Book Review: The Desert Fathers by Various Authors

This is a collection of the sayings of the early christian monks, as published under the Penguin Classics label and translated by Benedicta Ward. As a very early piece of writing, it needs a good translation to be able to convey the message across centuries and languages. I’m no expert in languages so cannot speak as to the faithfulness of the translation. All I can say is that it was readily accessible.

A while ago, I mentioned it as being an omission from the Church Times list of the best 100 books. Indeed, that list had as its top 2, Augustine’s Confessions and The Rule of St Benedict, both of which owe a great debt to the Desert Fathers. So if they were considered to have a lasting influence, why not this work? That’s a question I can ask, but not one I’m in a place to answer.

When asking around about this, I was advised to read it very slowly and to consider each part carefully and thoughtfully. Thankfully, it was already my intention to have this as a coffee table book which I would dip into just a few pages at a time. For having flicked through it in the bookshop, I could see that it seemed to be made up of multiple short paragraphs, arranged in mini chapters by theme, but with no overall narrative or timeline. In that way, it rather resembles the book of Proverbs. One would be ill-advised to read that all the way through from start to finish in as few sittings as possible.

As such, it is almost impossible to review as one might a more conventional book. The sayings are grouped thematically. In some cases, the individuals are named, though frequently we are simply told the saying or the story comes from “a hermit” who remains anonymous. So what I’ll do is highlight a few of the sayings that particularly caught my attention.

One of the examples that struck me as particularly odd was the case of Macarius who, for reasons unknown, decided that he would sleep in an old pagan burial place, using a dead body as a pillow. Here he was taunted by some vocal demons including one who feigned to be the woman’s body upon whom he was sleeping. His response was to thump the body and speak dismissively. What exactly this was meant to demonstrate is lost on me. Was it about courage in the face of demons? If so, it seems a bizarre way to go about things. I’m certainly not going to be advocating sleeping on top of corpses.

Some of the most perturbing instances come from when these monks interact with one another. For example, in some cases they advocate being hospitable to those who visit them, but in others they will refuse to speak to someone, even their own family, causing much upset. One example is Theodore of Pherme was rude in such a manner to someone who knocked on his door for 3 days and eventually said to one of his disciples, “As a matter of fact, I said nothing to him because he’s only interested in getting credit by reporting what others have said to him.” So my question is: who ensured that this account was written down?

This next one I shall simply quote, suggesting it be filed under WTF:

“When Nesteros the Great was walking in the desert with a brother, they saw a dragon and ran away. The brother said, ‘Were you afraid, abba?’ Nesteros answered, ‘I wasn’t afraid, my son. But it was right to run away from the dragon, otherwise I should have had to run away from conceit.'”

For the most part, the sayings are fairly lifestyle-based and or concerned with wisdom. There’s very little by way of biblical theology. What there is, though is disappointingly wrong-headed. For example, there is one tale of a monk who gets the symbolic nature of communion but he himself is portrayed as a heretic by those who have fallen prey to a functionalist understanding. He is rebuked thus: “You mustn’t say that, abba; according to what the Catholic Church has handed down to us, even so do we believe, that is to say, this bread is the Body of Christ in very truth, and is not a mere symbol.”

I could not agree with their point of view, as I understand the idea of transubstantiation to be a false doctrine. Yet this view, first proposed by Justine Martyr, had clearly become widespread by the time of the desert fathers so it serves an historical interest as a marker in the drift from christianity to catholicism. Yet this flaw should not detract one from engaging with their more sound teachings.

Having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, the lasting impression is rather mixed. On the one hand there is great admiration for their devotion and some of the levels of commitment are far beyond anything I have ever witnessed. Yet this is tinged with sadness at the withdrawn and ascetic life they chose, which seems to be the very antithesis of a life-filled church. There is no sense of community or of a mission to the world. If anything, it is about personal holiness and about appeasement, seemingly linked to a works-based justification. The number of times “doing penance” is referred to adds weight to this conclusion.

I would recommend that you read it, but I couldn’t agree with all of it. I doubt many would.

One response to “Book Review: The Desert Fathers by Various Authors

  1. “the book of Proverbs. One would be ill-advised to read that all the way through from start to finish in as few sittings as possible.”

    I am reading the Bible out loud to hubby. We started on Proverbs on 1 January. My view was the same as yours – a few chapters and then read something else and come back later. Hubby had other ideas. As a result we’ll complete the 31 chapters in the month! Oh, and he is preparing somewhere to live on the roof! Sue (a quarrelsome wife)