Archive for September, 2015

Between City and Desert: The Eruv

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2015 by citydesert

“Two main models of space are implicit in the Talmud and earlier in the Bible: the City and the Desert. They represent the two poles of existence that define the geographical matrix of Jewish history: kingdom and placelessness. Mediating between the two, the eruv* creates a system that gives them a shared urban form and condition. The desert, the ultimate state of placelessness, becomes a unifying condition which leads to the pursuit of a place and stability. An aggregate of tribes, fleeing from slavery in Egypt and on their way tohe ‘promised land’, is transformed into a nation by a set of laws and commandments, the Torah. Placelessness was seen as a temporary and preparatory state in the process of transforming the nomadic tribes into a nation of settlers. The laws of the Torah were formed in the desert but aspired to a different condition – settlement and stability. Paradoxically, it is in the description of the exodus from Egypt and the flight through the desert of Sinai that the question of what defines a place arises for the first time in the Bible. Within the Jewish legal system laws were always tied to places; in the desert thay had to relate to places that were as yet unattainable.

The nomad’s space – ‘his place’ – is not tied to a specific location. Thus the notion of place had to be divorced from a fixed geographical definition, and became a portable entity. The eruv is a means of creating such an abstract notion of space, space which can be deployed wherever it is needed – portable, dynamic and private space. After the settlement, the temple that was built in Jerusalem became the focal point of the Jewish nation, around which their entire religious life revolved. The Temple epitomizes the significance of architecture as a means of unifying a nation. It became the Jewish symbol of settlement and urban life.

By the year AD70, after four years of Jewish uprising against the Roman empire, the Temple had been razed and Jerusalem burnt down. In AD135 Jews were denied access to the city. The primary ‘place’ had been annihilated and the nation found itself again in the placelessness of the desert. The Diaspora had begun: the ‘world [was] at the end of an old and long established order and at the beginning of an age lacking all precedent, all points of reference and orentation … In the age beyond catastrophe the problem is to reorder a world off couse and adrift.’
Their material culture in ruins, Jewish thinkers formulated a new, updated set of laws, in an attempt to revive the practice of Judaism centred on an idealistic vision of the future – the reappropriation of the ‘place’. The first part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, is a code of laws, a circa AD200, made up from legal traditions extending back two centuries. Again, the condition of placelessness had produced a set of laws that were incompatible with the needs of the people – the rabbis of the Mishna were advocating stability and settlement to a people who lacked the means of achieving it….

