Monasticism Old and New

Posted in Uncategorized on August 28, 2014 by citydesert

“In order for us to understand about ‘a new monasticism’ we needed to understand a little about ‘old’ monasticism because it was from that tradition that we drew so much…
We discovered that monasticism is ‘a way of life with a spiritual goal which transcends the objectives of this earthly life. The attainment of this goal is considered the ‘one thing necessary.’ Christian monasticism i.e. that which is centred in and consecrated to Christ being informed, inspired and illumined by His Love) has three essential elements namely, Separation from the world, Ascetical practices, Mystical Aspiration.
A] Separation from the world – the physical separation of the enclosure; a tonsure, a distinctive habit etc. all of which marked the separateness.

B] Ascetical Practices – Poverty, chastity, obedience, regularity of life in a Community under a Rule, stability, self-denial, silence, solitude, cultivation of “lectio divina”, public prayer of the Church e.g. the story in Exodus 17 where the continuous prayer of the liturgical offices is likened to the holding up the hands of Moses, and engaging in spiritual warfare.

C] Mystical Aspiration – Searching for God in his Absolute Mystery and Beyondness. God is both concealed and revealed. Contemplation of Christ the Living Word and of Christ in the written Word, allowing self to be caught up in the movement of repentance, of returning to God. Giving oneself to His action in us through Availability and Vulnerability, surrender, abandonment, and prayer.

A new monasticism which is ‘An interior monasticism of the heart’ seeks to draw from these truths and attempts to live a contemporary expression of ‘contemplation in a world of action.’ So the differences are in emphases:

A] Separation – not separatism, isolationist but withdrawal as strategic retreat. An awareness of the importance of the inner journey, “poustinia”, cloister of the heart, solitude, hiddenness, alone yet together.

B] Ascetical practises – a way for living that incorporates the spiritual disciplines to encourage this interior vigilence. “Ascesis” = training, living. It is training for life needing a Rule of life, a rhythm of prayer, a reason to be. Seeking God, knowing self so as to better live with others. So we have both solitude and Community, both alone and together as spiritual disciplines. This is seeking “truth in the inward parts” Ps 51, a life of repentance, humility and teachableness with a willingness to embrace the spiritual disciplines that bring life.

C] Mystical aspiration – awareness of God as Mystery, seeking God, longing, monasticism of the heart, compunction, a contemplative approach to life and prayer where an awareness of the cell, Desert, dark night, inner life, “logismoi”, monsters is needed. This is where God is concealed from us yet revealed to us in the paradoxical ‘ever-present absence of God’…

All the spiritual disciplines and monastic values are there not as ends in themselves but as aids, tools, signposts to the heart of it all which is Christ. Thus we have many of our daily meditations (e.g. Day 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 17, 21 etc ) pointing to the inner journey as paramount and foundational.
This is our ethos, our heart, that which gives us identity. It is something we can only do alone but we are Together in our Aloneness. We have many Companions sharing our journey. It is the ‘single minded search for God’ given coherence by desert and Celtic spirituality which was essentially monastic and any expression of Monasticism stands in the wisdom tradition which is not an accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, but a constant application to life actually lived ‘A wise person does not gather and dispense insights, but rather has the heart to live those insights’

