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The Book of the Elders: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

REVIEWED By Stephen Sharman

Translated by John Wortley

Cistercian Publications, Jan. 2012

Hardcover, 386 pages, $50

E-book format, $26


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.    TAP

Stephen Sharman is a retired priest of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land.   

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