The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

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Saint of the Week: John Wesley (Pt. 1)

Today is the feast day of John and Charles Wesley  in the Anglican calendar.  John Wesley (1703-1791) is the more famous of the two famous Wesley children.  He is quite famous these days for being an “Arminian”, and thus figures in the endless theological debates you will find out in the internet.  Nevertheless, just as Calvin was more than predestination, so Wesley was more than freewill.  So if you are a Calvinist, read on.

John Wesley studied at the University of Oxford and was ordained to holy orders within the Church of England in the year 1728.  He spent a brief time helping out his father, also an Anglican priest, before returning to Oxford.  At Oxford, he discovered that his brother Charles had begun a “Holy Club.”  It is my understanding that this club consisted of young men who met together to read the Greek New Testament and to life lives of holiness.  Their standard of holy living was set so high and their lifestyle so reflected a holy method of living that they were called “Methodists.”*

John Wesley’s “method” of life ran thus:

  1. Begin and end every day with God; and sleep not immoderately.
  2. Be diligent in your calling.
  3. Employ all spare hours in religion as able.
  4. All hollidays [should be devoted to religion].
  5. Avoid drunkards and busybodies.
  6. Avoid curiosity, and all useless employments and knowledge.
  7. Examine yourself every night.
  8. Never on any account pass a day without setting aside at least an hour for devotion.
  9. Avoid all manner of passion.

At Oxford, the Wesleys also encountered the Church Fathers, classical literature, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and the recent bestseller A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law (see my post here).

In the Fathers, Kempis, Taylor, and Law, the Wesleys will have found a high call, a call to live holy lives centred upon Christ and his love for us, lives of faith that produces good works.  In his sermon on fasting, we see that John Wesley strove to steer a course between the extremes of those who believe that good works are nothing and those who believe they are everything.  He believed that they were the result of faith but that faith is what saves us.

After graduation, he went to Georgia where he met with little success.  In 1738, after his return to Britain, he started hanging out with the Moravians, and at a Moravian Love Feast on May 24, his “heart was strangely warmed.”

Wesley now knew that none of his holy living, no amount of partaking of communion, none of his prayers, none of his theology, no success as a missionary would or could save him.  All that could save John Wesley was Jesus Christ and his gift of grace freely given.**  He was truly converted to Christ.

And so, from 1739 to the end of his long life in 1791, John Wesley was committed to evangelism, to bringing this Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of England, and to waking up the Church of England.

More on John Wesley to come . . .

*I have also heard people say that Wesley was called a “Methodist” because of his method of organising the movement he started.  Somehow that is less convincing.

**To people who want to argue against Arminianism with some Augustinian arguments about grace being inescapable and therefore freewill illusory — not here.  Not now.  Embrace Wesley as a brother, see how much like you he is.

“worthily lamenting our sins”

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  As we prayed the various penitent prayers and Psalms at church, I couldn’t help but think of the strongly penitential tone of the BCP and its emphasis on actual sorrow for sins.  Indeed, in 1662, we “moan and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” although by 1962 this is mellowed to “acknowledge and confess”.  One of the beautiful prayers in Compline prays that “we may so abound in sorrow for our sins . . .”

Sorrow?  Lament?

We live in a world where, even amongst Christians, the very idea of sin is very unpopular, where the wickedness of the average human heart is ignored and denied — as in the modern liturgy used by my evangelical Anglican church last night where we confessed our “brokenness,” not our “wickedness.”  Yet, as Christine Watt preached boldly from the pulpit at last night’s service, Sin is real.  It is the root of so much pain and sorrow and suffering in our world.  It is the inner condition of humanity, the reason for our many daily small rebellions, let alone the big, flashy wrongdoings.

Yet even if we admit the reality of Sin and its insidious presence in our lives, damaging our relationships, distorting the beautiful image of God within us, do we lament?  We fight sin, surely.  We are good at the linguistic approach to repent, knowing that what it means is to turn 180 degrees and walk a new direction, as Josephus encouraging a Jewish soldier to repent and fight for Rome, or John the Baptist telling that brood of vipers to repent and live holy lives.

However, whenever we think of sorrow, we think of things quite repugnant to the modern mind.

We imagine ashes on our heads, rending our garments, rubbing excrement on our faces, shedding tears, flagellating ourselves, grovelling at the feet of a fierce, wrathful God who will destroy us with fire if we do not repent and live according to his rules.

We remember St. Ambrose saying that if we do not shed tears, we are not truly repentant.

We remember St. Thomas a Kempis’ endless sorrow for his sinful state that hung as a shadow over much of Soliloquy of the Soul.