1] MONASTIC DISCERNMENT – Relationship with God, self and others
2] MONASTIC DISCIPLINE – Rule of life – Availability and Vulnerability
3] MONASTIC DAY – Rhythm of prayer and life, giving a pattern to my days
Monastic cell
This was the purpose of going to the Cell. Your cell may have a physical representation; a hut or “poustinia”, a chair in a corner of a room etc. But whatever it is, it is symbolic of the heart alone with God. This is the heart of the inner journey. It is encounter and discernment of that which is constructive and destructive, enabling us to choose life and not death.
That process of looking inward in order to discover the true self as opposed to the false self, the deeper meaning of all your actions and reactions, and this ‘going to the cell’ would eventually teach you everything and so bring you closer to the true humanity of Christlikeness.
One of the first effects of ‘going to the cell’ is the release of the energies of the unconscious, which gives rise to two different psychological states:-
a] Exposure to the love of God: expressed and experienced in our personal development in the form of spiritual consolation; experiencing his mercy, grace and forgiveness in Christ through his Cross.
b] Exposure to the sinfulness of humanity: experiencing our own human weakness through humiliating self-knowledge and encounter with the false self, the dark side of our personality. ‘It takes a moment to get you out of Egypt but a lifetime to get Egypt out of you.’
This dual awareness is what the Fathers called ‘compunction’ and it’s captured in the hymn ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus two wonders I confess: the wonder of his glorious love and my own worthlessness.
This is why a Rule of life is absolutely essential to any monastic expression. It says this is who we are, this is our story and all who are part of us must keep to and live in the story that God has written as foundational. Monastic stability is to be accountable to a Rule of life NOT to a set of rules that restrict or deny life. It is, to use the words of Benedict ‘simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life’.
A Rule is like a pair of eye glasses (spectacles) – we don’t look AT them but THROUGH them to life. How foolish to constantly look at them, the gold frames the bi-focul lenses and never look through them so as to actually see.
The word comes from the Old English REULE. In Latin it is “REGULA” which means ‘rhythm, regularity of pattern, a recognisable standard’ for the conduct of life. Esther De Waal writes that the Latin “REGULA” ‘is a feminine noun which carried gentle connotations’. Not harsh negatives that we often associate with the phrase ‘rules and regulations’ today.
Esther De Waal tells us that the word has a root meaning of ‘a signpost’ which has a purpose of pointing away from itself so as to inform the traveller that they are going in the right direction on their journey. It would be foolish to claim we have arrived at our destination if in fact we are only at a signpost, however near or far from the destination it is.
Another root meaning of “REGULA” is ‘a banister railing’ which is something that gives support as you move forward, climbing or descending on your journey.
A Rule of life gives creative boundaries and spiritual disciplines while still leaving plenty of room for growth, development and flexibility. It gives us something to hold on to as we journey in our search for God, and when we be blown off course, it gives a safe haven to come back to. It gives us a means of perception, a way of seeing so that we can attempt to handle our lives and relationships wisely. This is why we can all be helped by embracing a
A workable rhythm to your day that draws from Monastic values that actually works for you according to your own unique situation and circumstances. It has to bring life and freedom not straightjacket you.
Our Rule of life is deliberately flexible and adaptable. It is also timeless because it does not PRESCRIBE, it PROVOKES. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive! It’s the very opposite – its seek God for yourself, who you are, where you are – with your unique experience, knowledge and understanding of life. With all your idiosyncrasies, prejudices and crap – bring it all to the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability. We must hold it loosely so as to make our own discoveries. To realise there won’t always be an answer so we keep asking/living the questions.
How then shall we live? Who is God? Who am I? What is Real?
It is to realise that God gives different answers to different people in different situations and circumstances, which is why we can’t prescribe, can’t meet individual agenda’s and expectations.

In many ways it would be so much easier to say this is the prescription – do this, don’t do that – take 3 Hail Mary’s, 2 Our Father’s 4 times a day. It has to be broad strokes, general principles to which you apply your specifics – your own unique set of circumstances and relationships.
Henri Nouwen expresses it well when he speaks of the spiritual life being a constant reaching out in the midst of paradox and chaos to these three areas of connectedness. This Reaching Out constitute the three Movements of the Spiritual Life.
1] Connecting in relation to self – From loneliness to solitude. With courageous honesty to our inmost selves, facing inner restlessness, our passions, weaknesses.
2] Connecting in relation to others – From hostility to hospitality. With relentless care to others, despite our mixed feelings and hostility.
3] Connecting in relation to God – From illusion to prayer. With increasing prayer to God, facing our doubts, disappointments and darkness. Living in incarnational reality.
It is the call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength – to love our neighbour as ourselves – to love one another as Christ has loved us.”

An extract from “Understanding Desert Monasticism”, a retreat talk by Trevor Miller of The Northumbria Community:
Trevor Miller
“The Northumbria Community describes a diverse and dispersed network of people, alone and together, gathered around a Rule of Life as a Way to follow the Way. We’re quite messy and not always easy to define or pin down – as William Stringfellow once wrote, “Dynamic and erratic, spontaneous and radical, audacious and immature, committed if not altogether coherent’, ecumenically open and often experimental, visible here and there, now and then, but unsettled institutionally. Almost Monastic in nature, but most of all… enacting a fearful hope for human life in society.””

