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Reading the desert fathers in Fulton 230
Covering, as it does, vibration medicine, the kabalistic intentions of Ashton Kutcher, and the hymns of former newsreader John Tesh (“Hope takes your hand, and it picks up the pieces”), spirituality has a well-earned reputation in our time as watery soup for the toothless, dyspeptic soul.
The theologian Philip Sheldrake knows different. A professor at Durham University, in England, and the author of A Brief History of Spirituality (Blackwell, 2007), Sheldrake can be found most summers teaching his academic specialty in various American theological institutes, including a popular course, “Transformation and Holiness,” for Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (IREPM). The contemporary uses and reputation of spirituality, Sheldrake told me in an interview during his two-week stay in Chestnut Hill, are phenomena of very recent origin. In the historic context, religious spiritual development is dense and demanding fare, featuring a menu of practices that, until the mid-20th century, lived in the Catholic Church under the severe label “ascetical or mystical theology.” In classic Christian understanding, spiritual practice isn’t a balm, says Sheldrake, but a means of gaining “perspective on the nature of, and remedies for, human disorder—and for using that understanding to achieve transformation.”
Curious to know how Sheldrake would make this case and how it would be received, in late June and early July, I sat in on five of the nine meetings of “Transformation and Holiness.” Sheldrake focused the curriculum on four spiritual practices and their related texts—what he called “artesian wells,” to contrast the form of his course with the shallow, wide pit format for which survey courses are justly infamous. These wells were: fourth-century monasticism as lived by the desert monks of Egypt (Sayings of the Fathers), the 14th-century mysticism of Julian of Norwich (Showings: Revelations of Divine Love), the 16th-century Ignatian spirituality of action (The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola), and the spirituality of social engagement as manifest in the work of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez (We Drink from Our Own Wells).
Sheldrake is a practiced, lucid, and attentive lecturer, with gifts for both aphoristic directness—”the desert fathers did not think of themselves as monks: they were just serious Christians”—and teasing fan dance (“Ignatius wrote an autobiography—well, perhaps he didn’t—we’ll come to that in a minute—in any case, there is an autobiography”). And the nine graduate students who sat with him for some 30 hours at a conference table in Fulton 230 seemed well prepared for and receptive to the pains and pleasures of the texts and lectures. Of the five men and four women, four were members of religious orders, two were pastoral or spiritual counselors, another was a teacher at a Catholic high school, another a BC chaplain, and another a BC security officer who (like seven of the nine class members) is pursuing a master’s degree in pastoral ministry at IREPM.
In an early class, Sheldrake warned that in trying to comprehend the four spiritualities through their primary documents, students would need to open themselves to understanding and appreciating the “alien contexts” in which the spiritualities were rooted, by which he meant, among other things, times and places “before the Western Church became obsessed with structure and system.” He concluded: “It’s a challenge.”
That challenge came through clearly in class discussions and in private conversations I had with students. Among other things, I heard that Ignatius’s spiritual directions seemed too calculating, hard, “cold” (he was, of course, preparing troops for solitary service behind the lines); while Julian’s radical perception of God’s love—”all shall be well with us, and all manner of things shall be well”—seemed too effortless (she was, of course, set on developing a notion of God’s love that would be as powerful as the Black Death raging outside the convent); while Gutiérrez, a Latin American priest and “a bit of a Marxist,” one student told me, had to be approached with caution. (The views of two popes to the contrary, that caution seemed to melt away among the students in the encounter with Gutiérrez’s scripturally rooted case for social justice as the contemporary Christian spiritual challenge.)
But nowhere was the clash of contexts more obvious than in the students’ encounter with the gnomic wisdom stories passed down from the fourth-century desert monks. “On the one hand, they fascinate me, because there’s that little bit of monk in me, the monk who was once going to be the holiest of brothers,” said class member Robert Callen, an Irish Christian brother and high school teacher from Australia, in an interview. “As a young man you read a book like Sayings of the Fathers, and you want to take on all that asceticism.” And then Callen, who is 57, laughed.
Sayings of the Fathers is “an odd and challenging document,” Sheldrake told me. “I’ve taught classes where students had violent reactions to some of the stories—particularly the stories that demean women—and were ready to throw the book at the wall—or [at] me. It can’t be read as a systemic system of stories, because it’s not that. It’s a collection of stories that are a means of formation. There’s no system. The question a contemporary reader must confront, then, is not how do I feel about what the stories say—because they say many things with which we are rightly very unsympathetic—but what they are meant to do to you. It’s very difficult, though, because the time and place in which this spirituality developed are so alien from our own.”
