John Chryssavgis on the Modern Desert

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It is so easy today to consider silence and prayer as something historically outdated or merely as spiritual virtues. In fact, for the life of the early desert fathers and mothers in the fourth and fifth centuries, silence was a way of breathing, a way of going deep.

In a world, such as ours, where so much is determined by the immediate and the superficial, the desert elders teach us the importance of slowing down, the need to pay attention and to look more deeply.

Silence is letting the world and yourself be what they are. And in that respect, silence is profoundly connected to the living God, “who is who he is.”

Silence and prayer mean creating space for those moments in our life where integrity and beauty and justice and righteousness reign.

Of course, all this requires toil and tears, labor and love. It is the art of living simply, instead of simply living. It resembles the skill of gardening: you cannot plant unless, first, you cultivate. You cannot expect to sow unless you dig deep. And you certainly cannot expect fruit unless you wait.

The search, then, is for what lies beneath the surface. Only in taking time and looking carefully can we realize just how much more there is to our world, our neighbor, and even ourselves than at first we notice or than we could ever imagine….
If there is one element that unites the desert fathers and mothers, in my mind it is their realism.

The unpretentious dimension of their life and experience, of their practice as well as their preaching, is something they share with one another and with all the communion of saints through the centuries.

And precisely because they are truthful and down-to-earth, the desert fathers and mothers are not afraid to be who they are. They do not endeavor to present a false image; and they do not accept any picture of themselves that does not reflect who they really are.

“Stay in your cell,” they advise us. Because so often we are tempted to move outside, to stray away from who and what we are.

Learning to face who and what we are — without any facade, without any make-up, without any false expectations — is one of the hardest and at the same time, one of the finest lessons of the desert. Putting up with ourselves is the first and necessary step of learning to put up with others. And it is the basis for recognizing how all of us — each of us and the entire world alike — are unconditionally embraced and loved by God….
In our day, the desert is not necessarily to be found in the natural wilderness, although it may certainly be located there for some. The institutional church and the institutional parish have their place; and the natural desert has its place.

But there is more to the spiritual life than these could ever provide alone. Alongside the institutional, there must be room for inspiration. The two are not necessarily opposed, but they must work together integrally if the Body of Christ is to function in all its fullness.

We need to discern the mystery in life. And we can only appreciate the mystical dimension of our world and our soul if we go through the stage of the desert, if we experience that contemplative dimension of life.

Yet the desert today is found in the marginal places of the world and the church, where the prophetic and critical word is spoken in response to the cry of suffering in human beings and in the natural environment.

Those who put themselves on the edge of the conventional church or society in order to see clearly what is happening in our world are contemporary desert fathers and mothers.

The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis (born 1 April 1958) is an author and theologian who serves as advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues. He is a clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. See

Dr Chryssavgis’ is the author of “In the Heart of the Desert. The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers” (2003, revised edition 2008).
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“This study explores the essence of the monastic desert movement from the third century to the end of the fourth century CE by men and women who fled the surrounding cities they lived in, and came into the arid sands of Egypt in order to continue the trajectory of life. The ancient texts that survive, mainly 1,202 Sayings of the Desert Fathers or Apothegmata, which Dr. Chryssavgis explores for the purpose of resurrecting the ancient spirit of the desert within a modern context, reveal that these men and women had been specific about their goal in coming to the desert: “We entreat you, make us truly alive.” In seeking out these “…unconventional persons…[who] sought aggressively to understand the deeper meaning and the fuller measure of human existence…,” the author breathes new life into their Sayings.”

This book brings to readers the lives and thoughts of some key representatives of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were so important in the history of the early Christian Church.

Through words of spiritual counsel which span the centuries, In the Heart of the Desert portrays several of the key figures in early Christian monasticism including one of the Desert Mothers, Amma Syncletica. It also includes the first translation into English of the fifth-century text, the Reflections of Abba Zosimas.
The words of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have influenced the spiritual lives of many people, from Saint Augustine to Thomas Merton. Behind these sayings and stories is concealed the very face of God, who speaks to each of us in the present for all eternity. In a sense, this is not a book of the past, of the fourth or fifth centuries. It may be described as a book of the age to come, or of a new age. It speaks to our present age of an experience of a new life, of a fullness and renewal of life.
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Glimpses of their austere and holy lives and many of their important sayings are contained in this book by Fr. John Chryssavgis, former Professor of Theology and Dean at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

In the Heart of the Desert also includes a foreword by Benedicta Ward, SLG, editor of the acclaimed collection Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, MI, 1975), and a noted expert in this fascinating area of Christian history and ageless wisdom.


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