Evangelical Monasticism

Posted in Uncategorized on August 27, 2014 by citydesert

“Blessed Seraphim of Sarov, the great Russian hesychast of the last [19th] century, said that if you made your peace with God, many people would come to find peace with you.
Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim was speaking from his personal experience and also from the experience of the long hesychast tradition of the Church. It’s been well observed that the more those Fathers who were at peace in God withdrew into the desert, the more the crowds of people who flocked to them to seek benefit….
Monastics don’t seek to save the world with pastoral or missionary activity, because ‘being poor in spirit’, they take the view that they’re hardly able to save others before they’re saved themselves. They surrender themselves to God without any plans or conditions. They’re always at the Lord’s beck and call, ready to hear His command. The Lord of the Church calls upon the workers in His vineyard to labour in whatever way He thinks will save and benefit them. He called upon Saint Gregory Palamas to undertake the pastoral protection of the people of Thessaloniki and to put into Orthodox terminology the faith of our fathers. He called upon Saint Kosmas to go out and preach and undertake missionary journeys, while He enlightened Saint Nikodimos the Athonite to preach, without ever going out into the world, through his most theological and spiritual writings, which to this day bring so many souls to God. Other monastics have been called to bring benefit to the world through silence and perseverance, through their prayers and tears, as was the case with the Athonite Saint Leontios (Dionysiatis), who, for sixty years, never left his monastery, but remained enclosed in a dark cell. The Lord showed that He had accepted his sacrifice by giving him the gift of prophecy. After his demise, myrrh flowed from his body.
athonite hermits 1
But what mostly makes the blessed monastics the joy and light of the world is that they preserve the ‘the image of God’. In the unnatural situation of sin in which we live, we forget and lose the measure of what it means to be real people. Blessed monastics show us what we were like before the Fall and what deified people are like, that is the image of God. And so monastics are the hope of humankind, at least for those who are able to discern our real and more profound nature without the prejudices of transient ideologies. If people can’t be glorified, and if we haven’t personally met glorified people, it’s difficult to hope in the possibility of overcoming our fallen state and attaining the state for which the good Lord created us, which is joyful glorification. As Saint John of the Ladder says, ‘The angels are the light for monastics; the monastic state is the light for all humankind’ (Discourse XXVI).
John of the Ladder
Since monastics have the grace of glorification even in this present life, they’re a marker and witness to the world of the Kingdom of God. According to the holy Fathers, the Kingdom of God is the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Through glorified monks and nuns, the world knows ‘unwittingly’ and sees ‘invisibly’ the character and glory of the deified human person and of the coming Kingdom of God, which is not of this world.

So, through monasticism, the Church retains the eschatological conscience of the Apostolic Church, keeps alive the expectation of the coming Lord and also His mystical presence among us, the fact that the Kingdom of God is within us….

Although silent and isolated in terms of locus, monastics are spiritually and mystically in the midst of the Church and, from a high pulpit, preach the claims of the Lord of All and the need for a completely Christian life. They orientate the world towards Jerusalem above and the glory of the Holy Trinity, as the universal aim of creation.
Danilo es un monje ortodoxo que hace 19 años abandonó su familia y trabajo en Serbia, y se instalo en la cuevas de Karoulia como un hermitaño radical. Lleva una vida ascetica dedicada a la oración. Se levanta a las tres de la mañana y durante horas r
This is the Apostolic teaching preached authentically, in every era, by monasticism and it requires an apostolic renunciation of everything and a life of the Cross. Like the Holy Apostles, so monastics ‘leave everything behind’, follow Christ and fulfill His word: ‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life’. ‘Having nothing and owning everything’ they share in the sufferings, deprivations, tribulations, vigils and earthly insecurity of the Holy Apostles…

This vision of God’s glory and Christ’s sweet visitation to monastics justify all their apostolic struggles and make the monastic life ‘real life’ and ‘blessed life’ which they wouldn’t exchange for anything, if any of them have come to know it even for a short time.
Monastics radiate this grace mystically to their brothers and sisters in the world, too, so that everyone can see, can repent, can believe, can be comforted, can rejoice in the Lord and glorify the merciful God ‘who has given such authority to people’ (Matth. 9, 8).
Archimandrite George
An extract from: The late Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of the Blessed Grigoriou, Ευαγγελικός Μοναχισμός, no. 1, pp. 64-80. Published by the Holy Monastery of Blessed Grigoriou, Holy Mountain, 1976.

For the other parts of this document:

Archimandrite George was also the author of:
“The Deification as the Purpose of Man’s Life” Mount Athos: Holy Monastery of St Gregorios, 1997, and
“The Lord’s Prayer” Mount Athos: Holy Monastery of St Gregorios, 1997: available on-tline at

The Desert Fathers: Madmen or Pilgrims in Transformation?