Sorrow need not be so extreme.  Indeed, I do not believe that the Christian should spend his or her entire life weeping over sin and grovelling in the dust, for we are called to rejoice in the Lord always.  Christ says that if we love one another, our joy shall be full.

Nevertheless, sorrow for sin can be real.  I think it should be real.  If we know God, if we are in a real relationship with him, should we not grieve to harm him?  If we have compassion for the people around us, should we not grieve to harm them?  Indeed, we should.  Just as we rejoice to bring joy to our beloved, so it strikes me as natural to sorrow when we bring sorrow to our beloved.

Maybe this lament will be nothing more than an inner pang of regret when we do something wrong.  Maybe it will be larger, depending on the sin or its frequency.

And once this lament is done, once we have sorrowed for our sins, we should enter the joy of repentance.  We can live the new life.  We are reconciled to our Friend.  There is no longer any need for sorrow, for we are forgiven through our mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ.  Sorrow for sin, if real, should ever turn to joy in forgiveness, hope for resurrection.

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

As promised, here are some thoughts on Wesley’s thoughts on spiritual reading.

First, go and read his brief introduction to The Christian’s Pattern, Wesley’s abridgement of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  A non-copyright edition is available through Google Books.  My thanks to Liam for making me aware of this fact.

In our world of instant, consumable media such as blogging, newspapers, TV, magazines, etc, Wesley’s advice goes somewhat against the grain.  His first piece of advice?  Find an assigned time for reading your spiritual book (in this case, The Christian’s Pattern).  Same time every day.  Don’t give it up unless absolutely necessary, and then reassign your time for reading to time as close to the original as possible.  Most of us tend to read whatever we want whenever we want.  Wesley urges not to do this.

This first piece of advice is actually quite good.  It is sensible for someone who has limited time and a specific book to work through.  The establishment of a routine can be the establishment of a good habit.  By doing our spiritual reading at the same time every day, we are less likely to forget about or let it slide to the wayside.  And if we keep it up for 40 days, it becomes a habit.  Some habits are good and worth keeping.

Second, he encourages the reader to read with purity of intention.  We are supposed to prepare our hearts and minds for reading.  We are to read prayerfully, asking God to enlighten us through the reading, to make us attuned to what he is saying.  Most of us just grab a book/computer/magazine/whatev and plunge in with no preparation or time for self-examination.

I like this second piece of advice.  Clearing your mind of the detritus of the day before engaging in any task that requires mental preparation just makes sense.  You are less likely to be distracted and more likely to follow Kierkegaard: “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.”

Third, we are not simply to burn through our spiritual reading like it’s a thriller by Frank Peretti, Dan Brown, or Daniel Defoe.  We are to read “leisurely, seriously, and with great attention.”  We are reading for our own profit.  We are to read and reread until we thoroughly understand what is being said and have applied to our lives.  If something is of especial profit to us, we should go over it and meditate on it more than once, trying to appropriate the lesson for how we ought to live.  Again, most of us are careless in our reading.  We read quickly and for pleasure, not slowly and with leisure.  If we wish to have our souls scoured and made clean by the spiritual books in our lives, Wesley urges us to slow down.

If we read slowly, carefully, and methodically, our reading is more likely to have a lasting impact upon the way we think and live.  I think we need to engage in this kind of reading more than once a week (if we are readers, that is), and possibly every day.  I have read a lot of stuff about spirituality and the Bible, but very little had truly soaked into me.  Perhaps if I followed John Wesley’s advice on spiritual reading, it will finally soak in and transform who I am, how I live, what I think.  And perhaps I’ll more easily be ready for the movement of the Spirit when He says, “This part here — not such a good idea…”

Fourth, John Wesley exhorts his readers to stir themselves up to “a temper correspondent with what you read.”  The idea is that we are more than mere intellects but are also spirits and bodies, with emotions and passions.  This paragraph is a reminder that John Wesley is the man whose “heart was strangely warmed,” a man who once had an experience that looks suspiciously like “being ‘slain’ in the Spirit” to my eyes, the man who gave Hooker’s three-legged stool a fourth leg, that of experience.

I understand what this fourth piece of advice is driving at.  However, it seems the most suspect to me, to someone of academic training, to someone who, since high school at least, has been told to set aside passions and emotions when approaching a text.  A text is to be studied with the intellect alone.  To bring the bundle of emotions and passions that make me me is to compromise my point of view, to ruin my objectivity.  I am, as a result, not sure how far to go with Wesley on this fourth piece of advice.

Finally, he exhorts the reader to conclude with a prayer.  This is sensible advice.  We are to lead lives soaked in prayer, imbued with the very presence of God in all that we do.  We should begin and end all activities with prayer; we should also pray in the midst of them.

This little introduction also serves as a reminder that John Wesley was a Methodist before he wasn’t an Anglican.