be annoying. But a lot of people today spend a lot of time alone, albeit not in the wilderness, and a lot of people long for simplicity, albeit desert monks had their own complications of life. The sad thing is that most of us don’t have the community support that the desert monks had; we are much more like hermits.

  2. I wont go as far as to say asceticism does not have spiritual value. It is not only in the sayings of the desert monks that ascetic thoughts are found. There are also found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the writings of the early fathers. William G. Most once compiled a note which shows their existance in ancient jewish literature as well. Here is the piece:

    Asceticism: Scripture; Intertestamental and Rabbinic Writings

    Scripture: Old Testament

    Tobit 12:8:

    Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving along with righteousness… For almsgiving saves from death and cleanses away every sin.”

    Sirach 3:30: “Water puts out a blazing fire; and almsgiving atones (exilasetai) for sin.

    17:22: “A man’s almsgiving is like a signet ring with Him [the Lord] and He will keep a man’s favor [to others] like the apple of his eye.”

    29:12: “Store almsgiving among your treasures and it will draw you out of every evil.”

    40:17: “almsgiving remains forever.”

    40:24: “A brother, a help, is for time of need but giving alms delivers more than both.”

    2 Sam 12:16ff: David fasted in hope of saving his son’s life. When that failed, he stopped fasting. His servants thought he would fast in mourning. David said: Why should he continue, he can no longer save the child. “I fasted and wept, for I said; ‘Who knows? The Lord may be kind to me, and the child may live. ‘”

    Psalms 32:13: “When they were sick I put on sackcloth and afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with bowed head.”

    69:9-10: “Zeal for your house consumed me… when I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me because I did it.”

    Fasting with prayer in time of crisis: Judges 20:26; 1 Sam 13:24; 1 Kgs 21:9; Ezra 8:21-23; Jer 14:12; Jer 36:6, 9.

    Wisdom 4:12: “The witching spell of things that are little makes it hard to see the good things.”

    CONCLUSIONS: 1. Fasting and almsgiving help get requests in prayer. 2. Alms atones for sin. 3. Creatures make it hard to see the true goods. Implication: get loose from them. Does almsgiving help get loose or is it just charity to others? Unclear from texts on hand.

    Scripture: New Testament

    Mt. 5:8:

    “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

    Mt. 10:38: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

    Mt. 16:24: “He who wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

    Mt. 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come follow me.”

    1 Cor 7:31: “And let those who use this world be as though not using it.”

    1 Cor 9:27: “I beat my body under the eyes and lead it around as a slave, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be rejected.”

    2 Cor. 11:23-27: To counter the claims of false apostles, Paul rehearses his own sufferings. He mentions hunger and thirst, and right after that adds nesteia — which can mean just a repeat of hunger and thirst, but usually means fasting, especaially in a line where he has just mentioned hunger and thirst incurred from his travels.

    Phil 3:8-9: “But I consider all things as loss because of the eminent knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have taken the loss of all things, and I consider them as rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own justice, but that which is through faith in Christ, the justice of God which depends on faith.”

    Conclusions: Same values as found in OT but much clearer on the need of alms, getting rid of earthly things, taming the body, for spiritual growth. Deny self, not just possessions, and take up cross. This can refer to acceptance of providentially sent hardships, or to self-imposed mortification. In Paul’s case, it is the latter in 1 & 2 Cor. for he adds fasting to, providential hardships, and hits his body under the eye to tame it, fearing he might be lost if it gets out of hand.

    Intertestamental Writings

    Philo. De Spec. Legibus 2. 195

    says purpose of the fast that occurs on the Day of Atonement is to control the tongue, the belly, and the organs below the belly.

    Psalms of Solomon 3:7-8 (1 cent. B. C, prob. Greek original – in Rahlfs): ” the righteous constantly searches his house, to remove his unintentional sins. — He atones for (sins of) ignorance by fasting and humbling his soul, and the Lord will cleanse every devout person and his house.”

    History of the Rechabites (1 -4 cent A.D. with Christian interpolations): Story of a holy man Zosimus who did not eat or drink for 40 years and then was shown the abode of the Blessed ones, who are the Rechabites, who left Jerusalem for their island in the times of Jeremiah.

    Apocalypse of Abraham 12:1-2 (1-2 cent. A.D. ): Abraham ate no bread and drank no water for 40 days and nights, before offering the great sacrifice.

    Apocalypse of Elijah 1. 15-22 (1-4 cent. A.D. ): “It [a pure fast] releases sin, it heals diseases, it casts out demons, it is effective up to the throne of God for an ointmennt, and for a release from sin by means of pure prayer.”

    Apocalypse of Zephaniah 7:6 (1 cent. B.C. or A.D.): Zeph sees a vision of two manuscripts, which tell his sins: “A day on which I did not fast (or) pray in the time of prayer I found written down as a failing upon my manuscript.”

    2 Baruch 20:5 (Early 2d cent. A.D.): “Therefore go away and sanctify yourself for seven days and do not eat bread and do not drink water and do not speak to anybody.” – similar in 47:2 [23:4 has original sin]

    Pseudo Philo 13:6 (1 cent. A.D.): “A fast of mercy you shall fast for me for your own souls so that the promises made to your fathers may be fulfilled.”