Posted in Uncategorized on August 27, 2014 by citydesert

“Secular historians sometimes misrepresent early Christian monks as fanatical madmen. An excellent analysis and refutation of this charge was recently published by Paul Federer in “Uncertain Transformation: The Role of Asceticism in Death in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” Federer cites Edward Gibbon (among others) for this negative view:
‘The rigorous ascetic regime of Christian monks has tempted many historians to conclude that monks believed salvation from death was the result of works preformed to atone to for sin and appease God’s wrath. Edward Gibbon provides one of the earliest incarnations of this view in his “Decline and Fall of the Rome Empire”, when states “inspired by a savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant [monks] embraced a life of misery as the price of eternal happiness.”’

Federer goes on to show the fallacy of this perspective:

‘These criticisms paint Christian monks as dangerous fanatics and subtly link them with an intellectual decline in Late Antiquity. These audacious indictments rely on a misunderstanding of asceticism’s role in the monastic vocation. Gibbon, Dodds, and Fox impose a ghoulish God on the church of Late Antiquity who revels in the suffering of his servants. “The Apothegmata” rejects this view arguing that asceticism was the means of Christians’ transformation as opposed to an end that allowed them to escape the wrath of an angry God. In her introduction to “The Sayings”, Benedicta Ward provides an eloquent explanation of ascetic practices and their role in monastic life, “Monks went without sleep because they were watching for the Lord; they did not speak because they were listening to God; they fasted because they were fed by the Word of God. It was the end that mattered, the ascetic practices were only the means.” Gibbon, Dodd and Fox portray ascetic practices as a frantic scramble to endure sufficient personal suffering in exchange for a pardon from a vindictive God. Ward demonstrates that individual transformation and not divine pardon was the goal of such acts, “All ascetic effort, all personal relationships, life in all aspects was brought slowly into the central relationship with God in Christ.” Salvation was not a reward for a life spent in misery atoning for sin; it is a state of being.’”

The full text of Paul Federer’s excellent and important paper – presented at the 3rd Annual James A. Rawley Conference in the Humanities – “Imagining Communities: People, Places, Meanings” Lincoln, Nebraska, April 2, 2008 – can be found on-line at:

Father Youhanna Khawand, Maronite Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2014 by citydesert

“Lebanon’s second-longest serving hermit, Father Youhanna Khawand, has a Ph.D. in theology from Rome and taught at Holy Spirit University in Kaslik, Lebanon, before becoming a hermit in 1997. His hermitage lies outside Beirut.
Father Yuhanna Kwawand
Father Khawand exercises his prerogative regarding visitors: He sees no one. From afar one can see him taking a stroll. Many of Father Khawand’s hours are spent on an ongoing project, reforming the Maronite liturgy. He writes prayers, prose and hymns and has a wonderful gift for reworking New Testament text into poetic verse. Many of his writings are published, but only because his admirers gathered the bits of paper and tissue on which they were written and painstakingly converted them into a book.
For the 30 or 40 years before Father Antonious took up the call in 1982, there were no Maronite hermits. Today there are three, the third a monk who came to Lebanon from Colombia to learn Arabic and Syriac and the way of a hermit. Dario Escobar took up residence in the Hermitage of St. Hawqa.
Father Escobar is glad to receive visitors but has few. Whereas the way to Father Antonious’ is at most a 10-minute walk, the 45-minute walk to Father Escobar’s hermitage is rocky and steep. He even keeps a store of food available for the times when the monastery cannot deliver his meal.
I met Father Escobar in the mid-1980’s when he was a monk at Qozhaiya and delivering the daily meal to Father Chayna. We met again in the early 90’s and he told me of his wish to become a hermit. He wondered then if he could win the difficult struggle over mind and body. He became a full-fledged hermit in August 2000.
The tradition of the hermits that began in the deserts of Egypt still thrives in the mountains of Lebanon. Few professions either in the church or outside it have such stringent requirements. But for those called to serve God in this walk of life, there is no more fulfilling vocation.”