That time, as noted earlier, was the fourth century, and the place was Roman Egypt, where expanses of desert ran right up against flourishing and sophisticated cities, of which the most notable was Alexandria. The Christians who became desert monks, said Sheldrake, and who eventually numbered in the tens of thousands, were for the most part the sons of prosperous local farmers who saw Rome’s recognition of Christianity, under Constantine, as a threat to religious purity. Christianity, a faith that had been dangerous and countercultural, “now was mainstream, even providing possibilities for social and economic advancement,” said Sheldrake. “The desert fathers wanted to restore a pure gospel, authentic discipleship; and with actual martyrdom now denied Christians, they chose to adopt a martyrdom of asceticism.”
That asceticism has features that seem odd to us. For one thing, the monks, the sayings clearly show, while quite exercised by, and interested in, anger, pride, and gluttony, were not terribly distressed by occasional trips—their own or that of others—to Alexandria for a conjugal visit with an abandoned wife. “The desert fathers don’t have the modern preoccupation with sins of the flesh,” is how Sheldrake put it. Nor did the monks have an interest in being priests (too bourgeoisie an occupation), or in performing service for any but the community of self-exiled men to which they belonged, or in banishing their temptations to sin, which they saw as a necessary spur to the continual struggle that was their life’s work.
In supporting one another and their spiritual development, the desert fathers developed a tradition of orally transmitted wisdom stories. These were collected about a century after their deaths, in Apophthegmata Patrum—sayings of the fathers. Unlike their other great invention, monasticism, which was exported to Europe—with revolutionary consequences for Christianity and the West—the Apophthegmata Patrum was pretty much ignored in the West. Abelard, in the 12th century, quoted from it in written advice to Heloise (these were not the famous “love letters”), and some of the stories, carried along by a few monastic orders, eventually bubbled up as part of French, English, and Irish spiritual practice. In the 20th century, however, the stories attracted the attention of Thomas Merton, who translated some of the sayings for his fellow monks, and of the Anglican religious sister, Benedicta Ward, whose Penguin Classics translation (The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks), published in 2003, is now the standard and the one used by Sheldrake’s class.
From the 656 tales or wisdom sayings that have been selected and translated by Ward and strung together in chapters with titles such as “Progress in Perfection,” “Visions,” and “Sober Living,” here are four briefer ones that convey the collection’s tone.
- They said of Agatho that for three years he kept a stone in his mouth in order to teach himself silence.
- A hermit said “Do not take too much notice of your abba [literally father, and meaning spiritual advisor], and do not often go to see him; for you will get confidence from it and want to become a leader yourself.”
- Two monks came from Pelusium to see Sarah. On the way they said to each other, “Let’s humiliate this amma [mother, or spiritual advisor].” So they said to her, “Take care that your soul be not puffed up, and that you do not say, ‘Look, some hermits have come to consult me, a woman!’ Sarah said to them, “I am a woman in sex but not in spirit.”
- There was a hermit who was often ill. But one year he did not fall ill and he was very upset and wept saying, “The Lord has left me, and has not visited me.”
In his book The Body and Society (1988), the historian Peter Brown brilliantly conveys the way in which the sayings of the desert fathers stand out against what came before and after them in Christianity: “The shift from a culture of the book to a cultura Dei based largely on the non-literate verbal interchange of a monastic ‘art of thought’ . . . amounted to nothing less than the discovery of a new alphabet of the heart.”
The men and women in Fulton 230 strove to speak in language drawn from that alphabet on the two mornings during which the desert fathers were the agenda, but it was not always easy. Sheldrake had assigned a number of students to explicate the texts, and the first to present was Mary Sweeney, SC, a Boston College campus minister. Sweeney spoke on the theme of humility, a virtue that earns a rather extensive chapter in Ward’s book and one with which she clearly felt sympathy. But the desert fathers’ treatment of the theme (e.g., “What have you discovered in your life abba? ‘To blame myself unceasingly,’ the hermit answered”) left her shaking her head. “There’s just no exhilaration here,” she declared after taking the class through a number of the sayings. And after she had read the saying, referenced earlier, that casts leadership as a dangerous distraction from salvation, she footnoted in bemusement: “Here at Boston College, we emphasize leadership.”
Graduate student Carole Donabedian, 60, a yoga therapist and spiritual counselor from Connecticut, presented on the theme of “spiritual guidance,” a topic that doesn’t need its own chapter in Ward’s book because it turns up on every page. She did her best to interpret several of the stories in ways that made sense to her, but as with Sweeney she finally came to a story she could not resist backing over with her 21st-century gifts. It was the story about an abbot who comes across a monk kissing a little boy he’d fathered before he became a monk. The abbot asked if the monk loved the child “with all your heart?” The monk said yes. The abbot then told the monk to throw the child in a hot oven. The monk did so; the oven cooled immediately. The abbot praised the monk. “At least,” said Donabedian wryly, “Abraham had his instructions [to sacrifice Isaac] from God.”
