Be Still: The Desert Fathers on the Value of Solitude

 

Lamentations 3:26 says:

“It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him.”

Sitting alone in silence can be a rather daunting prospect; an experience that modern living, ushered in by the digital revolution, has made seemingly unnecessary – and entirely possible to avoid.

Indeed, the ability to stay with oneself, devoid of distractions, for an extended period of time, is growing increasingly rare.

“What’s the point?”, one might ask.

But for the “Desert Fathers” – a term used to characterize the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the pagan cities to live in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia during the 4th century AD – the act of solitude was essential; a gateway to the inner peace and fulfillment that we so often seek in the distractions of the world.

“These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster,” writes theologian and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-196) in The Wisdom of the Desert (1960), a collection of sayings from the Desert Fathers, recorded in Latin in the Verba Seniorum (“Words of Salvation”).

What were the Desert Fathers seeking?

“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 unchartered and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.”

What types of traits did they possess?

“The hermit had to be a man mature in faith, humble and detached from himself to a degree that is altogether terrible…

[h]e could not dare risk attachment to his own ego, or the dangerous ecstasy of self-will…

[h]e 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.”

In other words…

“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.”

So why do their words matter at all?

“It would be futile to skip through these pages and lightly take note of the fact that the Fathers said this and this. What good will it do us to know merely that such things were lived. That they flow from an experience to the deeper levels of life. That they represent a discovery of man, at the term of an inner and spiritual journey that is far more crucial and infinitely more important than any journey to the moon. What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?”

A note about their sayings:

Using simple, direct and plain language, these sayings, or “words of salvation” are “unpretentious reports” that were passed around orally in the Coptic tradition before being written down in Syriac, Greek and Latin.

While Merton compiled the sayings without order or structure, I’ve selected several below and assigned headings to make them a little more reader friendly.

The first one below is my favorite, a humorous account of two brothers who had lived together for years without ever getting into an argument, and who tried their hardest to quarrel but could not succeed.


The Sayings

On how to get into a quarrel with someone…

“There were two elders living together in a cell, and they had never had so much as one quarrel with one another. One therefore said to the other: Come on, let us have at least one quarrel, like other men. The other said: I don’t know how to start a quarrel. The first said: I will take this brick and place it here between us. Then I will say: It is mine. After that you will say: It is mine. This is what leads to a dispute and a fight. So then they placed the brick between them, one said: It is mine, and the other replied to the first: I do believe that it is mine. The first one said again: It is not yours, it is mine. So the other answered: Well then, if it is yours, take it! Thus they did not manage after all to get into a quarrel.”

On how to keep silent…

“It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”

On how to conduct oneself…

“Abbot Pambo questioned Abbot Anthony saying: What ought I to do? And the elder replied: Have no confidence in your own virtuousness. Do not worry about a thing once it has been done. Control your tongue and your belly.”

On how to find peace…

“A certain brother came to Abbot Poemen and said: What ought I to do, Father? I am in great sadness. The elder said to him: Never despise anybody, never condemn anybody, never speak evil of anyone, and the Lord will give you peace.”

On solitude…

“A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

On the fear of the Lord…

“Abbot Anthony taught Abbot Ammonas, saying: You must advance yet further in the fear of God. And taking him out of the cell he showed him a stone, saying: Go and insult that stone, and beat it without ceasing. When this has been done, St. Anthony asked him if the stone has answered back. No, said Ammonas. Then Abbot Anthony said: You too must reach the point where you no longer take offence at anything.”

On keeping to ourselves…

“One of the elders said: A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts, or how that one lives. Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter. There is nothing better than to keep silent.”

On the devil…

“A certain brother asked Abbot Pambo: Why do the devils prevent me from doing good to my neighbour? And the elder said to him: Don’t talk like that. Is God a liar? Why don’t you just admit that you do not want to be merciful? Didn’t God say long ago: I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and on all the forces of the enemy? So why do you not stamp down the evil spirit?”

On minding how we speak…

“One of the elders used to say: In the beginning when we got together we used to talk about something that was good for our souls, and we went up and up, and ascended even to heaven. But now we get together and spend our time in criticizing everything, and we drag one another down into the abyss.”