“Born on 10 May 1936 in Saydoun, David Khawand was baptized on 7June the same year. He went to the state primary school of Saydoun then to the Convent of Our Lady of Victory in Ghosta. He did his secondary studies at the scholasticate of the Maronite Lebanese Order in Kaslik, entering the seminary of the Order on 13 October 1947 under the patronage of Father Paul Hatem. On 22 July 1951 he became a novice in the monastery in Ghosta under the direction of Father Simon Awad. He took his first vows on 29 June 1953 and his perpetual vows on 17 January1958. He was ordained a priest in Rome on 4 December 1964. Father Yuhanna Khawand was engaged in university teaching from 1970 until he entered the hermitage of Tamiche. He taught a general introduction to the Bible, exegesis of the New Testament as well as Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. He made a major contribution to the process of liturgical reformin the contemporary Maronite Church, and participated in the Arabic translation of the Greek New Testament, edited in 1992 by the Pontifical Faculty of the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik. Before he entered the hermitage in Tamiche, he several times visited the Monastery of Saint Anthony Kozhaya where he experienced solitude,and similarly visited hermit Chayna to benefit from his personalexperience. His aspiration to the eremitical life is long-standing; he tells that he was present during the funeral of hermit Yaakoub Bou Maroun in1958 and held a candle which he blew out and hid in his pocket after the burial. Bou Maroun was the last hermit from the Maronite LebaneseOrder before Chayna started his hermitage in 1982. The lack of hermits within the Maronite Lebanese Order has saddened Father Khawand. The candle itself was lost, but when he started his hermitage in 1999 he felt that the candle was lit again. What had long kept him from taking this step towards eremitical life was a keen sense of responsibility especially towards the Order. Nevertheless, he finally started his hermitage inTamiche on 17 January 1998.
Monastery of Our Lady of Tamiche
The Monastery of Our Lady of Tamiche is situated in the Metndistrict. It was built in 1673 by the bishop of Aleppo, Gabriel el Bouzanito serve as the Episcopal See for the Diocese of Aleppo. In 1704, Bishop Gabriel was appointed Patriarch and his nephew Mikhael el Blouzani was ordained Bishop and his successor in Aleppo. Bishop Mikhael el Blouzani stayed in the Monastery of Our Lady of Tamiche until 1724 when he resigned because of old age. He decided to transfer the property of the monastery to the monks of the Maronite Lebanese Order in 1727.In 1841, the monastery was burned down by the Egyptian army.

Two hermitages were annexed to the monastery; the first built simultaneously with the monastery. This hermitage is not used nowadays and stands in ruins. But in 1926 the abbot of the Monastery of Tamiche, Father Youssef Saade ´el Ghostawi built another hermitage fifteen minutes away by foot from the monastery in a region called ‘Ain Kattine’ at an altitude of 350 metres. The first hermit who lived in it was Father Jacques Abi Maroun. Hermit Yuhanna Khawand currently occupies this hermitage.”

“As with most Maronite monasteries, the hermitage at Tamish is not far from the monastery itself. It houses those monks who have a vocation to be hermits. In order to become a hermit a monk must obtain the permission of the authorities. Tamish’s hermitage is named after St Antony the Abbot. We believe that the hermitage is very old but unfortunately there are no detailed records about it before 1926.
Today, we have a well-known monk in the Maronite Church called Fr Youhana Khawand, who lived in Tamish’s hermitage for thirteen year before he was moved to the hermitage of Saint Boula in Qozhaya Valley on 11th of September 2011, in the north of Lebanon. Fr Khawand entered the hermitage, with the permission of his superiors, on January 17th 1998. Tamish’s hermitage or the monastery are both greatly respected by the Lebanese people who come from all over the country to receive a blessing or to seek a spiritual advice.”

Qozhaya Valley
“Ascetic life was widespread in the Qozhaya Valley. The hermits lived in cells chiseled in the rocks. Life at the Monastery of Saint Anthony was coenobitic. The hermits of the valley used to meet there once a week, under a bishop’s authority.
The hermitages of Saints Simon, Bishoy, Michael and Boula were near the Monastery. The hermitage of St. Boula has a remarkable history. Situated southwest of the Monastery, it was founded in 1716 AD by Father Abdallah Qaraaly, one of the founders of the Lebanese Maronite Order. Its surroundings were perfumed by the prayers of a multitude of hermits. The Lebanese Saint Sharbel Makhlouf, before he entered the Order, ofen stayed in the above hermitage when he visited his two hermit uncles, Augustine and Daniel Shidiac of Bsharré.
Today, on the threshold of the third millennium, three hermits priests, Father Youhanna KHAWAND, Father Antoine RIZK and Father Dario ESCOBAR, are living in cells. They continue this tradition by offering their lives and prayers to God. Father Rizk has been living in the Hermitage of St. Boula since 2009. Father KHAWAND has been living in the Hermitage of St. Boula since 2011. Father Escobar, from Colombia, who is a Doctor in Psychology and a Professor in Theology, has been living in the Hermitage of Our Lady of Hawqa since 2000.”

