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.