Revisiting the Desert

In Lent this year, it seemed more appropriate than ever to explore the rich traditions of spirituality associated with the early desert monastic life, not least because the pioneers of that way of life had a lot of interesting things to say about isolation and patience, about simplicity of life and prayer stripped down to its essentials. I have just read an excellent summary of the insights of the desert tradition in fewer than 8 pages. The Dominican Simon Tugwell’s book, Ways of Imperfection, is a survey of Christian spirituality from its earliest decades with a focus on the many ways in which these traditions steer us away from spiritual elitism towards a more ‘ordinary’ or ‘unspectacular’ way of seeing things which takes account of our human realities.

Ways of Imperfection An exploration of Christian spirituality ...

It is beautifully written – clear, concise and with some nice turns of phrase – and it draws on a careful and broad reading of traditional texts (and not always the best known ones). It was published in 1984 and I’ve only just got round to reading it now.

Here are one or two of his nuggets about the Desert tradition:

The most important way to show fraternal charity was to refrain from interfering with other people, and especially to refrain from criticising them.

It was, however, ’eminently proper to allow other people to interfere with you’. By this, he means that we should gently find ways to give way to the other. There was also a proper ignorance before the truth:

If someone asks you what a verse of scripture means, the proper answer is ‘I don’t know’. If someone says something you do not agree with, you should not argue with him but simply say, ‘You know best’.

The Apophthegmata Patrum is full of such wisdom, which seems to run counter to a culture which gives absolute primacy to one’s own opinion and is intolerant of agnosticism.

That is our business, then. Higher things can look after themselves; we must try to cope with all the disorder there is in our own souls.

The whole teaching of the desert might be summarised in the phrase: ‘pay attention to yourself’. This is not solipsism, but a recognition that there is one part of this vast universe for which we have a particular responsibility; this walking, breathing, opining, observing, interacting piece of squishy matter that is our own body.

‘If you have a heart,’ said Abba Pambo, ‘you can be saved.’ This is the essential thing. It does not matter so much what we do; what matters is that there should be a real human being there to do it. Salvation is offered to real people, not to fictitious saints.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Desert

  1. Your posts are a precious sanity-line at this time – thank you. This one has brought to mind a quote from Merton’s journals (vol. 4, p. 287):

    “Deeply touched by Raïssa Maritain’s poetry. I will translate some of it:
    And there will not be acquittal for nations,
    but only for souls, one by one.”


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