Book Report: From the Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

Macarius the Great came to Antony on the mountain. When he knocked at the door, Antony went out and said, “Who are you?” He said, “I am Macarius.” Antony went in and shut the door, and left Macarius outside. Afterwards, when he saw how patiently he waited, he opened the door to him and welcomed him saying, “I have heard of you, and for a long time I have wanted to see you.” He was hospitable and refreshed him, for Macarius was tired with his hard work. In the evening Antony put out a few palm leaves for himself. Macarius said to him, “Give me some, so that I can work at them.” Antony said, “I only have these.” So he made a pile of what he had, and they sat late, talking to the good of their souls, and made a plaited rope, and the rope hung out of the window in the cave. At dawn Antony went out and saw the plait which Macarius had made, and he marveled and kissed his hand, saying, “There is great virtue in those plaits.”

I like this ancient tale of friendship. First of all it’s strange, like anything old. The strangeness of old stories makes me pause and ask, what’s going on here? Why are they plaiting palms? Why are they in a cave? Then on top of that it’s tender. I imagine Macarius and Antony (both called ‘the Great’ because of their virtue and wisdom) as sort of hard to get close to: old monks with scattered disciples and with eccentric ways, intimidating, massive. And there they are sitting by candlelight, working at a simple task, talking and laughing, wanting to be near one another. Neither of them expected to stay up late and weave a rope with another monk. And there they are in the morning, the one smiling and bending down to kiss the hand of the other. At the end, I imagine they each go their separate ways. I wonder if they knew they would part with such warm feeling?

This is one of a thousand or so stories of the early Christian monastics who fled to the desert in the declining centuries of the Roman Empire. Some of the stories are easy to chew, they seem to communicate a single moral lesson. Some are as tough as a Buddhist koan. There are a number of stories that seem to teach an oppressive sort of religion: e.g. viewing women as objects of lust, or lauding asceticism for its own sake, or rejecting ‘the world’ as evil.

But if you listen closely you’ll hear a dialogue going on in these stories. One saying may laud a certain attitude, and another may condemn it. There isn’t a monolithic ethics being taught here. It’s a conversation. I am fascinated by the idea of an inner critique in ancient literature. I’ve found this to be an enlightening way to think about scripture.

If you want to learn from history, from the way people thought and spoke long ago, one way is to take up a book like this. But you must relax your judgment. Let the stories speak for themselves. Don’t speak over the top of them. If it helps, imagine how those in the future might judge our stories, with our limited knowledge of God, our narrow convictions of what’s good. We’re all in this together, the ancients, ourselves, and our descendants.

Here’s a story about Moses, a slave-turned monk who was sometimes ridiculed by the other monks for his dark skin. Later in his life, people traveled from all around to sit in his presence. He was known for his gentleness and love.

In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the presbyter sent again saying, “Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.” Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said, “What does this mean, abba?” He said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.” They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.

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About mbdeaton

I study neutrino oscillations in neutron star mergers as a postdoc at North Carolina State University. Previously I was a graduate student at Washington State University, using the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity. I like the following questions: What happens when black holes and neutron stars collide? What is the role of radiation (neutrinos!) in an event like that? What makes Fred and Doerte such fine teachers? What's physics for? What good can a scientist offer his local community, as a scientist?

2 thoughts on “Book Report: From the Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

  1. As a child I read all those weird stories from Arabian Nights and about the Norse gods and mythology and I loved the idea of a world inhabited by grizzled wise men and beautiful maidens and wild horses and people who always knew what to say when they were, say, invited into a cave or on a life-risking adventure.

    Do you have a monk-story or book to recommend?

  2. Me too.
    I think some good monk stories would be good. I don’t know of any. I think you should write some.
    Have you read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott? I think I will report to the booth about this story soon. I’m just finishing it up, and I’m more and more glad I started reading it a few months ago. The monks, however, are pretty bad in this story, except the Clerk of Copmanhurst, a.k.a. Friar Tuck.
    But for depth and beauty, I think nothing compares to Tolkien’s trilogy.

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