Hermitage of St Saba
For the Maronite eremitical tradition, see:

Guita G. Hourani and Antoine B. Habachi “The Maronite Eremitical Tradition A Contemporary Revival” HeyJ XLV (2004), pp. 451–465 On-line at:

Praying with the Desert Mothers

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2014 by citydesert

Mary Forman “Praying with the Desert Mothers” [Liturgical Press, 2005]
Praying with the Desert Mothers
“Fourth- and fifth-century desert mothers in the Mediterranean region, known as “ammas” (spiritual mothers), were the founders of Christian community in the early church. “Praying with the Desert Mothers” introduces the lives, sayings, and stories of these remarkable spiritual elders. It enriches readers’ lives and compels them to return in meditation and prayer. For each topic a true story is drawn from a modern persona’s experience of seeking God. This tapestry of stories of the desert ammas is woven together with theological insights, discussion of genres of literature, historical views on women, and reflective approaches to the wisdom tradition.
“Praying with the Desert Mothers “combines scholarship and reflection for praying, meditating, and living the wisdom of spiritual practices today. Chapters are Introduction to the Desert Mothers, Ammas as Midwives of Wisdom, Ammas as Scripture Scholars, Heralds in the Desert, Desert as Idyllic Garden, The Peal of Great Price, Humility and the Manifestation of Thoughts, Penthos and Tears, Signs of Conversion, The Hidden Life, Prayer and Hospitality; and concludes with The Visitation and a complete bibliography on the desert ammas.
“Mary Forman, OSB, PhD, a Benedictine from the Monastery of Saint Gertrude, Cottonwood, Idaho, is assistant professor of theology at the School of Theology, Seminary and the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.”

“”Amma” is the term designated for a “spiritual mother,” an equivalent term for “spiritual father.” It refers to the ability one had to become a spiritual guide for another person, and is not explicitly connected with the role of abbess or superior. These early Christians lived in the deserts of the Mediterranean during the fourth and fifth centuries. In this edifying paperback, Mary Forman (a Benedictine nun from the Monastery of Saint Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho) presents a look at their lives and practices.
Forman, who teaches monastic studies and theology, examines the ways in which these ammas channeled grace to others as midwives of wisdom, scripture scholars, heralds in the desert, stewards of virtue, exemplars of holiness, practitioners of humility and compunction, and devout believers in prayer and hospitality.
The text is greatly amplified by the inclusion in each chapter of a story or commentary about a different desert mother, and a reflection on how to take into our own lives some of their wisdom and practices.”

desert mothers 2
“This little gem of a book delivers all that it promises, and considerably more. . . . The author writes clearly and concisely, making it easy to concentrate on the text and ideas. This little volume would serve nicely both for spiritual reading and for an introduction to the spirituality of Early Christian women ascetics. “American Benedictine Review”

This book is a very interesting and stimulating source not only for learning about a part of the history of the church which has been little emphasized, but also as a source for promoting the continuing value of the work of the ancient ammas for spiritual guidance in a modern world. “Catholic Studies”

. . . many will find this resource a valuable source of inspiration and prayerful reflection on women’s faithful lives, both ancient and modern. It is a text that could well be used for classroom use in Christian spirituality, in the history of early Christianity, and in the dynamics of Christian prayer. The faith, especially of these ancient and courageous desert women, inspires admiration and at times awe. That Forman has provided a way for ordinary Christians to reclaim their stories and to embrace them in prayer is a great service.
“New Theology Review”
desert mothers 3
One thing that I especially like about this book is its profound reflection on lived experience. Mary Forman is able to go back into her long experience in her monastery (Saint Gertrude’s, Idaho) and pull up fascinating and moving examples of modern ammas in out Benedictine convents. I think she shows clearly enough that the days of the Desert Mothers are by no means over. “Cistercian Studies Quarterly”

For Sister Mary Forman, see:

