The writings of the Desert Fathers have always had a special hold on me. Although I have been exposed to many other great writings in the spiritual tradition, I have found myself returning again and again to their works. It is, I believe, their focus on the practical that speaks to me – their focus on the lived faith. Paradoxically, while they removed themselves from all contact with others and retreated to the barrenness of the desert, they also seemed to enter more fully into the depths of the human heart to discover not only the hidden mysteries therein, but the mysteries of the kingdom. Their writings, or most often simple sayings, speak with the clarity that only the silence of the desert could produce. Having stripped themselves of so many of the things that clutter our lives and hide the truth from our view, they came to see with utmost clarity the truth of their own poverty and the mercy of God. Naked, as it were, they came to know the naked Christ – the richness of crucified Love. In this their lives speak to us about who we are and who God is.
John Chryssagis in his book “In the Heart of the Desert” speaks of this special and very personal appeal of the Fathers:
“There is a fourth century Eucharistic prayer of Sarapion of Thmusis that expresses the center of the experience for the early Christians and of what their faith means for them. The prayer addresses God: ‘We entreat you, make us truly alive.‘ All of us know about the deeper longing to be truly alive. We have all felt the need to be more than ‘mere survivors‘ or ‘mere observers‘ in our world. Through the centuries people have had the same hope, the same dream. . .”
“One place, where men and women sought aggressively to understand the deeper meaning and the fuller measure of human existence, was the desert of early Christian Egypt. That dry desert . . . became the laboratory for exploring the truths about Heaven and earth and a forging ground for drawing connections between the two. The hermits who lived in that desert tested and studied what it means to be human – with all the tensions and temptations, all of the struggle beyond survival, all the contacts with good and the conflicts with evil. And in the process, some of them made many mistakes; others made fewer mistakes. Whoever said that there is a clear and simple answer to the questions of life? Yet, these men and women dared to push the limits, to challenge the norms. . .”
“The stories from the Egyptian desert are more than just a part of the Christian past. They are a part of our human heritage: they communicate eternal values, spiritual truths. Theirs is a silence of the deep heart and of intense prayer, a silence that cuts through the centuries and cultures. We should stop to hear that heartbeat. Sometimes, in fact, we shall need to stoop low in order to hear the sounds of their past. For, while they present us with models of the spiritual way, they do so in peculiar ways and with strange examples. In fact, these stories and sayings offer not simply models for imitation, but witnesses of a fullness and freedom to which we all aspire. . .”
“The words of these Egyptian hermits resemble flashes of light; they are sparks of fire. And the reader should neither be overly impressed nor even be greatly distressed by their comments. Instead, the reader is supposed to catch alight, to catch afire. It is critical to remain open enough, to be sufficiently vulnerable to their austere yet suggestive counsel. . .”
“The words of these elders smash the structures of complexity and rationalization with which we often clutter and confuse our lives. Their lives somehow seem to locate pockets of deadness in our lives, enabling us to become truly alive What they are in fact saying to us most of the time is quite simply: be what you are called to be!”
****All quotes taken from “In the Heart of the Desert” by John Chryssavgis, pp. 1-13.