Monday, December 07, 2015


It's been a long time since I have blogged, and it's time to try and get back in the swing of things. There are a couple of book reviews that I have been working on for some time, but they have fallen victim to my inborn tendency to go on and on and on and on. I'm going to try and restrict myself to short reviews of some recent things I've read, both books and articles. The discipline of brevity will hopefully be good for me.

'The Desert Fathers' by Helen Waddell. Vintage Books, New York 1998

This book is part of the 'Vintage Spiritual Classics' series which includes hat are probably more attractive items such as 'The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi' and 'The Imitation of Christ'. Unlike these the author sets herself a formidable task, trying to make the anchorites and hermits of early Christianity attractive. She's not entirely successful at it.

This subject has always brought the picture of St. Anthony of the desert to mind, a strange 'holy man' up on a pillar for decades, food and water hauled up to him, bodily wastes hopefully removed by the faithful before they build up to a hill that the anchorite could easily walk down should he decide that mortification of the flesh is no longer a good idea.

That's there, but it was a small part of the picture, very small. Reading this it seems that the monks, both male and female, certainly did their best to tame the evil of the body. Often in rather petty and frankly repulsive ways as they engaged in show off competitions to determine who was the most "holy" in this practice.

Yes, they were more often monks living in community rather than solitary hermits. It seems that the latter often grew out of the former as the devotee in question gradually moved their habitation further and further from those of the other monks. To preserve the quiet of their communion with God ? Because of good old 'spiritual pride' and the ill-disguised competition mentioned ? Because of the social tensions expected in such communities ? Because they were crazy ? Or simply because they couldn't stand the smell ? You might gather that these sort of communities wouldn't take the old saw "cleanliness is next to Godliness" to heart. Besides that was probably a Protestant byword anyway.

There are both stories and quotations in this book, the quotations often merely the setting of a story. There's a wide cast of characters, male and female, benevolent and obviously antisocial, eminently sane and insightful or suffering from the mother of all obsessive-compulsive disorders. The book is at least a good presentation to some, like me, who have a monochromatic view of this fad in early Christianity.

There is the usual collection of miracles. The Devil drops by no and then to say hello. Wild beasts are tamed or driven off. A lion is convinced to mend his ways and live as a vegetarian for years. The sick are healed. Angels and God himself wander in and out of these desert habitations. Fasts and refusal of water are carried on long beyond any possible believability. And so on.

Some of the sayings have an almost Zen-like flavor. The difference is that they seem to gather around the 'charity pole' much more than this sort of thing does in Buddhism or Daoism. Some of the most attractive sayings and stories are actually examples of violating the rules of monasticism in the service of the higher good of charity. This is a relief from the more bizarre recounting of self punishment in the expectation of divine revelation.

All told interesting, but I hardly think the author has painted an attractive picture of her subjects.

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