    Testament of Isaac 4:1-2 (2d cent. A.D.): “Now Isaac used to fast every day, not breaking his fast until evening. He would offer up sacrifices for himself and for all the people of his household, for the salvation of their souls.” Ibid. 4:5-6: “And he would not eat meat or drink wine all his life long. He also would not enjoy the taste of fruit, nor would he sleep upon a bed, because he was devoted to prayer every day and to supplication to God all his life.”

    Testament of Jacob 7:17-18 (perhaps 2-3 cent. A.D. — with Christian matter in it): “So now, my beloved sons, do not slacken from prayer and fasting ever at any time, and by the life of the religion you will drive away the demons.”

    Conclusions: Here we find fully developed asceticism, wish special emphasis on fasting, which is used for spiritual vision, to obtain mercy, to tame the body so as to avoid sin.

    Rabbinic Texts

    Gemara on Kiddushin 1. 10. 40a-b

    : “R. Eleazar son of R. Zadok said:… . the Holy One, blessed be He, brings suffering upon the righteous in this world, in order that they may inherit the future world… . the Holy One, blessed be He, makes them [the wicked] prosper in this world, in order to destroy them and consign them to the nethermost rung… .”

    Baraitha in Kiddushin 40b::”Rabbi Eleazar ben R. Sadok, of the lst century in Jerusalem, said: ‘God brings chastisements upon the righteous men in this world, in order that they may inherit the world-to-come'” {15}.

    “R. Eleazar b. R. Sadok says: God bestows prosperity in fullness upon the sinners in this world, in order to drive them (from the world-to-come) and give them as their portion the lowest step (of Gehinnom).”

    The same idea, in almost the same words is in

    Pesikta 73a R. Akiba: “God bestows prosperity and well-being in fullness in this world and pays the sinners for the few good deeds done by them in this world, in order to punish them in the world-to-come.” {16}

    Sifre on Deuteronomy, Piska 32:”Furthermore, a man should rejoice more in chastisement than in times of prosperity. For if a man is prosperous all his life, no sin of his can be forgiven. What brings forgiveness of Sin? Suffering… . R. Meir says, Scripture says ‘Know in your heart that the Lord your God chastises you just as a man chastises his son’ (Deut 8:5). You and your heart know the deeds that you have done and you know that whatever sufferings I have brought upon you do not outweigh all your deeds. R. Yose ben R. Judah says, Precious are chastisements, for the name of the Omnipresent One rests upon one who suffers them… . R. Nehemiah says, Precious are chastisements, for just as sacrifices bring appeasement, so do chastisements bring appeasement… . Indeed, suffering appeases even more than sacrifices, for sacrifices involve wealth, but suffering involves one’s body… .”{17}

    B. Sabb 2. 6. fol. 32a: “If one is led to the place of judgment to be judged he can be saved if he has great advocates [prqlitin], but if he does not… he will not be saved;and these are the advocates [prqlitin] of a man: conversion and good works.”

    B. Baba Bathra 1. 5. fol. 10. a: “All the moral rightness [sedaqah] and covenant fidelity [hesed] that Israel does in the world are great well-being [shalom] and are great advocates [prqlitin] between Israel and their Father in heaven.” COMMENT: We note that it is within the covenant framework- hesed–and justice– sedaqah. The advocates, — we note the Greek loan word – are the reasons to balance the objective order favorably. {18} At times paraclete seems to mean a weight in the scales, as in the above. At other times it seems to mean a person who pleads for another. Thus in Shemoth Rabbah 32 we read that for keeping one precept God gives one angel, for two, two angels, for many, half of his host. And in Exodus Rabbah 18. 3 (on 12. 29) Moses is called a good paraclete. The Targum on Job 33. 23 says that if a man has merit, an angel intervenes as an advocate among 1000 accusers.

    Semahoth III. 11. R. Yehudah ben Ilai asserts that the ancient pious men ,”used to be afflicted with intestinal illness for about ten to twenty days before their death, so they might… arrive pure in the hereafter.”.{19}

    Conclusion: Again, fully developed ascetic thought. Especially suffering brings forgiveness, makes up for sins. Without it no sin can be forgiven.

  3. Well, the “apophtegmata patrum” is a kind of litterature written by monks, about monks and dedicated to monks. And, of course, “eastern” monks, before the monastic rules…
    I’d say you have to walk for a while with them to undertand their way of thinking.
    The gospel is universal, but “our” way of life, or their’s may not be. But it may be right, anyway, even if we do not always “understand” it’s logic.
    Instead of a whole book of sayings from many monks, from many regions and different centuries, you might try a walk with one of them, “abba Moses the black” for example : a real man, in a real time… we know quite few of him, but enough to understand “what” he was living.

  4. Roger,

    Should you wish to learn more about the subject — if for no other reason than its influence on later Christianity — I recommend William Harmless SJ: Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford University Press, 2004). The book is both comprehensive and well written, it gives all quotations in English, and it has very useful bibliographies after each chapter.

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