In many respects, therefore, these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks in China and Japan. If we were to seek their like in twentieth-century America, we would have to look in strange, out of the way places. Such beings are tragically rare. They obviously do not flourish on the sidewalks of Forty-Second Street and Broadway. We might perhaps find someone like this among the Pueblo Indians or the Navahos: but there the case would be entirely different…
– The Wisdom Of The Desert, Thomas Merton
Historically, it used to be that people were thought to be smart based on their the ability to access their memory in what was assumed to be a fairly straightforward fashion. But since the 1950’s the study of the mind and its processes recognize that the retrieval of past thoughts and events – memory – and its application to people’s daily lives, is but one aspect of an intricate linking of language, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, and sociological factors, and encompasses numerous tiers of organizing one’s thoughts. Remembering a number, for example, can be studied either by simply asking them to recall it some time later, or by observing the neural pathways that occur in this process, or through the social triggers that they use in order to access this information. Each is a part of a vast network of conation. Each of these may come to play in the retrieval of this number, and to varying degrees, depending on the person, encompasses what is the human experience of the world and the possibilities of human transformation in it. This applies equally to all areas of human endeavour, the dynamics of religious faith notwithstanding.
Between 250 and 400 C.E. the deserts of Persia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt were populated by tens of thousands of Christians who were intent on gaining a clear, uncluttered, intuitive experience of God, themselves, their neighbours, and life. They sought simplicity, sanity, and poise, rather than the enculturated scripts of their empires. In Christ they had lost preoccupation with themselves. In the wilderness they met an environment that was suited to their pursuits. Here the desolation bleached their egos like the sand and sun whitened bones; labouring to recognize self-will they died to transient values even as Christ had died on the cross. They came to a clear vision of the madness that ensues from the attachment to false values. For the most part they were not ecstatics; they definitely were neither negative nor individualistic. Yet they were keenly conscious that what was a temporal society, and which later became a formally superficial Christianized society, was no more than a shipwreck from which each person had to swim for their lives. It might be presumed that Christian people like this can still casually be found in monasteries of contemplatives today, but that would be an erroneous assumption.
But these anchorites, coenobites, and ascetics did not leave the world without a witness. Their words and pity reflections were recorded and exist today, voluminously so. For the most part Thomas Merton was no original writer. Jean LeClerq honoured him by pointing out that Merton’s greatest attribute was to remind twentieth-century people of what had been lost to the modern memory of the Church. And in this Merton is invaluable. In The Wisdom of the Desert, Merton published a trite number of these apothegms. These he collected from his reading of the Verba Seniorum found in Migne’s Latin Patrology, which is a massive work. Unless you are well versed in Latin it will remain inaccessible to you, not to mention its physical unavailability and costliness. But there is another option.
The Paradise Or Garden Of The Holy Fathers is a most extensive compilation of these sayings taken from the original texts as found in the writings of Athanasius, Palladius, and Jerome. The compiler of this collection is E. A. T. Wallis Budge, former Keeper of the Assyrian and Egyptian Antiquities in the British Museum. A controversial figure who presided over what might easily considered to be the colonial sacking of Near-East artifacts in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, Budge nevertheless was pivotal in securing entire intact collections of Egyptology which dated back 4,000 years B.C.E.. He lived in an era which was hallmarked by rampant nonprofessional desecration and destruction of artifacts and personal enrichment by grave robbing. Sometimes portrayed as a charlatan, Budge held earned M.A., Litt.D,, and D.Litt. degrees, the later being a European distinction…a post-Ph.D. Ph.D. He was a brilliant reader of ancient languages. Budge wrote voluminously over the course of his lifetime. His By Nile and Tigris: A Narrative of Journeys in Egypt and Mesopotamia on Behalf of the British Museum between the Years 1886 and 1913, is still a classic. His original theories on Egyptology have mostly been dispelled, although he is still must-reading for modern Egyptologists and most of his works remain in print today. In The Paradise there is by far an inestimable value for those seeking to uncover authentic Christian faith – a true self – one that is vibrantly alive, unsullied by the vicissitudes of the false self that is constructed by culture, neurons, psychologies, and philosophies, ancient or modern. These sayings of the desert are more than mantras, they are organic outgrowths of ancients, immersed in the raw reality of life, who recognized the links between language, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and sociological factors before our own time and lived out their faith in astounding fashion.
I went to seminary in order to discover these links. Largely left out of courses on church history, the only time these desert dwellers were referred to was by one lecturer who referred to these people as cranks and crackpots.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Dorothy Day was drawn to read this two-volume compilation and referred to it in the Catholic Worker in 1943.