Because the word ‘place’ had not been previously defined, a set of rules had to be formulated to determine what constitutes places and domains. ‘Masechet Eruvin’, the volume of the Talmud which is devoted to the eruv, constitutes a vast treatise on a single word in the Bible – ‘place’. It defines and distinguishes between different domains, and states the laws pertaining to each. The domains are defined in terms of signifiers relating to the two conditions ‘city’ and ‘desert’. These definitions disregard the use of the spaces and their ownership, and rely completely on their representational aspects – their shapes, sizes and the elements which constitute their boundaries…
The eruv uses a chain of signifiers to turn the city into a private space. The ultimate private spaces is the Devir. Thus it is necessary to ‘build’ the Temple over the city. Because of the ‘technical’ difficulties of doing so, the Temple was reduced, in the Talmud, to its roof, as a sign representing the Temple. The method used to signify a roof over the city is to make a wall around it. Thus the eruv proceeds from the absurd act of making a roof over the city by building a wall. Every walled space has openings in it. In the representation of the roof, doorways are therefore equivalent to walls: a series of doorways represents a continuous solid wall. The city is circumscribed and delimited by a ‘wall’ made in ‘the shape of the door’, with its measurements taken from those of the Gate of the Devir – ten cubits hight and at least three wide. In this way each door signifies the Gate, and entering teh eruv becomes a holy act. The shapes of the doors are made according to the techniques used to build the Temple, namely, two posts and a cross beam. The posts and the beams can be made of any material of any thickness, as long as they are capable of withstanding an ordinary wind – a light cord stretched over thin poles is adequate. What becomes evident is that the construction of the boundary approximates to an infinite chain of symbols that function independently of material support: from a private place to the Temple, from the Temple to a roof, from a roof to a wall, from a wall to gates, from gates to the shape of a door, from a door to a post and beam, from a post and beam to a cord….
Jewish law forbids a whole range of work on the Sabbath, formal employment as well as travel, the spending of money, and the carrying of objects outside the home. Movement in public spaces on the Sabbath is severly restricted by laws stated in both the Bible and the Talmud. Movement and the carrying of objects are not restricted within the private domain. Law is bound to space, and when the definition of a space changes, so too does its programme. If an urban space is designated as private, movement and carrying become permissible within that space. By redefining the space, the eruv redefines the behaviour which is permissible within it, earning it the nickname of ‘the magic schlepping circle’.
The eruv shifts the current notion and meaning of the private and the public in the urban landscape. Public space is not the space of exchange and activity but a restrictive space of limitation. Private space, expanded to include to public domain, becomes the space of liberation and interaction. In the case of the eruv it does not, however, entail ownership. The space is symbolically private in terms of Jewish law, but in terms of civil law it remains public….
The eruv is the ritual reconstitution of a lost place, framed as law and embodied as a book. Within the Diaspora, therefore, it was never a particular urban site, but a means of siting. It links, as a proposal, the daily life and public policy of a group of north London suburbs with concerns which are particular to Jewish life and identity. The London eruv offers a sign system which revalues and indeed sanctifies street furniture and other mundane elements of the area, making them intelligible in terms of the lost Temple of Jerusalem. By eliminating the difference between the public and the private domain on the Sabbath, the eruv brings about, for the Jewish community, social liberation and an increase in the use of and interaction within the public sphere.
The eruv proposes interventions in the city which are small-scale, strategic and for the most part non-material. It intervenes by means of decisions about readings of the city, rather than reconstructing it so that it may be reread. Thus it provides a model for pluralist uses of the city which do not exclude other readings of the same object. It opposes the idea of the fundamental equivalence of one function and one object, or of one meaning and one object. As such, it represents a contribution to contemporary urbanism, Leaving behind its religious origins in Talmudic interpretation, the eruv has lessons to teach the Western city in terms of the economy if significations, boundaries, and the distinction between inside and outside, on the one hand, and the scarcity of buildings and land on the other.
The eruv creates a modern urban form and condition out of the opposition that was set in the Talmud between the Temple and the desert, and temporarily defines the territories relating to them. The conception of the temple appropriates a symbolic urban ‘private’ space within the homogeneity of the urban desert, which lacks all signification. Such a reading is made possible by the way the Talmud defines the city: it assumes that the city does not exist in its physical embodiment alone, and that its material elements are always pointing towards something else. Thus the eruv bridges two cities – one that is perceived and tangible, the other aesthetically ideal. The urban dweller appropriates the city he lives in. He deciphers but must also write each new interpretative framework. A second metaphorical or ‘mobile’ city is overlaid upon the existing one by the practice of moving through the city.
The eruv’s effectiveness lies in its economy of construction, for it relies on the abundance of elements already existing in the city. The intervention occurs mainly between the physical elements and their signification, the space and its laws and programme.
The eruv, in temporarily resurrecting the Temple out of the desert of the modern city, whether stretched as a line or built in stone, exhibits the limit and the use by which the material and the metaphoric encounter each other in cities. It registers in the visible world the outcome of an encounter that would otherwise remain intangible.”
From Manuel Herz and Eyal Weizman “Between City and Desert”. The full text is available on-line at:
* “An eruv (Hebrew: עירוב‎, “mixture”, also transliterated as eiruv or erub, plural: eruvin) is a ritual enclosure that some communities construct in their neighborhoods as a way to permit Jewish residents or visitors to carry certain objects outside their own homes on Sabbath and Yom Kippur. An eruv accomplishes this by integrating a number of private and public properties into one larger private domain, thereby countermanding restrictions on carrying objects from the private to the public domain on Sabbath and holidays… According to tradition, the eruv must be made of walls or doorways at least ten tefachim in height, or approximately 1 m (40 inches). In public areas where it is impractical to put up walls, doorways are constructed out of wire and posts… In modern times, when housing is not typically organized into walled courtyards, rabbinic interpretation has permitted this requirement to be met by creating a continuous wall or fence, real or symbolic, surrounding the area to be aggregated. The fence is required to have certain properties and consist of structural elements such as walls or doorframes. When the fence is symbolic, the structural elements are often symbolic “doorframes” made of wire, with two vertical wires (often connected to utility poles) and one horizontal wire on top connecting them (often using utility wires). The use of symbolic elements permits an eruv to make use of utility poles and the like to enclose an entire neighborhood of a modern city within the legal aggregation. In contemporary Jewish discourse, “an eruv” frequently refers to this symbolic “fence” that creates and denotes the boundaries of a symbolic “walled courtyard” in which a halakhicly (from “halakha,” meaning the body of Jewish law) valid property aggregation can take place, rather than to the aggregation or legal status of the properties.”