The presenter in Fulton 230 that morning who seemed to come closest to sympathy with the desert fathers was, not surprisingly, a Capuchin friar, Richard Crawley, 40, who lives and works with the poor in Boston while studying for a divinity degree at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. A tall, bald, broad-shouldered man with an attentive manner and an easy smile, Crawley, dressed in a polo shirt and chinos and with a small wood cross hanging at his throat, could have passed for an assistant football coach at a Catholic high school that expects all its graduates to go on to selective colleges. He speaks me-thodically and earnestly, like a man who was not born with a voice but had to find one and cultivate and protect it; and each time he made reference to the Ward text during his presentation, he naturally did what no one else in the class had done, which was to refer to the numbered stories as though they were scripture, as in “this saying I’m talking about is on page 23, verse 25.”
Crawley presented on a theme of “silence.” In a sentence that drew nods around the room, he described his main response to the desert fathers by saying: “There are graceful moments in these stories, and then moments so bizarre that you don’t know what to make of them.” He talked of the story, noted above, about the monk who kept a stone in his mouth in order to teach himself silence. The story had bothered him, Crawley said; he’d not been able to put it out of his mind; and then he understood that it bothered him because it compelled him to consider his own concern that “as much as I desire silence, I realize that I fear it.” (The next morning, Donabedian would bring Crawley three lovely mouth-sized stones from the beach near her summer home.)
Crawley next referenced “page 23, verse 25″—a story about a monk who confessed to his abba that he had stolen bread while a child. Immediately the two men saw a bright fire, signifying a demon, “shoot out of [the monk's] breast,” and they smelled burning sulphur. Crawley noted that in spite of the grotesque events described, “there’s wisdom here” in the understanding that silence can be harmful to the person withholding speech, and that speaking after long silence can feel healing.
Crawley then turned to a “verse” about a sick monk who was visited by a disciple who attempted to comfort him with spoonfuls of honey but mistakenly fed him spoonfuls of poisonous linseed oil. The monk swallowed several spoonfuls and stayed silent until the disciple discovered his error. The disciple was mortified. The monk told him he’d done nothing wrong. Crawley said, wryly, “I think I would have been upset with that person a little bit”; adding, after the laughter subsided, “but then I tried to think what deeper meaning might be here for me.”
Later in the night, he said, while he was still reading the desert fathers, a man in the group home in Roxbury in which Crawley lives began shouting in an adjoining room. Recalling the story of the hermit and the linseed oil, Crawley kept his patience. “I thought,” he said, “maybe this [shouting] will serve to drive me deeper into myself and my reading.”
The next morning, he awoke to find that one of the home’s residents was using the shower reserved for the friars, and Crawley could not get to his personal toiletries, and while this made him want to confront the bathroom intruder, “I realized,” he said, breaking into a broad smile, “that I really don’t need a lot of shampoo anyway.”
Crawley concluded his presentation with a reference to “page 30, verse 64.”
A brother brought some new bread to Cellia and invited the monks to taste it. When they had each eaten two rolls of bread, they stopped. But the brother knew how austere was their abstinence, and humbly began to beg them, “For God’s sake eat today until you are filled.” So they ate another two rolls each. See how these true and self-disciplined monks ate much more than they needed, for God’s sake.
“The question for the monks,” Crawley said quietly, “is what is to be valued in any particular situation. No matter what the situation, they seem to find value. Holiness is everywhere accessible; it’s ground into the bread.”
Sheldrake let all three presenters complete their work without interruption, responding only when they or other members of the class rolled a question up to the head of the table.
When the presenters were done, he first talked a bit about the desert fathers’ view that “fleeting, trivial thoughts led you astray, and that it was important therefore to control your thoughts and stay only with thoughts that are life directing.” Hence, the calling to the desert, to “a hinterland of desolation,” to a place where focus could be made fierce.
Asceticism, he continued, is rooted in ascetis, the Greek word for training—as in athletics. “Being a desert father is all about being in it for the long haul,” he said. He pointed out that while the monks “sit fairly easy with the sins of sex, it’s marriage they have difficulty with. The context is important for understanding this. This is not a world in which romantic love is understood to exist. Marriage and children are a duty. The self in the villages and cities is very much a collective or social self. And marriage is about responsibility to the larger community.” Marriage, therefore, interfered with the training for salvation more than sex did.
In a subsequent discussion of what distinguished the spiritual focus of the desert fathers, several students noted that contemporary spiritual training is “therapeutic,” as compared with the desert fathers’ “professionalism.”
Sheldrake responded, “Today the word is within your self; that’s where you seek it. But [in fourth-century Egypt], you have to go somewhere to receive the word; it’s given to you from outside. Because there’s no inside, no inner landscape to contemplate or draw from.”
What’s inside isn’t you, it’s demons, noted a class participant.
For a moment, the men and women in Fulton 230 silently considered the desert landscape.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum