Book Review: The Sayings Of The Desert Fathers

The Saying Of The Desert Fathers:  The Alphabetical Collection, translated and with a forward by Benedicta Ward

A book like this is like coming to a ball of thread that serves as the base of a great many intriguing but troubling elements within the practice of Christianity.  Once I committed myself to reading 25 books that every Christian supposedly needs to read, I found that this book was deeply connected with some of the other works in that series [1].  For example, although one cannot trace the ascetic life of these mostly Egyptian mostly men (although there are some women as well) to anything praised in the Bible, there appears to have been a desire on the part of some Hellenistic believers to separate themselves from the world and its pressures and difficulties, and as these people were among the first to do it and their thoughts and stories were written down, the resulting text has served as an inspiration to the transplanted monastic principles and ways of Orthodox and Catholic spirituality.  Given that, one would expect a striking mixture of good and evil in these pages and if you read this book that is precisely what you will find, a collection of ancient Hellenistic texts that encourage those who wish to escape from the hustle and bustle of contemporary life.

This book is organized alphabetically in Greek from Alpha to Omega, and the inclusions range from single short sayings from some abbas (fathers) and the occasional amma (mother) to large collections that extend for dozens of saying over dozens of pages.  There is a certain sameness to many of the sayings, and they demonstrate a coherent worldview, one that has strong ambivalence about involvement with other people and society as a whole and has strong dualistic tendencies coming from Gnostic views of the flesh and spirit that influenced Alexandrine Christianity pretty heavily.  There are some tensions here over the feelings of people towards Origen and a high degree of interest in matters of slander, fornication, and demon possession.  By and large the people written about here seek not only to discuss matters of their ascetic practice and desires to overcome even the pull towards sin but also strive to develop the practical insight in dealing with people to give the sort of answers that will spur others on to greater spiritual growth, at least as these authors understand it.  The book as a whole also has the melancholy edge of the fragility of the monastic life and the tendency for centers of that life to be destroyed by barbarian invasion, as happened repeatedly from the fourth century and beyond.

Is this a good book?  Much depends on what you are looking for.  If you want a set of alphabetically organized sayings that show the struggle of ascetics for managing the practical details of organizing people who live simply and who have little want to be around others but who seem to find others wanting to be around them because of their reputation for piety and holiness.  There is a great irony in that many of the Desert Fathers (and mothers) were tormented by their guilt for their mistakes previously in life and sought a way to earn enough merit to good with God, and in their desire to isolate themselves from the world they found that their good reputation led others to want to be around them, thus making it impossible for them to fully escape from the pressures of leadership and setting a godly example and dealing with the temptations and frustrations and difficulties of the world.  And once martyrdom became less common–although some martyrs are found here–this way of attempting to earn merit with God spread to other areas where people had similar worldviews and a similar approach in Hellenistic Christianity, which makes this book noteworthy and of historical interest but not really the sort of example that a believer in the Bible should follow.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Sayings Of The Desert Fathers

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World: Part 3 | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: A Student’s Guide To Religious Studies | Edge Induced Cohesion

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