Seventy-Four Tools for Good Living

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2015 by citydesert

Michael Casey “Seventy-Four Tools for Good Living: Reflections on the Fourth Chapter of Benedict’s Rule” [Liturgical Press, 2014]
“There is more in Benedict’s Rule than meets the eye. Based on the rules of life of John Cassian and Saint Basil, Benedict invites us to go further back to the scriptural basis of all Christian and monastic living and pursue our spiritual journey by the guidance of the Gospel.
This book of reflections on the tools for good living is intended to be read very slowly, one section at a time. In addition to communicating reflections on each verse of chapter 4, Casey invites readers to:
· continue the process of reflection for themselves
· apply what is written to their own lives
· draw on their own wisdom and insight
· and, ultimately, broaden their experience of monastic spirituality”
Michael Casey, OCSO, has been a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey (Australia) since 1960. After completing a degree in Scripture at Leuven, he received his doctorate from Melbourne College of Divinity for a study of desire for God in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. For the past decades he has been engaged in exploring different aspects of monastic spirituality, writing, and giving conferences throughout the English-speaking monastic world. His books include “The Road to Eternal Life: Reflections on the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule” (Liturgical Press, 2011), “Strangers to the City” (Paraclete Press, 2005), and “A Guide to Living in the Truth” (Liguori, 2001).
rule-st-benedict-paperback-cover-art (2)
The Rule of St Benedict: Chapter 4: What Are the Instruments of Good Works
1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.
2. Then, one’s neighbor as oneself.
3. Then not to murder.
4. Not to commit adultery.
5. Not to steal.
6. Not to covet.
7. Not to bear false witness.
8. To honor all (1 Peter 2:17).
9. And not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.
10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
11. To chastise the body.
12. Not to become attached to pleasures.
13. To love fasting.
14. To relieve the poor.
15. To clothe the naked.
16. To visit the sick.
17. To bury the dead.
18. To help in trouble.
19. To console the sorrowing.
20. To become a stranger to the world’s ways.
21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
22. Not to give way to anger.
23. Not to nurse a grudge.
24. Not to entertain deceit in one’s heart.
25. Not to give a false peace.
26. Not to forsake charity.
27. Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.
28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.
29. Not to return evil for evil.
30. To do no wrong to anyone, and to bear patiently wrongs done to oneself.
31. To love one’s enemies.
32. Not to curse those who curse us, but rather to bless them.
33. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.
34. Not to be proud.
35. Not addicted to wine.
36. Not a great eater.
37. Not drowsy.
38. Not lazy.
39. Not a grumbler.
40. Not a detractor.
41. To put one’s hope in God.
42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.
43. But to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself.
44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.
47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.
48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.
51. And to manifest them to one’s spiritual guardian.
52. To guard one’s tongue against evil and depraved speech.
53. Not to love much talking.
54. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.
55. Not to love much or boisterous laughter.
56. To listen willingly to holy reading.
57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.
58. Daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.
59. Not to fulfill the desires of the flesh; to hate one’s own will.
60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord’s precept, “Do what they say, but not what they do.”
61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.
62. To fulfill God’s commandments daily in one’s deeds.
63. To love chastity.
64. To hate no one.
65. Not to be jealous, not to harbor envy.
66. Not to love contention.
67. To beware of haughtiness.
68. And to respect the seniors.
69. To love the juniors.
70. To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ.
71. To make peace with one’s adversary before the sun sets.
72. And never to despair of God’s mercy.

These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. If we employ them unceasingly day and night, and return them on the Day of Judgment, our compensation from the Lord will be that wage He has promised: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).”


In God’s Holy Light

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2015 by citydesert

Joan Chittister “In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics” [Franciscan Media, 2015]
“The Desert Monastics, thousands of monks and nuns who lived in the Egyptian wastelands between the third and fifth centuries, have come to be seen as the Olympians of the spiritual life. Renowned spiritual writer Joan Chittister explores the sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, finding wisdom from that ancient tradition that speaks to your life today. This popular introduction to a powerful source of Christian wisdom can be a companion to your own spiritual journey.”

Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2015 by citydesert

Norris Chumley “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer: Experiencing the Presence of God and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of an Ancient Spirituality” [HarperOne, 2011]
“For nearly two millennia, the holy men and women of Eastern Christianity have built lives of reflection, humility, and constant connection to God around a simple sentence, the Jesus Prayer. Now, Norris J. Chumley—a documentarian and professor—reveals the history, practices, and abiding wisdom of this mystical tradition to the rest of the world.
Chumley traveled to some of the early Church’s holiest sites with the Very Reverend Dr. John A. McGuckin, a priest and professor—to St. Anthony’s Monastery in the Egyptian desert and St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, to convents in Transylvania and to monasteries in Russia, the Ukraine, and Greece—in search of Christianity’s first mystical tradition and its modern-day practitioners. The monks and nuns he met taught him how to move through the stages of the Jesus Prayer, and how it can foster an unceasing, and ever deepening, conversation with God.”
“Norris Chumley presents a lavishly illustrated companion to the PBS documentary “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer”. Readers can follow Chumley on a pilgrimage through the holiest sites of the early Christian world as he searches for modern-day practitioners of the ancient Eastern mystical tradition and its most sacred prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This beautifully illustrated volume includes black-and-white and full-color images of the author’s travels through Eastern Europe, including rare pictures from visits to holy sites where photographers are only rarely granted access.”
“The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer” [DVD, Magnetic Arts, New York City]
“”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” These are the simple words of the Jesus prayer, used since the earliest Christian times as a means of quieting the mind, stilling the body, and opening the heart to God. This ancient prayer is now the subject of a new two-hour documentary, eight years in the making, by priest-historian Very Rev. John McGuckin and author-filmmaker Dr. Norris Chumley. “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer” traces the steps of the two men as they visit hermitages, monasteries, and churches in five Orthodox countries, seeking spiritual insights from the monastics who have practiced the prayer for many decades.
The film opens in the Egyptian desert and shows us the tiny cave of St. Anthony, the third-century monk considered the father of Christian monasticism, and the oldest practicing monastery in the world named for him. It continues to the spectacular St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai and journeys to Greece, Romania, Ukraine, and the majestic Holy Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius in Moscow. Along the way we meet several monks and nuns who reflect on the Jesus prayer, monasticism, and the Christian life. They include a young Ukrainian raised Communist and now eagerly serving the church as a priest, a widely esteemed Romanian elder, blind since birth and author of numerous theological books, who passed away shortly after he was interviewed for the film, and a young nun at an “urban” monastery in Kiev, Ukraine, who touchingly described sensing God’s presence right next to her during prayer.

Richly photographed and enhanced by Byzantine and Slavic chanting, the film beautifully portrays the splendor of Orthodox worship and spirituality.”

The website for the book and DVD is at:
See also the Facebook site:
See also Norris Chumley’s website:
A downloadable Study Guide was available, but seems not to be now that the store on the website for the book and DVD has closed.

“In this feature film, “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer”, Dr. Chumley and his collaborator, Father John McGuckin, have provided an unprecedented, insiders’ view into the lives of contemporary Christian ascetics, athletes of spiritual struggle. They are a profoundly thoughtful — if surprisingly cheerful — collection of Orthodox monks and nuns.

As I was watching their faces, revisiting certain familiar enclaves and listening to their words, I kept thinking back on my own conversations with similarly prayerful folks, recalling my own slow journey into prayer, assisted in my turn by the fathers of Mount Athos and the mothers of Ormylia and Souroti.

In his book “The Sacrament of Love”, the 20th Century Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov observes: “It is not enough to say prayers; one must become, be prayer, prayer incarnate. It is not enough to have moments of praise. All of life, each act, every gesture, even the smile of the human face, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering, a prayer. One should offer not what one has, but what one is.”

I believe him.
Even so, how, one must wonder amid the distraction, the frenetic busyness and the roaring cacophony of contemporary life, does such a desirable becoming come about?

In their new film (and its soon-to-be-released book by the same title), Father John and Dr. Chumley offer an intimate insight into an answer, the ancient and efficacious practice of noetic prayer, the prayer of the heart, the Jesus prayer.

These prayer-seeking travelers take us with them as they retrace the journeys of early and modern saints whose love of God has drawn them and countless others into the stillness, the inner quiet that avails a profound sense of God’s utter and absolute nearness. These two men serve concurrently as our guides and as our fellow pilgrims journeying from the first monastic enclaves of Egypt, to the Holy Mountain of Greece, the forests of Romania and of the Ukraine, and finally to the majestic churches of Russia.

At every stop along the way, the pilgrim is offered unusually intimate insights into the lives of those who have been called to lives of prayer. At each successive stop, one increasingly comes to apprehend that this calling is not only for monks and nuns, but is a vocation to which each of us has been likewise called. As one articulate amma puts it, “It is for everyone. Why not?”
One comes to see that, as Paul Evdokimov has averred, these are men and women who are not merely saying prayers, but are becoming prayer. These are men and women who are actively making of their very persons a continuing hymn of praise.

