THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT - Thomas Merton

‘Have no confidence in your own virtuousness. Do not worry about a thing once it has been done. Control your tongue and your belly.’

As a haiku-like summary of how best to live, including dietary advice, this is terse and powerful. It doesn’t come courtesy of a self-help manual, but from 4th-century saint Abbot Pambo, one of a group of Christian hermits who removed themselves from society and lived in the Scete Desert in Egypt, praying, fasting and weaving baskets to earn a meagre crust.

Seekers of salvation came with questions for these spiritual fathers (there were mothers too, such as Amma Syncletica who gave away all her money and lived as hermit amongst tombs outside Alexandria). The responses of the fathers were shared orally, and eventually recorded in Syrian, Greek and Latin. The stories, proverbs and sayings that comprise THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT are anchored in the practicalities of life, and humility and generosity are key notes. As is the beauty of silence over foolish or hurtful speech: ‘…the brethren coming together said to Abbot Pambo: Say a word or two to the Bishop, that his soul may be edified in this place. The elder replied: If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope he will be edified by my words.'

In his introduction to the book, the American monk, scholar and social activist Thomas Merton employs dynamic language which reflects the pure speech of his 4th-century subjects: 'The full difficulty and magnitude of the task of loving others is recognised everywhere and never minimized. Love demands a complete inner transformation... We have to become, in some sense, the person we love. And this involves a kind of death of our own being, our own self.’

Pithy and earthy but resonant with transcendent thought and alive with self-questioning, the words of the Desert Fathers reach across the sands and across the centuries to the modern reader.

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