Since I started to follow the Holy Spirit’s prompts to think about desert spirituality, I have been looking around for what others have written.
It is an interesting search, in that spirituality from the desert is both an ancient stream of prayer experience and wisdom, and also a way of approaching prayer from the heart. There are writings spanning 1700 years of church history, from when the early Desert Fathers began their pilgrimages into the Egyptian wilderness, through to modern reflections on their lives and sayings. In between one can find the influence of the Fathers on numerous writings of contemplative men and women, in many of the monastic traditions. This is because the commitment to prayer, solitude, simplicity and the transformation of the heart – so exemplified by St Anthony and his fellow pilgrims – became either foundational principles or impetuses for the future great monastic movements.
So there is a collection of writings about those early inspirational desert-praying saints, mainly biographies and collected sayings. There is also a wider resource, across church traditions, of how to approach a prayerful, contemplative life. There is so much to sift through, in printed and virtual formats, that one almost needs a guide to find what is most helpful. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions, have some very good devotional writings over the centuries. The Christian mystics of medieval times, such as St Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St John of the Cross, are well-known sources of wisdom. Modern monastic figures, like Thomas Merton, have likewise attracted a large following. As an evangelical Protestant, this is a deep well of spiritual reflection which is new and foreign to me.
My personal journey in the last few months has led me to a modest selection of books, but some that have helped to orientate me to desert prayer and the wider monastic tradition. I share these for any help or use it may be for others.
- There are some sources of the lives and writings of the Desert Fathers which have been inspirational
The Life of St Anthony – St Athanasius.
Written by a friend and disciple, this story of St Anthony is beautiful and inspiring. It may well be an idealised account of the saint’s life, but the vivid impression of his heart, his discipline and the context of his life is great to read. Athanasius gives great attention to Anthony’s asceticism, his feats of spiritual discipline, his spiritual battles, and later in life, his leadership of this monastic way of life and his ministry in words and healing to many who came to him. The author concludes his reasons for writing thus: ‘that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify him….even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world.’
Sayings of the Desert Fathers – Penguin Classics.
The collection of wise sayings of the early desert Fathers is here in one place, along with a very helpful introductory chapter about this monastic tradition, its strengths and challenges. These sayings have been a spiritual source of nourishment to many traditions of the Christian faith, and universally popular, maybe because these where ordinary people who ‘had an air of eternity’ in what they said and how they lived. As the compiler of the sayings writes in the introduction: ‘the picture that emerges from these primitive sources is of entirely, indeed ruthlessly, committed but sensible men and women, learning to live with nature and with others in a harmony that grew out out of a prayed life’.
2. I found some modern testimonies, of people trying out a monastic way of life, helpful to read.
The Genesee Diary: report from a Trappist monastery – Henri Nouwen.
This well known Catholic scholar took a seven month retreat from his writing and lecturing to become a temporary member of a North American monastic community. His daily diary of his experience of prayer, study, manual work and living in community is full of helpful insights. It reveals the honest wrestling of a mature Christian who is exploring the fruit and challenge of living a contemplative life. Returning to his busy life, Henri thinks about the value of that prayer experience: ‘ I can say that I have a most precious memory which keeps unfolding itself in all that I do or plan to do. I no longer can live without being reminded of the glimpse of God’s graciousness that I saw in my solitude, of the ray of light that broke through my darkness, of the gentle voice that spoke in my silence, and of the soft breeze that touched me in my stillest hour.’
The Abbot’s Shoes: seeking a contemplative life – Peter Robinson.
This is a complementary account of a young man giving two years of his life in the 1960’s to join a Trappist monastery in Australia – the Lady of the Southern Star. Now, after a lifetime of ministry as a pastor, broadcaster and revival preacher, Peter returns to this stream of desert prayer as a sustaining rhythm for his current life. He reflects on all he learned within that holy, enclosed community and acknowledges the call of the Spirit into the desert: “My singing of the Psalms morning, noon and night is my occupation. I am dreaming of many tiny monasteries, ‘invisible’ in urban and rural wildernesses. In holy obscurity such will shape the sinews of history.”
3. There are some considered reflections on desert spirituality by today’s theologians, which draw out that wisdom to modern life.
These have been really useful to measure my own journey through lenses of my experience of God, compared to desert spirituality, because, though from a different time in history, the theological and practical insights are timeless.
The Way of the Heart: desert spirituality and contemporary ministry – Henri Nouwen.
Written a decade after his visit to Genesee monastery, this wise book examines the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers to see how it is helpful to Christian ministry in our modern world. Nouwen gives profound psychological insights into the need for three desert values. One is solitude, where we find out true self in Christ through furnace like struggle and encounter, leading to a compassionate ministry. Another is silence, which is the mystery of the future world, helping us to be true pilgrims and to guard the fire of the Spirit, which in turn allows God’s creative word to be heard and spoken. The third is prayer itself, more of the heart than of the mind. As Nouwen writes about this central theme: ‘prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where three are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one. There God’s Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place.’
Silence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert – Rowan Williams.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes about what the lives and writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have to say into the modern search for spirituality. He touches on issues of truly loving ourselves and our neighbour, of what ‘fleeing’ and ‘staying’ mean in the desert. Fleeing for people today may not be from our ordinary lifestyle and community, but from ‘illusory landscapes in which life appears easier, to as to inhabit the landscape of truth as more than an occasional visitor’, where non-wasted words which are transfiguring come from a depth, from quiet and expectancy. Staying, as Williams explores, means learning to stay where you are, and giving yourself to your real, embodied journey of holiness. The well known saying, ‘stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’, involves pledging yourself to your life now, not what is fantasised about, your personal walk lived uniquely before God.
The last book I have been reading – Belden Lane’s ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ – has been the most profound for me, and I will devote another blog to that for reasons to be made clear.
If you have read this far, I hope you have found some tantalising insights or quotes that could help you in your spiritual journey. Because there is ancient wisdom echoing down from saints of long ago, some of the cloud of witnesses encouraging us on our race of faith.
May God bless you on your journey.