In his “Ages of the Spiritual Life”, Evdokimov has also written: “…[T]he invocation of the name of Jesus makes the grace of his Incarnation universal, allowing each of us our personal share and disposing our hearts to receive the Lord … The ‘prayer of the heart’ frees and enlarges [the heart] and attracts Jesus to it … When Jesus is drawn into the heart, the liturgy becomes interiorized and the Kingdom is [established] in the peaceful soul. The Name dwells in us as its temple and there the divine presence transmutes and Christifies us.”

May it be so.

This is, finally, what every ascetic effort, the Lenten fast included, is all about: the strengthening of our hearts and minds, the deepening of our prayer and our increasing participation in the God Who Is.
May this astonishing and bold new film, “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer”, assist countless others in the recovery of this ancient path to union with Christ our God. Now and ever.”

Scott Cairns at:

Desert Spirituality in Modern Times

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2015 by citydesert

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; … And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:16-17
Scripture is the cornerstone of the monastic movement begun in the 3rd century by Christian men and women who lived in the deserts of Egypt. These monastics were reading Scripture, holding it in memory and in the heart, using Scripture as a means of prayer, and meditating on and following scriptural precepts. The spirituality of the desert monastics came to be known in the West as desert spirituality. Christians who practice desert spirituality follow some of these different activities that characterize the relationship between the Christian and Scripture.
Take for example this desert teaching: Abba Poemen, a 4th-century desert father, said, “The nature of water is soft, that of the stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.”

Though a single word of Scripture is powerful enough to transform, most people need more than one reading. Accordingly, reading Scripture often is crucial. The ceaseless reading of Scripture acts as a constant reminder until the words of God can be engraved in our memories, thoughts and hearts. The constant reading of Scripture acts like a mental Post-It note.

On another occasion, a monk asked Abba Sisoes the Theban for a word of advice. Abba Sisoes answered, “I read the New Testament, and I turn to the old.”
Abba Sisoes’ spiritual practice was to read Scripture from beginning to end, then start again with Genesis. The best advice he could give a newcomer to the desert was to read Scripture. Scripture will teach you everything.

Alexandra was a hermit and ascetic woman who spent her time in seclusion dividing it between prayer and manual work. From morning till three in the afternoon — the usual time for ascetics’ first meal of the day — she would weave linen while praying and contemplating on the Psalms. Alexandra contemplated not only on Bible verses, but also on the lives of the biblical figures, whether ascetics such as Elijah, John the Baptist or Anna the daughter of Phanuel, whom she would emulate, or other prophets and apostles whom she could take as role models.

Close reflection on the lives of the biblical figures gave desert fathers and mothers a special spiritual bond with these figures, who influenced them in some of their spiritual practices.
By reading Scripture constantly and dwelling on some verses for contemplation, these men and women engraved Bible verses in their memories. One of the aims of the spiritual exercise of memorizing scriptural verses is to reach the point where, in the words of Song of Solomon 5:2, “I slept, but my heart was awake.” Thus, one’s inner thoughts are constantly contemplating on God and God’s words as a means to attain purity of thought. It is a way to fulfill the command “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

The desert fathers and mothers understood “I slept, but my heart was awake” as the total devotion of the heart to God. One of the means to achieve this level of devotion was through constant contemplation on Scripture. Many of us wake up with the last thoughts we go to sleep with or with the topic that most worries us. Sleeping and waking up with thoughts of resentment, worry, dissatisfaction or frustration will render a person exhausted and depleted, without any positive outlook on the world for the coming day. If the last thoughts are words of Scripture or thoughts of the Divine, then this is what we will subconsciously think of during our sleep and when we first wake up. This first thought can set the mood for the day.
The desert fathers and mothers encourage all who read Scriptures but do not understand a verse or a passage to first implore God to reveal the meaning of that portion of Scripture. This does not mean one does not refer to commentaries, but the inner and deep meaning of a verse or passage might not be understood in any way other than prayer.
The desert fathers and mothers were very careful to assert that reading Scripture was primarily for the reader’s edification and spiritual growth and not for boasting about one’s knowledge or intellectual abilities.

The following saying indicates the anxiety that arises when reading Scripture shifts from personal edification to other uses. Ammon of Raithu brought this question to Sisois: “When I read Scripture, I am tempted to make elaborate commentaries and prepare myself to answer questions on it.” Sisois replied, “You don’t need to do that. It is better to speak simply, with good conscience and a pure mind.”

This shift affects the mode of reading and one’s approach toward Scripture. Many church leaders who have to prepare for Sunday sermons, Bible studies, or talks might become so consumed with preparations for a successful presentation or sermon that they overlook their own benefit from the biblical text. There is no doubt that the person who prepares for any type of church service reaps some benefit, but this might be a benefit that satisfies the intellect rather than enriches the spirit.
The desert fathers and mothers memorized Scriptures as an integral part of their spiritual life. Given modern technology one might ask, Why memorize Scripture at all? Now, with our devices that render literally the whole of Scripture digitally at our fingertips, why memorize?
Memorization is still important for the spiritual endeavor. “Smart” phones and other devices provide Scripture on demand, but that was not what the fathers and mothers were doing. Memorization internalizes the biblical message in the heart, soul, and mind of the person endeavoring to live a spiritual life. Technology cannot internalize Scripture; it makes it available, but we have to do the inner work of interacting with the biblical verses or figures and meditating on them.

Visual media enhanced by modern technology might facilitate our memorization, since we are becoming more and more of a visual culture, but we still have to inwardly interact with the word in whatever form we receive it. The main goal is internalizing Scripture so that our heart, soul, and mind conform to God’s words so that we are in the constant presence of God. Scripture provides words for us to pray, bless, praise, and give glory to God when we are in God’s presence.
Is this even possible in today’s busy, distracted life? Yes. It is difficult, and we will never attain the level of focus displayed by the desert fathers and mothers. Nevertheless, we can regularly present ourselves humbly before God’s presence. This requires some de-cluttering of our lives, which the desert fathers called renunciation.
The more we simplify our lives, the more we are able to have inner quietness, the more our heart has the space to praise, bless and feel God and enjoy being in God’s presence. This de-cluttering and quietness should be accompanied by memorization of Scripture, whether it’s a verse a day, a verse a week or even a verse a month. The focus on and meditating on one verse for some time quiets the heart and focuses the mind and helps prayer and praise.”

From: Lois Farag “Desert Spirituality in Modern Times” – full text available on-line at:
See further: Lois Farag “Balance of the Heart; Desert Spirituality for Twenty-First-Century Christians” [Cascade Publishing, 2012]

Lois Farag is associate professor of Early Church History, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.

Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos. Chapters on Prayer

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2015 by citydesert

“Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos. Chapters on Prayer” (Cistercian Studies, 1972)
Evagrius Ponticus (Author), John Eudes Bamberger (Translator)
The living link through whom the ascetic principles of hellenistic philosophers passed into monasticism, Evagrius molded christian asceticism through his own works and through his influence on John Cassian, Climacus, Pseudo ‘Denis’, and Saint Benedict.
Bamberger (background as a psychiatrist, as a monk, and as an erudite historian) gives us a clear view on the work of Evagrius (345-399). Evagrius, an important theologian in the 4th and 5th century, left the upper circles of Byzantine Constantinople, to live a humble and ascetic life as a monk in North African desert. In this period Evagrius wrote a system of guide-lines and psycho-religious support to help monks resisting mental temptations. Bamberger shows us in a clear and understandable way the surprising similarities between Evagrius’ system and modern descriptive psychology. This book offers a fascinating focus on an important early period of European development of spiritual thinking and mental life, and provides help for people that want to take the matter up of serious prayer and contemplation.
Evagrius was an able disciple of Alexandrine theological school, as practiced by the Desert Fathers, as Coenobitic monastic tradition. He creatively transmitted the essence of Coptic spirituality that deeply influenced Oriental and Western Christian thinkers from John Cassian to Simeon the new theologian, and his influence is still felt today.
“Evagrius Ponticus (Greek: Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός, “Evagrius of Pontus”), also called Evagrius the Solitary (345-399 AD), was a Christian monk and ascetic. One of most influential theologians in the late fourth-century church, he was well known as a thinker, polished speaker, and gifted writer. He left a promising ecclesiastical career in Constantinople and traveled to Jerusalem, where in 383 he became a monk at the monastery of Rufinus and Melania the Elder. He then went to Egypt and spent the remaining years of his life in Nitria and Kellia, marked by years of asceticism and writing. He was a disciple of several influential contemporary church leaders, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macarius of Egypt. He was teacher of others, including John Cassian and Palladius.”

