The Shambhala Library Edition of Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert is a pretty little family album of some of Merton’s favorite people. The book has the feel of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, with the cloth bookmark and the gilt lettering on the cover. The package seems celebrate the men more than the sayings in Merton’s vignettes from the Desert Fathers, and Merton would find that appropriate, I think.
The Wisdom of the Desert amounts to Merton’s essay by the same name followed by “Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” which has the lion’s share of the book. Merton’s enjoyment of the Desert Fathers, the name given to some of Christianity’s first hermits and monks, is probably the only explanation of the vignettes’ selection and order the reader may arrive at. In that way, The Wisdom of the Desert is similar to The Way of Chuang Tzu, Merton’s paraphrase of works by the fourth century BC Chinese philosopher. In both books, Merton chose the selections he chose, and he made a point of not explaining or apologizing for his choices. One may guess that, as he did with Chuang Tzu, he wrote the book to share his idea of men who had become his friends.
There are a number of books in print about the Desert Fathers. I have read only three of these books besides Merton’s: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, Anslem Gruen’s Heaven Begins Within You, and John Anthony McGuckin’s The Book of Mystical Chapters. Each has its strengths.
The chief strength of Merton’s book may be its seeming ability to just get out of the way. Of course, we find Merton’s Fathers hospitable, charitable, and nonjudgmental. But we also meet grouchy Fathers, bizarre Fathers, and seemingly legalistic Fathers. Their stories make us wonder at the sandblasting these souls took to earn their few words. Here’s one of Merton’s stories I didn’t find in the more “inspirational” Desert Father books:
A certain brother, renouncing the world, and giving the things he owned to the poor, kept a few things in his own possession. He came to Abbot Anthony. When the elder heard about all this, he said to him: If you want to be a monk, do to that village and buy meat, and place it on your naked body and so return here. And when the brother had done as he was told, dogs and birds of prey tore at his body. When he returned to the elder, the latter asked if he had done as he was told. The brother showed him his lacerated body. Then Abbot Anthony said: Those who renounce the world and want to retain possession of money are assailed and torn apart by devils just as you were.
One may defend Abbot Anthony’s purported directions in this story, but can one do it without hypocrisy? I can’t. I can’t say a word about it.
The Fathers’ words are attempts to throw a subject in a new light, and they are often concrete riddles to my ear. A hermit’s answer to a seeker’s question or situation may resemble a koan – a question posed by a Zen master to his disciple to help him awaken to his real self. In his introduction, Merton suggests that the lack of context unnecessarily exacerbates the riddling nature of some of the Fathers’ sayings:
The answers [to the seekers’ questions] were not intended to be general, universal prescriptions. Rather they were originally concrete and precise keys to particular doors that had to be entered, at a given time, by given individuals. Only later, after much repetition and much quotation, did they come to be regarded as common currency. It will help us to understand these sayings better if we remember their practical and, one might say, existential quality.
Whether specific or general, the sayings of the Father necessarily remain out of context, despite Merton’s gift of a well-rounded collection of stories. We weren’t there. To use the book, I must find my own context. “We cannot do exactly what they did,” Merton acknowledges. Here’s one of Merton’s selections, in its entirety, that says as much:
Abbot Hor said to his disciple: Take care that you never bring into this cell the words of another.
Some of the last words I may wish to part with are in Merton’s crackling essay. In the context of explaining the Desert Fathers, Merton describes the spiritual life offered by Christianity and not often exemplified.
The “rest” which these men sought was … a kind of simple nowhereness and no-mindedness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited “self.” At peace in the possession of a sublime “Nothing” the spirit laid hold, in secret, upon the “All” – without trying to know what it possessed.
Maybe this is the rest that the writer of Hebrews urged his readers to labor to enter. And maybe this is the rest that David ordered his soul to return to.