The Book of the Elders

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2014 by citydesert

John Wortley (Trans.) “The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Systematic Collection” [Liturgical Press, 2012]
“In the early part of the fourth century, a few Christians, mostly men and some women, began to withdraw from “the world” to retreat into the desert, there to practice their new religion more seriously. The person who aspired to “renounce the world” first had to find an “elder,” a person who would accept him as a disciple and apprentice. To his elder (whom he would address as abba–father) the neophyte owed complete obedience; from his abba, he would receive provisions (as it were) for the road to virtue. In addition to the abba’s own example of living, there was the verbal teaching of the elders in sayings and tales, setting out the theory and practice of the eremitic life.
In due course, these sayings (or apophthegmata) were written down and, later, collected and codified. The earliest attempts to codify tales and sayings are now lost.
As the collection grew, they were first organized alphabetically, according to the name of the abba who spoke them, in a major collection known as the Apophthegmata Patrum Alphabetica. A supplementary collection, the Anonymous Apophthegmata, followed. Later, both collections were combined and arranged systematically rather than alphabetically. This collection was created sometime between 500 and 575 and later went through a couple of major revisions, the second of which appeared sometime before 970.
This second revision was published in an excellent new critical edition, with a French translation, in 1993. Now, in “The Book of the Elders”, John Wortley offers an English translation of this collection, based entirely on the Greek of that text.”
“John Wortley, PhD, D.D., spent thirty-three years trying to convince university students that the study of medieval history is both important for understanding the present and also enjoyable when it is done properly. His research and much of his teaching has dealt with the Later Roman (so-called Byzantine) Empire (ca. 286–1204). For fifty years he has served as an Episcopalian priest, assisting now in a large local parish in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he lives with his wife.
“The Book of the Elders” contains hundreds of tales and sayings which the first Christian monks (who peopled the Egyptian deserts in the 4th-7th cents) used to tell each other. They were both a training manual for new monks and a treasury of the wisdom of the elders for all. Today they supply something which is notoriously lacking for most other peoples in those “dark ages:” a revelation of how they lived and what they thought. Many of the tales and sayings deal with the monks’ relationship with God and with each other but a surprising number of them shed light on the otherwise almost completely unknown “world” (secular society) from which they had become anchorites, or withdrawers.”—-Book-Launch#.U_vXt2NYyUk

desert fathers 3
“If you were a monk in the deserts of Egypt in the fifth century, your practice would begin and develop under the guidance of an elder. While you would spend most of your time in solitary prayer, the elder would provide regular insight, which might come in a short saying or apophthegm. It would be your task to meditate on this saying, learning to put it into practice, until the time came to receive the next piece of spiritual insight. It is these direct sayings, given to monks one by one, that are collected in “The Book of the Elders”. Over the years, the Desert Fathers’ insights passed from one monastic generation to the next, made their way from the original Coptic into Greek, and accumulated in written collections that preserved the oral tradition. Wortley has translated the “systematic collection,” a compendium of sayings drawn from the two earlier collections, the “alphabetic” and “anonymous” apophthegms. His translation aims to preserve not only the precision of the elders’ meaning but also the simplicity of their tone, in the hope that today’s readers, too, can imagine sitting at their feet.”

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“THE EARLY FOURTH century meets the 21st when a famous anthology of spiritual wisdom is translated from Greek into modern English by a Canadian scholar and made available worldwide in e-book format.
Dr Wortley is a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, a professor emeritus of the University of Manitoba, a specialist in Byzantine History and a researcher of monastic literature. In this volume he has given us a translation of the Systematic Collection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers with a brief introduction. There is also a foreword by his friend, Bernard Flusin.
Beginning in the early fourth century, devout Christian men and women began to retire into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria to live stricter lives devoted to prayer and self-discipline. These holy people are known as the Desert Fathers. Some became hermits such as St Antony; some formed communities of hermits who lived silent lives but assembled on Saturday for Vespers and Sunday for the Eucharist. Others formed large monastic communities to which saints such as Pachomios gave rules of life. Some of their communities survive to this day, such as St Sabas in Palestine and St Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula.
The Desert Fathers became wise in the ways of God and in the life of prayer. They memorised the Psalter and sections of the Scriptures including the Gospels and the Prophets. They said their prayers and fought off the temptations which surrounded them – temptations similar to those which Our Lord faced in the wilderness. They earned their daily bread by manual labour and they wove baskets and mats to sell in the local markets. They learned from the Fathers who went before them and, in their turn, taught their disciples who came after them. To do this they assembled collections of the sayings, deeds and lives of the Fathers for their own benefit and that of their disciples.
There is a pattern of holy life here: young and inexperienced monks learned from the sayings, deeds and prayers of older and experienced monks. At other times such experienced spiritual teachers are called soul friend, father confessor or staretz. All of us learn in this way from those whom we respect for their wisdom, holiness of life and ability to show us the way. We are encouraged by their wisdom and advice, strengthened by their examples and prayers and so we run the race which is set before us.
This way of life begins at our baptism but is lived more intensely in Lent when we are encouraged to focus more intently on prayer, fasting and self-denial and upon reading and meditation on the Holy Scriptures (see BCP page 612). The sayings of the Desert Fathers contain much about these themes and others as well: self-control, patience and courage, discretion, watchfulness, hospitality, humility and forbearance.
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Here are just a few examples from a rich anthology of wisdom and spiritual advice that will help us in living our own Christian lives. An elder was asked, ‘What is ‘to pray without ceasing?’ [1 Thess5.17], and he replied, ‘It is the petition sent up to God from the very foundation of the heart, requesting what is appropriate. For it is not only when we stand for prayer that we are praying, true prayer is when you can pray all the time within yourself’(p. 221). Humility is an important Christian virtue about which the Desert Fathers have much to say. When another brother asked an Elder, ‘What is a person’s progress in godliness?’ he is told: ‘A person’s progress is humility. A person makes progress insofar as he humbles himself’ (p. 271). Hospitality is also praised by the Desert Fathers: A brother visited an Elder and said to him as he was leaving, ‘Forgive me, Abba, for I have distracted you from your rule,’ but in answer he said to him, ‘My rule is to give you refreshment and to send you on your way in peace’ (p. 226).
The Desert Fathers also speak of the Holy Communion, sometimes in mystical terms. One of them described a vision of light that appeared when the faithful were receiving Communion: ‘When the Body of the Lord was distributed to some and they partook, it was engulfing them in flame and burning them up, while for others it became like a light and entering through the mouth, lit up their whole body’ (p. 337). The centre of Christian worship is the celebration of the Eucharist and the receiving of Holy Communion.
This and other collections of the same material have shaped the monastic life of the Christian Church in the East and the West. Dr. Wortley’s previous publications in this field have included translations of “The Tales of Paul of Monembasia” and John Moscho’s “Spiritual Meadow”. Another fine book in this canon is Sister Benedicta Ward’s translation, “The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers”.
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In his latest volume, Dr Wortley has given us a readable modern translation of the ancient Christian wisdom of the Desert Fathers. I recommend it as spiritual reading for us as we keep Lent and attempt to draw closer to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