See further:
Father Gabriel Bunge “Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia” [St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011]
This ultimately joyful work is one of the few books available in English to deal exclusively with the problem of despondency—acedia—and how it can be overcome. Bunge analyzes the views of Evagrius Ponticus, the famous “philosopher of the desert,” on the dangers of acedia. Evagrius develops a sophisticated psychology which remains beneficial to us today. Indeed, this 4th-century Desert Father writes for Christians everywhere: for those in modern deserts—the city—and for those subject to silent despair.
Father Gabriel Bunge “Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness” [St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009]
Evagrius Ponticus (343-399 AD) spent sixteen years in the desert of Egypt, where he gained the gift of insight into the human soul. His writings influenced the theology of John Cassian, Diadochus of Photike, Maximus the Confessor, and Palladius. Evagrius’ image of the human being, profoundly biblical, allowed for a perceptive understanding of anger, its causes, consequences and cures. His major study on the topic “not ordinarily covered in works of theology” appears here in the English language for the first time and offers timeless wisdom on struggling with this passion.

Travel to Constantinople

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2015 by citydesert

“The following is a story based on the life of Abba Anthony from the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” that I have pondered for years:

Abba Anthony received a letter from Emperor Constantine to visit him in Constantinople. He wondered if he should go and asked Abba Paul who said, “If you go, you will be called Anthony, but if you stay here (in the desert alone), you will be called Abba Anthony.”
What makes this story so important is that it speaks to the inner anchor of a life rooted in the love of God. We assume our overactive spirituality is normal. It is not. In fact, our tendency to seize more and more opportunities for God has destroyed many a good leader.
Innumerable demands and distractions confront every one of us. Doors of new opportunities swing open before us – to speak, to strategize for further expansion, to intervene in ministry problems, etc.

Two key insights have served me over the years to resist the pull to “travel to Constantinople” too often.

First, I remind myself over and over to the wisdom of W.H. Auden, poet and follower of Christ:

“To achieve anything today, an artist has to develop a conscious strictness in respect of time which in former ages might have seemed neurotic and selfish, for he must never forget that he is living in a state of siege.”

Secondly, I pay attention to God coming to me through consolations (those feelings that connect me more deeply with Him, filling me with life and energy) and desolations (those feelings that disconnect me from myself and Jesus). I watch carefully for when my doing for God goes beyond my being with Him, when my inner life with Jesus shrinks.

Why? I know that if I respond to God’s voice to remain “in the desert” with Him, possibly – over a period of many years – it might result in my maturing into a person who can serve our generation like Abba Anthony did in his day.”

Building a Desert in the City

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2015 by citydesert

“In grade school an English teacher taught me that a desert has only one ‘s’ and dessert has two because people want more than one dessert but no one wants the desert. My school teacher didn’t mean anything significant by this. It was only a joke to teach us grammar, but it’s interesting to note society’s natural aversion to the desert, a place that is historically rich with spiritual transformation. With Henri Nouwen as my guide, I begin my journey in the way of the heart of the desert fathers and mothers with solitude.
Like many people, I can imagine a desert. I’ve been in the vastness. It’s a place so empty that one can begin to feel and touch the nothingness. It’s no wonder the ancient mothers and fathers of Christianity (and many others of all sorts of religious backgrounds) sought refuge in the solitude of the desert. But that was long ago and not all people are called to the monastic life. How can I find the desert again: in Nashville, in Los Angeles, in Guatemala City?

First, like many great teachers, Nouwen must unpack this word solitude and explain the common misconceptions created by the modern world. To grasp what something is, it’s best to start with what it is not. Solitude is not:
• A right to privacy
• A place of therapy
• A confirmation of self
Solitude is struggle. In solitude Nouwen talks about “getting rid of his scaffolding” and reducing his self (or ego) to nothing. “It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.” My life is busy and filled with responsibilities. I try to entertain myself. When I enter into solitude, it must resemble letting go. This is the struggle. Since infancy, we are taught to control. We are taught to hold on. Solitude is an unnatural setting for a human being, but I might argue that it only appears to be unnatural due to our estrangement from ourselves. Solitude, from this point of view, might be the most natural thing that a human being can do. Yet, despite knowing this, I will always try “…to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.”

This is not easy and it takes deliberate practice. The culture in which one is born greatly affects one’s identity of self. Living in a capitalist society that over values materialism and consumerism, one gains a sense of self that reflects those ideals. And those ideals are fruitless and fleeting. “Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same–more work, more money, more friends.” This inevitably leads to what Nouwen describes as the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed.
So how do I persevere? How can I overcome anger and greed? Nouwen would simply say, begin with solitude. In embracing solitude, my nothingness, I can truly express compassion. Putting all doctrines and beliefs aside, there is one thing that everyone at Athentikos wants to bring to the youth of Guatemala: compassion. Our greatest service this fall will be shown through genuine compassion and love. And while those are wonderful words that most everyone can get behind and support, it’s much more difficult to enact.