On pain and struggle…

“Abbess Syncletica of holy memory said: There is labour and great struggle for the impious who are converted to God, but after that comes inexpressible joy. A man who wants to light a fire first is plagued by smoke, and the smoke drives him to tears, yet finally he gets the fire that he wants. So also it is written: Our God is a consuming fire. Hence we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with labour and with tears.”

On what not to pursue…

“Abbot Pastor said: There are two things which a monk ought to hate above all, for by hating them he can become free in this world. And a brother asked: What are these things? The elder replied: An easy life and vain glory.”

On thoughts…

“A brother came to Abbot Pastor and said: Many distracting thoughts come into my mind, and I am in danger because of them. Then the elder thrust him out into the open air and said: Open up the garments about your chest and catch the wind in them. But he replied: This I cannot do. So the elder said to him: If you cannot catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is to say No to them.”

On evil thoughts…

“Abbot John said: A monk must be like a man who, sitting under a tree, looks up and perceives all kinds of snakes and wild beasts running at him. Since he cannot fight them all, he climbs the tree and gets away from them. The monk, at all times, should do the same. When evil thoughts are aroused by the enemy, he should fly, by prayer, to the Lord, and he will be saved.”

On revenge…

“One of the brethren had been insulted by another and he wanted to take revenge. He came to Abbot Sisois and told him what had taken place, saying: I am going to get even, Father. But the elder besought him to leave the affair in the hands of God. No, said the brother, I will not give up until I have made that fellow pay for what he said. Then the elder stood up and began to pray in these terms: O God, Thou art no longer necessary to us, and we no longer need Thee to take care of us since, as this brother says, we both can and will avenge ourselves. At this the brother promised to give up his idea of revenge.”

On hospitality…

“A brother came and stayed with a certain solitary and when he was leaving he said: Forgive me, Father, for I have broken in upon your Rule. But the hermit replied, saying: My Rule is to receive you with hospitality and to let you go in peace.”

On temptation…

 “The Fathers used to say: If some temptation arises in the place where you dwell in the desert, do not leave that place in time of temptation. For if you leave it then, no matter where you go, you will find the same temptation waiting for you. But be patient until the temptation goes away, lest your departure scandalize others who dwell in the same place, and bring tribulation upon them.”

On denying self…

“An elder was asked: What does it mean, this word we read in the Bible, that the way is strait and narrow? And the elder replied: This is the strait and narrow way: that a man should do violence to his judgments and cut off, for the love of God, the desires of his own will. This is what was written of the Apostles: Behold we have left all things and have followed Thee.”

On judging others…

“A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent him a message, saying: Come, the community of the brethren is waiting for you. So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand, and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet him, and said: What is this, Father? The elder replied: My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him.”

On doing God’s will…

“A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby? The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? and that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.” 

On three equally important works…

“The Same Father said: If there are three monks living together, of whom one remains silent in prayer at all times, and another is ailing and gives thanks for it, and the third waits on them both with sincere good will, these three are equal, as if they were performing the same work.”

On humility, one of the most repeated virtues throughout the collection…

“Some elders once came to Abbot Anthony, and there was with them also Abbot Joseph. Wishing to test them, Abbot Anthony brought the conversation around to the Holy Scriptures. And he began from the youngest to ask them the meaning of this or that text. Each one replied as best he could, but Abbot Anthony said to them: You have not got it yet. After them all he asked Abbot Joseph: What about you? What do you say this text means? Abbot Joseph replied: I know not! Then Abbot Anthony said: Truly Abbot Joseph alone has found the way, for he replies that he knows not.”

“To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: I am the Angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to thee. But the brother said: Think again – you must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel. Immediately the devil ceased to appear.”

In conclusion:

As Merton observes, the practicality of the Desert Fathers’ sayings was just as applicable then, to the novices who went into the desert seeking their advice, as it is to us now – nearly 2,000 years later:

“These words of the Fathers are never theoretical in our modern sense of the word. They are never abstract. They deal with concrete things and with jobs to be done in the everyday life of a fourth-century monk. But what is said serves just as well for a twentieth-century thinker.”

The virtues to remember and strive for?

“The basic realities of the interior life are there: faith, humility, charity, meekness, discretion, self-denial. But not the least of the qualities of the ‘words of salvation’ is their common sense.”


Thomas Merton quotes

The Wisdom of the Desert is a short read full of simple, yet profound (and sometimes humorous) sayings that capture the essence of who God calls us to be.

  

  

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