Daily Meditations

What the Fathers Sought

What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ.  And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in “the world.”  They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.  They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was “given” in a set, stereotyped form by somebody else.  Not that they rejected any of the dogmatic formulas of the Christian faith:  they accepted and clung to them in their simplest and most elementary shape.  But they were slow (at least in the beginning, in the time of their primitive wisdom) to get involved in theological controversy.  Their flight to the arid horizons of the desert meant also a refusal to be content with arguments, concepts and technical verbiage.

The Desert Father…. could not dare risk attachment to his own ego, or the dangerous ecstasy of self-will.  He could not retain the slightest identification with his superficial, transient, self-constructed self.  He had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known, and lost in Christ.  He had to die to the values of transient existence as Christ had died to them on the Cross, and rise from the dead with Him in the light of an entirely new wisdom.  Hence the life of sacrifice, which started out from a clean break, separating the monk from the world.  A life continued in “compunction” which taught him to lament the madness of attachment to unreal values.  A life of solitude and labor, poverty and fasting, charity and prayer which enabled the old superficial self to be purged away and permitted the gradual emergence of the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were “one Spirit.

This is important.  The Desert Fathers later acquired a reputation for fanaticism because of the stories that were told about their ascetic feats by indiscreet admirers.  They were indeed ascetics:  but when we read their own words and see what they themselves thought about life, we find that they were anything but fanatics.  They were humble, quiet, sensible people, with a deep knowledge of human nature and enough understanding of the things of God to realize that they knew very little about Him.  Hence they were not much disposed to make long speeches about the divine essence, or even to declaim on the mystical meaning of Scripture.  If these men say little about God, it is because they know that when one has been somewhere close to His dwelling, silence makes more sense than a lot of words.  The fact that Egypt, in their time, was seething with religious and intellectual controversies was all the more reason for them to keep their mouths shut.  There were the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics, the Stoics and Pythagoreans.  There were the various, highly vocal, Orthodox and heretical groups of Christians.  There were the Arians (whom the monks of the Desert passionately resisted).  There were the Origenists (and some of the monks were faithfully devoted followers of Origen).  In all this noise, the desert had no contribution to offer but a discreet and detached silence.

.…Charity and hospitality were matters of top priority, and took precedence over fasting and personal ascetic routines.  The countless sayings which bear witness to this warmhearted friendliness should be sufficient to take care of accusations that these men hated their own kind.  Indeed, there was more real love, understanding and kindliness in the desert than in the cities, where, then as now, it was every man for himself.

~Adapted from Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, Boston & London:  Shambhala, 2004