The Desert Fathers and Mothers were fourth and fifth century men and women of the Near East who abandoned life in the cities and embraced prayerful solitude in the wilderness regions of Egypt, Palestine and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous example is Saint Anthony of Egypt. But lesser known figures—Abbot Moses, Evagrius Ponticus, Mary of Egypt and many others—are equally important. Depending on one’s point of view, such people are generally regarded as either holy or fanatical. I opt for the former and recommend as my defense a book that was published in 1960: The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton.
Merton himself was an interesting man. He was a twentieth century Roman Catholic monk whose writings became very popular even among nonreligious readers. His numerous books cover a wide range of topics, including Eastern religions (for which Merton felt a strong affinity). But The Wisdom of the Desert may have been his personal favorite. It consists mainly of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, but Merton includes an illuminating introduction that puts the sayings into historical context. He deemphasizes the miracles and the dramatic battles with demons that were attributed to these saints, focusing instead on the humble wisdom which they attained. Here are three examples:
‘An elder said: Do not judge a fornicator if you are chaste, for if you do, you too are violating the law as much as he is. For He who said thou shalt not fornicate also said thou shalt not judge.’
‘Abbot Pastor said: Get away from any man who always argues every time he talks.’
‘A certain Philosopher asked St. Anthony: Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied: My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.’
Thomas Merton is not suggesting that his modern readers imitate in literal fashion the deeds of these Christian hermits of old. But he does suggest that we carefully ponder, and perhaps practice, the wisdom that they taught and lived. This strikes me as particularly relevant today during the present Coronavirus pandemic. A measure of isolation has lately been required of each of us. The Wisdom of the Desert might help us attain a graceful balance between solitude and charity, between fearless independence and a compassionate concern for others.