A Saying of the Desert Fathers and the Drive to Consume

Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont; not quite what the Egyptians had in mind!

Perhaps the impending arrival of that High Holy Day for my American friends, Black Friday, caused this to come to mind; perhaps the proximity to Advent and, therefore, the shop-fest leading up to Christmas; perhaps it was the Holy Spirit — whatever the source, the other day a saying of the Desert Fathers (or Mothers) came to mind.

I don’t remember which collection of Sayings (Apophthegmata) or stories this particular saying comes from although I know it was not The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Greek alphabetical collection. Probably the Latin systematic collection (trans. by Sr. Benedicta for Penguin, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks), although part of me wonders if it was the Lausiac History of Palladius.

Now that I’ve bored you with my uncertainty of the source, the story, as I recall, is that one day one of the Desert Fathers was walking along and came upon the cell of one of the brothers. He came on inside, and there he beheld several books on a shelf. He scolded the brother for having accumulated all these books, telling him that these books are bread for the hungry, clothing for the naked, medicine for the sick.

The story is evidently part of the network of various stories, sayings, and teachings found in the different collections and recensions and translations of Apophthegmata, hagiography, travellers’ tales, letters, and so forth, that seeks to create the image of the true monk as being an uneducated peasant or a wealthy person who has rejected education for the simple life of the contemplative mystic, turning aside from Greek philosophy and the false wisdom of much theology for the true wisdom that comes directly from God.

Such ‘true’ monks no doubt existed from the beginning, but it was not until the First Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century that they were held up as the paragons of true monasticism in opposition to those — such as Evagrius Ponticus — who were tainted with worldly wisdom and education. From henceforth, this dichotomy continually arises in our literature about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from Egypt through Palestine into Syria, into the sixth century and re-emerging throughout the centuries in such quarrels as the Hesychast Controversy involving Gregory Palamas (on whom I have written this) in the 1300s.

However, take caution! Be wary of these sources. These wee, memorable Sayings claim to be the direct truth and represent the earliest layer of monastic tradition. However, the collections of the Apophthegmata are mostly fifth- and sixth-century in origin. They will be edited accordingly, following the First and even Second Origenist Controversies. And other sources, such as the sixth-century Lives of various Palestinian monks by Cyril of Scythopolis, are highly partisan in the Origenist controversies which always pitted simplicity against wordliness and philosophy.

I don’t think this saying and many of the others about learning and books actually represent an anti-intellectualist strand in earliest monasticism. I would counter that this particular saying is actually about the accumulation of wealth, what I have called ‘intellectual consumerism.’ Books in the ancient world are highly valuable objects; it costs a lot to make a book entirely by hand, whether of papyrus or vellum (the story, in Egypt, would be about papyrus books). It was a criticism of gathering up things that moth and rust can destroy, not about learning from books.

However, we do have references throughout our sources that are decidedly anti-intellectual. I would argue that these are not about learning per se but about a. pagan learning vs. Jesus who is the Truth and b. humility. Humility is a pervasive monastic virtue, and — as the Scriptures say — knowledge puffs up. Therefore, intellectual folks need to be put in our place. We are no better than our less-educated Christian brethren. And we should remember that.

When the First and Second Origenist Controversies broke out, these sayings took on a life in polemic. Suddenly, rather than being about humbling the proud — intellectual or not — they were about winning a fight, about proving that your Origenist opponents were heretics steeped in pagan learning and un-Christian philosophy, regardless of the truth.

What to take away from this? Besides being cautious of what you read, be humble and buy fewer books at the least, I would say. 😉

Secondary Sources Informing This Post:

Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy: A new perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’ monastic biographies as historical sources for sixth-century origenism. Studia Anselmiana.

AMC Casiday, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian.

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