“…In order to be of service to others we have to die to them. […] To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgement because judgement creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” Solitude, as Nouwen has described it, is this act of dying. It is a practical and concrete practice that can be easily incorporated into a daily routine. “In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart.”

In an attempt to breakdown all of this theological and philosophical jargon, I want to simplify these concepts into two words: let go. I have to tell myself this everyday and often more than once. It becomes what the desert monks might call a mantra or a prayer.
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Not everyone has access to a desert but true solitude is not restricted by place. Letting go can (and should) happen anywhere, but it needs to happen deliberately. Here are some good first steps:
• Establish a mantra; find a few words that resonate your nothingness. This can be anything (let go, a short Bible verse, a repetitive prayer, or your own name).
• Repeat this mantra several times a day. When you wake up, tell yourself to let go. When you eat lunch, tell yourself. When your boss yells at you, tell yourself. Over time, you won’t have to tell yourself as much. You will instead begin to let go. The words will sink into your heart and will speak through your entire body and life, not only through your mouth or mind.
• Find some quiet space each day. As I said earlier, solitude is not limited to a place, but taking the time to physically separate yourself from your daily routine can be incredibly powerful and helpful in your spiritual growth.

Before I go, I have one word of warning and it comes from personal experience. I have let go many times, but mostly in the wrong way. I turned my solitude into escapism, clouding myself in entitlement and the illusion of compassion and virtue. This, at least for me, is too easy to do. Our greatest and most deeply seeded vices appear to us as virtues. To think our demons conquered is to submit to their will. Solitude should lead me to my lack of virtue, to my nothingness, my humanity.

We owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to build a desert in a city.”

Posted by Paul in Guatemala at

“The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” Research Project

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2015 by citydesert

“The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” research project aims at mapping and photographic surveying of the locations of hermitages in the deserts around monasteries in Egypt and in the Sudan (the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia), in addition to the study of the ancient and modern eremetical traditions in their different psychological, theological as well as philosophical aspects.
See for regular postings, including some beautiful and remarkable photographs.
A rock-cut hermitage with the terrace close to Deir el-Hawa (“Monastery of the Wind”), Antinoe region, Middle Egypt.
Father Philotheos in the “Inner mountain”, Eastern desert.

Stylianos of Paphlagonia

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2015 by citydesert

“Saint Stylianos (Latin: Stylianus, Greek: Στυλιανός, English: Stylian) was born during the 6th century in Adrianopolis in the province of Paphlagonia (in modern day Turkey) into a very wealthy family. At a young age, Stylianos joined the hermits of the desert with a view toward cleansing his soul through a period of meditation and prayer, as well as through association with men likewise pledging their lives to Jesus Christ. Unlike most other hermits, however, he did not withdraw from society altogether, preferring to go among the people for whatever good he might do, and then returning to his little cave for rest and prayerful meditation.
According to the church tradition, one night while he prayed for guidance in helping others, Stylianos felt a divine presence and was consumed by the great glory of the Holy Spirit, emerging from his cave the next day with a spirit of exultation and serenity he had never known before. In his customary rounds, wherein he counseled and comforted, he felt compelled to place his hand on a stricken child, something he had not up to that time dared to do; he felt the power of the Lord being transferred to the ailing youngster through his extended arm. The child immediately recovered, and thenceforth Stylianos was sought after by every suffering soul for miles around, young and old. His cave became a magnet for the sick and suffering, many of whom received complete cures not only through the power in this man but through their own faith as well, without which a sufferer’s case was hopeless.
During this period, Stylianos concerned himself primarily with children, not just the physically afflicted but also with those who were in need of spiritual guidance. Families from all walks of life were said to have entrusted to Stylianos the enlightenment of their children, and he was forced to seek out larger headquarters and to recruit from the ranks of his hermit friends the assistance needed to tend to so many. His was probably the first day-care centre in the world, where mothers could safely leave their children while tending to other matters of the home.
Stylianos was to become the patron saint of children yet to be born, owing to stories of his miraculous intercession for a young woman who helped him with children but could bear none of her own. When the woman conceived, her husband out of sheer joy spread the word of this miracle, and before long many barren women came to the great hermit. Those whose faith in Jesus Christ was genuine became fertile.
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The cheerful countenance of Stylianos was his hallmark, because he was reported to always to be smiling. According to oral histories, he was approached by greedy mercenaries with all manner of propositions for commercializing his talents and reaping a tidy fortune, but for these people he always had the same answer: that he had been paid in advance for his services when the serenity of the Holy Spirit came upon him. He would smile as they left. He lived to a ripe old age, and it is said that when he was buried his countenance still beamed with a faint smile from the light of the Lord.”