The Book of the Elders
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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”.
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.