In In the Heart of the Desert, John Chryssavgis offers the best introduction to the desert fathers and mothers I have have come across. Fundamentally, the desert elders were about being fully alive, says Chryssavgis. They offered examples for inspiration, but never models for imitation. “Rather, an invitation is here extended to find the proper wavelength, that frequency where we are touched and transformed by their sayings” (3, emphasis added).
The book begins with a brief overview of the stages the text of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers has undergone.
- The transmission of the sayings, originally verbal tradition
- The transition of the elders’ saying from an oral to a written tradition
- Development of the sayings into edited volumes
- The long period between the sayings and us
The second chapter talks about the world of the desert fathers and mothers. They were seeking ways to live the life of a martyr after the age of the martyrs had come to an end with the acceptance of Christianity by the empire. Thus, they reversed “ordinary social values and expectations.” Chryssavgis says, “Society expects its citizens to be active and productive. In society, you are useless if you are not valuable. This expectation translates today into our attitudes toward minorities, or toward the elderly, the disabled, and especially young children. The Desert Fathers and Mothers proclaimed a different set of values, where change occurs through silence and not war; where inaction may be the most powerful source of action; and where productivity may be measured by obscurity, even invisibility” (17).
After a chapter highlighting some of the more prominent monks in the Sayings, chapter 4 talks about the desert. Chryssavgis says it was never understood as an empty place; instead the vastness of the desert portrays “the presence of a boundless God” (34). Living in the desert, then, “means living for God” (35). Chryssavgis says that we all must traverse the desert in our journey to God. “Ironically, you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you…. Dressing this desert up through our addictions or attachments…will delay the utter loneliness and inner fearfulness of the desert experience…. If…we accept to undergo this experience voluntarily, then it can prove both constructive and liberating” (36).
The fifth chapter, about demons, arrives at the conclusion that the desert elders’ spirituality is one of imperfection: “They do not conceal — nor do they presume to know any ‘magical’ ways around — these imperfections.” Chryssavgis continues, “We are to become conscious of our inner desires and personal weaknesses, to confront and accept them in uncompromising simplicity and radical sincerity, without any rationalization or complication” (38–39).
Chapter 6 discusses the cell: the place where we learn patience. “The boundaries of our cell are gradually expanded to include every moment in our life and every detail in our world” (43).
The next chapter is an excellent discussion of silence and tears. “When words are abandoned, a new awareness arrives. Silence awakens us from dullness of awareness, from dimness of vision” (45). The most helpful observation in the book is Chryssavgis’ words about words: “Words are ways of affirming our existence, of justifying our actions. We speak in order to excuse ourselves, within ourselves and before others; whereas silence is a way of dying — within ourselves and in the presence of others. It is a way of surrendering life, always in the context and in the hope of new life and resurrection” (46). Having paid attention to my words this past week, I see that most of them are indeed in some way said to justify myself; silence, then, is needed in order to accept the self as imperfect but on a journey, and as a way of being in God’s presence. “You just sit; you just stay; you just wait. Then, when you arrive at the end of your individual resources, an infinite and eternal source can open up” (48). Our imperfections are perfected in weakness (cf. 2 Cor 12:9); and so tears represent our desire to be perfected as well as our admission that we are not God. “Desert spirituality underlines imperfections as the only way toward perfection. There is, quite simply, nothing beyond watching, waiting in, and weeping for our imperfections.” Chryssavgis continues,
For the Desert Fathers and Mothers, there is no stage beyond this knowledge of imperfection. Perfection is for God, not for us; imperfection is ours to know and embrace, not to forgo or forget. In the desert, the Gospel injunction to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48) becomes a vision of realism. It does not remain some vague dream or romanticism, but is perceived through the lenses of reality. For these elders, life is a continual balance of tensions, a perpetual standing beneath the cross, an unceasing weeping (50–51).
Chapter 8 discusses the heart and the passions. Chryssavgis suggests that there are two ways to think of the passions: as evil or as neutral. As evil, they should be wiped out; as neutral, they should be struggled with so that they lead to our spiritual health and not our demise.
