Reviews - What do customers think about The Lives of the Desert Fathers: Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Cistercian Studies No. 34)?
An Interesting Collection of Spiritual Wisdom Feb 1, 2008
THE LIVES OF THE DESERT FATHERS was my first introduction to these early Christian masters who oftentimes gave up wealth and success in the world and fled to the desert to live a life of austerity and faith. These early monks and hermits were viewed as successors to the martyrs. Since Christianity was not being persecuted in the same manner it was in the earliest centuries of the Church, many men and women wanted to show a new way of giving themselves totally for the faith and fleeing to the desert was one such way.
One of the things that makes the desert father and mothers so fascinating is that we do not have a great deal of biographical information about them. Rough collections of sayings, probably recorded a generation or two after they lived is all that survives. While this can be viewed as a disadvantage for the modern reader, it actually gets to the heart of what the people who recorded the sayings intended. We wrestle with the actual words and stories, sometimes simple and insightful, at other times arcane and difficult, and in doing so we find the challenge of what the masters were trying to teach. In our world with its busy pace, constant interruptions, technological gadgets that are supposed to keep us connected, these words from another day and age can seem nothing more than quaint, perhaps irrelevant. However, many of the teachings try to show people what is from God and what is not, what is good and what is a distraction. If we keep this in mind, we discover ways these words are timeless for our day and age.
The book itself reads like a travelogue. A group of monks from Palestine travel to Egypt and visit a group of monks living in the desert regions. Their holiness is well known, so they are not living in a secretive place, just a deserted one. It seems as if they met each of the monks included in the collection though some of the stories seem to be things they heard of the monks, other stories seem to be things observed. There are a variety of tales. Some are quips of spiritual wisdom, usually about humility. Others tell of overcoming great temptations and discerning between a temptation and act of God. Others are of a miraculous sort: people being healed, animals being tamed, etc. Individually we see interesting and often challenging tales. Collectively we see a diverse collection of tales with serving God and becoming more Christ-like as common themes. The book also contains helpful introductions by Sr. Benedicta Ward which tells of early Egyptian monasticism which helps modern readers better appreciate the writings.
Worth Every Penny! Oct 18, 2007
This book is an inspirational journey to another time and place that should inspire every Christian and give us the strength to live our own lives as God would have us live them. Get it, read it, share it!
Ancient Mysticism Jun 1, 2007
The book attributed to the recording keeping of a 394AD journeyman and his companions as they traveled through the deserts of Egypt meeting the acetic fathers. The book is as stunning as it is simple. Basic records of extraordinary lives will immediately provoke every kind of reader. Skeptics will try to dismiss it as ancient myth-making and walk away. Believers may embrace it, but only with the uneasy feeling that if these stories are historically accurate, there is something fundamentally missing from the modern day practice of faith. I can't imagine anyone walking away from this book content.
The events of twenty-six men's lives are recorded in the most general of details, some of which receive only a paragraph or two. But the details which are recorded include reports of clairvoyance, the control of wild animals, healing, and exorcisms. All of them practiced an extreme asceticism which left some of them with only a meal a week. There seems to be a general sense that when one practices self-denial to enough of a degree that it takes only a nudge (from a spiritual superior) for one to be able to work miracles. Miracles seem to be the commonplace experience of these hermits.
A summary doesn't do justice to the experience of reading the book. Whether or not one wholeheartedly affirms the accuracy of the stories, one is left with the question of where these stories came from. And if we accept them, there is only a dull sense that we are missing something.
A most interesting and inspiring read Mar 30, 2007
I like these guys. Didymus was said to be a man of `charming countenance'; Apollo told people that happiness was not an option but an obligation for Christians: "He used to say: `Those who are going to inherit the kingdom of heaven must not be despondent about their salvation. The pagans are gloomy [is this a reference to Al Gore's apocalyptic ideas?], and the Jews wail, and sinners mourn, but the just will rejoice ... we who have been considered worthy of so great a hope, how shall we not rejoice without ceasing?". Amen to that.
This book has a very good introduction of about 45 pages, then the text is some 80 pages, and a few more pages of notes. It's a very interesting read for Christians and those interested in the early days (or centuries) of Christianism. I have to admit I was a little prejudiced against these folk, more than anything because of ignorance, but also because I had this idea that these Christians were `faking it' by going into the desert in Egypt to live an ascetic life. I maliciously thought it had to be an excuse in order to `get something', even if it was only vainglory. True, there are bad apples in our churches, and that's the devil trying to infiltrate wherever he can do more damage to the true Gospel, and that might have happened in those early times as well. Only think of the number of people who went into the religious `business' in the Middle Ages, not to die of starvation, and you'll understand what I'm talking about. But that doesn't refute the basic truth: that there were, and are, real honest folk who love Christ and try as sincerely as they can to follow Him.
The monastic experiment had started in the mid 4th century, and it had flourished in a way that population in the desert (delta of the Nile) equaled that of the towns by 394. It was the boom of anachoresis -so goes Benedicta Wards's introduction-. An account of the life of Antony the Great, who died in 365, written by Athanasius, spurred even more the enthusiasm of visitors to undertake the journey and learn from the monks at first hand. One of the journeys through Egypt at the end of the 4th century produced the `Historia Monachorum in Aegypto', which was chosen as the basis for this book. The original text was written in Greek and its author remains anonymous.
How must we view these early monks? If we travel back in time we'll see that there already were two different opinions about the monks: one of outsiders and one of the monk himself. From outside they were considered sort of a talisman (that's my word), "a peace-maker between men, and a friend of God; the one who had influence at the court of heaven. He was at the very lowest, good luck for those fortunate enough to be near him." But the monk defined himself as a sinner, a weak man. Both opinions -the one society had, and the one formed by their visitors from Palestine- form the contents of the book. Personally, I couldn't help loving these characters. That the Devil used the originally good intentions of monasticism to corrupt its ideals, as it happened later on, is another issue.
A key to understanding this early monastic experiment is the following quote: "It is not the exercise of asceticism in itself which is fundamental to this way of life, but repentance, metanoia, the turning from the cultivation of the ego."
What kind of people were these monks? They were sinners, prodigal sons returning from a far country (a return at first physical but at ultimately spiritual); some had been robbers and murderers, and some had a more mundane background. But all of them turned away from their sin, and looked to Christ resurrected and Almighty.
Yes, the devil turns the straight line crooked, but my the mercy of God we'll get there allright.
Primo Nov 15, 2004
This is a must read for anyone who wants to know about Christianity in the Middle East before the Muslim conquests and the following massacres.
The recounts are made by those who saw the events take place and were able to record them without a great relapse of time. I encourage everyone to read this and take it all in, read it a few times, about one year after the last time you read it and each time it is better than the last.
The miracles stories are told very matter of fact and factually with great detail yet they retain their wonder. I admit, I believe all of them wholeheartedly which is rare for me to be able to do. May God bless you to read this and know the love with which it is written and shared.