An Introduction to The Desert Fathers

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2014 by citydesert

Jason Byassee “An Introduction to the Desert Fathers” [Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007]
“The desert fathers wanted to get away from a church co-opted by empire and a Christian faith grown cold and listless. They retreated to the desert to do battle against demons and against their own worst desires. They had no intention of being famous; yet ironically their Sayings have inspired millions of imitators over the centuries. This guide is meant to accompany a reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in hopes that readers with lives quite different than those third- and fourth-century dwellers of the Egyptian desert might nevertheless come to imitate their lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience; and more importantly, that readers might grow more imaginative and passionate in their following of the same Lord.”
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Endorsements: “”Contrary to the Protestant caricature, the Egyptian monks of the fourth century went to the desert not to escape reality, but to confront it. They fled the disorienting distractions of city life so that in the quiet of their cells and their chapels they might overcome the self-will of sin and reorient their thoughts, affections, and actions wholly toward God. Jason Byassee’s “An Introduction to the Desert Fathers” is an excellent companion to all who seek to glean wisdom from the monks’ encounters with the realities of God and of their sin. By drawing together the world of fourth-century monasticism with our consumerist culture of the twenty-first century, Byassee helps us discern the call of the desert today.”” –J. Warren Smith, Assistant Professor of Historical Theology, Duke Divinity School
“Making the desert accessible might seem a paradoxical goal. Nevertheless, just as the sick and not the healthy need doctors, so do we affluent and self-indulgent moderns need the desert fathers. Jason Byassee is the perfect guide–an intrepid all-terrain interpreter in the heart of the desert. He always knows what we are thinking and never forgets that the severity of the fathers is disconcerting to us. Yet he thinks with these ancient monks as well–with their profundity and difficulty–and never lets us get away with dismissing a single saying cavalierly. If you have ever struggled with self-control, lust, materialism, prayer, humility, obedience, patience, or any of the other vices and virtues addressed in these chapters, An Introduction to the Desert Fathers is for you.”” –Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College
“Jason Byassee’s Introduction to the Desert Fathers is presented in a spirit of humility that befits the subject. He offers simple yet rich engagements with the Sayings that use humor, insight, and life experience to prompt readers to reflect with the same tools. Readers who are looking for a place to begin their interaction with the often paradoxical teachings of the desert fathers would do well to begin here.”” –Amy Frykholm, Special Correspondent, “Christian Century”
Jason Byassee received his Ph.D. in theology from Duke University and is currently Assistant Editor at “The Christian Century”, where he has won numerous awards for excellence in journalism. He is author of two forthcoming volumes: “Praise Seeking Understanding” (Eerdmans) and “An Introduction to the Desert Father”s (Cascade Books). He has been invited to teach courses on Augustine to undergraduates, seminarians, and graduate students at Garrett-Evangelical Theological.


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