Chapter 9 discusses spiritual direction. Noting that the elders, as guides for their juniors, never lorded their position over others but sought also to learn from them. It was a community of mutual respect, obedience, and teaching. Chryssavgis points out that this egalitarianism was the reason that so many desert elders refused to be ordained to the priesthood.
Next is a discussion of detachment, which Chryssavgis defines as “the spiritual capacity to focus on all things, material and other, without attachment.” Chryssavgis says that when “we learn what to let go of, we also learn what it is that is worth holding on to” (69). For Chryssavgis, the purpose of the desert elders’ detachment was to learn to pray. “In prayer, we are literally letting go; renouncing and refining so many images and so much information that veil our relationship to God and weigh down on the soul” (71).
Chapter 11 discusses education in the desert and further stresses the co-learning of elder and disciple.
The twelfth chapter discusses solitude. Solitude allows space and time for inner transformation, and Chryssavgis says that we all must take time for ourselves to draw near to God in solitude.
Chapter 13 discusses the body. The sometimes extreme asceticism (e.g., fasting, going without sleep, standing in vigil all night, manual labor, etc.) of the desert elders are in fact witnesses to the fact that we can often do with less than we currently have. “The ascetic’s treatment of the body appears negative to us because we have overloaded the body with far too much…. We are carrying so much baggage, so many preoccupation and concerns, such great loads that walking freely with God looks frightening, unfamiliar, and painful. And our natural response is to resist change; it simply seems crazy to us” (84).
Chapter 14 discusses the desert elders’ relationship with nature. “Detachment,” says Chryssavgis, “further implied a sense of becoming one with the environment” (85). Thus a major theme of the desert was the return to the Garden of Eden, where humans and nature existed in harmony.
Next is a discussion of gender, in which Chryssavgis claims that the women, the ammas, who entered the desert were stating their rejection of their slavery in the world and claiming their freedom in Christ. This they had in common with men, and women were welcomed into the desert and themselves respected as great teachers.
His chapter on miracles is interesting. Chryssavgis states that “the order of this world was infiltrated and influenced by the order of another world” (93). He continues after telling a few stories about the elders,
Within the context of life in the desert, [wonders and signs] were quite natural phenomena. What is of importance is not so much that an angel stood above John the Dwarf fanning him, but why something like this would occur. Explaining miracles rationally is like trying to explain the existence of God logically. It is not so much that trying to make sense of God is wrong; but trying to make sense of the world without God…is certainly insane.
For the desert elders, miracles are paradoxical responses resulting from God’s paradoxical love. They confirm God’s absolute love and celebrate God’s absolute freedom in a world that means everything to God as its creator….
Miracles, then, are a part of creation and invoke our creativity. They are insights into another way of life, involving openness to mystery and welcoming the surprise of grace. We do not in fact make miracles happen; we merely witness them happening (94–95).
Chapter 17 is about prayer. “The way of the desert teaches us how to pray: how to stand before God, how to speak to God, and above all how to keep silent before God” (97). Again, Chryssavgis stresses the counter-cultural aspect of this desert-edness:
Prayer is the realization that what matters most is not the success or the achievement or the productivity encouraged by society. Prayer is acceptance of frailty and failure — first within ourselves, and then in the world around us. When we are able to accept our brokenness, without any pretense and without any pretexts, then we are also able to embrace the brokenness of others, without expecting to see results; it is learning to love, without hoping to see return; it is learning to be, without demanding to have. We cannot live and love and simply be, unless we are consumed by a total commitment to detachment (98).
In final analysis, Chryssavgis states, “The aim is to make an effort, simply to say one’s prayers. And, by saying prayers — some of the time or even much more of the time — the result is that one becomes identified with prayer all of the time” (100).
Chryssavgis concludes with three observations from the lives of the desert fathers and mothers (103–106):
- God is to be found in the midst of the struggle, not merely at its end.
- God is always present, always near.
- In the struggle, we learn to love others, for we all share the same imperfections.
“The aim of the desert,” says Chryssavgis, “was…to learn to love.” It was not to learn to perform impressive feats of fasting, vigil, or abstinence. Compassion…and not competition” (107).
Chryssavgis also includes — for the first time in English — the text of Abba Zosimas’ Reflections, which I discuss in the next post.