In one of his daily emails, Richard Rohr once admitted that he has some issues with the sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers — the early Christian hermits and monastics who lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Rohr admitted that, on some levels, because these writings are so ancient, they can be very problematic when viewed from the perspective of the 21st century: these early Christians can come across as judgmental, sexist (if not downright misogynistic), hostile to the human body, and (in Rohr’s words) “unreal, dualistic, naïve, and pre-rational.”
So why should we bother reading words by and about these ancient figures?
There are a couple of reasons. First, this is our history and our heritage. The stream of Christian spirituality and contemplation has its headwaters in the New Testament, of course, but then it flows squarely through the wisdom of the Desert. So many aspects of Christian spirituality — from the heritage of monasteries and convents, to the practice of silent prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and the Daily Office, to values such as hospitality, generous forgiveness, and practicing the presence of God, all have roots in the teachings of the Desert. Getting to know the Desert Mothers and Fathers is, in a very real sense, getting to know who we are — or, at least, where we’ve come from.
But I think there’s another benefit of reading the Desert Mothers and Fathers — warts and all. We human beings have a tendency to put our heroes on pedestals — and then we get scandalized and furious when they tumble off. Think about how devastating it can be when people discover that a celebrity they loved and admired is guilty of a crime or abusive behavior? Sure, such revelations are always a cause for lament, but maybe we would be more realistic about the human condition if we reminded ourselves that our heroes are flawed, just like we are.
Reading the Desert Mothers and Fathers is like panning for gemstones or precious metals. You have to sift through some dirt and silt — but if you do so, you will find the gold. Despite his reservations, Rohr also had warm words of praise for our desert forebears, speaking of their “high… state of loving union.” He even goes on to suggest that if we learn to appreciate the wisdom of the desert while honestly reckoning with the limitations of ancient teachings, “This will help you understand many people in our own time as well.” In other words, are we really so different from our ancestors? We, too, are messy combinations of wisdom and ignorance. Perhaps in the desert we can find a mirror to shed light on today.
In the sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, you’ll find incredible devotion to prayer and to love for God. You’ll find insightful advice on how to establish and deepen a daily prayer practice. You’ll find a wry sense of humor, a sly irony, and even an almost childlike sense of playfulness as the Desert elders seek to convey their wisdom. Take, for example, this charming story from Abba Moses:
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him, seeing the trail of water behind him, and said, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
The importance of forgiveness, the centrality of humility, the willingness to suspend judgment, and a subtle wit as the elder offered a theatrical way of making his point — here, the charm of the Desert Mothers and Fathers is on full display.
If you read the Desert Mothers and Fathers — for example, as part of an online course I’m teaching through Columbia Seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning this coming fall — I promise you that you will find both the silt and the gems. We can learn from our arid forebears both what works and what doesn’t work in the spiritual life. Both are lessons well worth exploring. But in the balance, the gold is worth the sifting. A Desert Father once told a youth, “Go, and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I can’t promise you that the Desert Mothers and Fathers will teach us “everything” about the spiritual life — but they can certainly can teach us a lot.
Featured Image, Fra Angelico, Scenes from the Lives of the Desert (ca. 1420)