ARGUING WITH THE ANCESTORS Or, a Little Walk with the Desert Fathers & Mothers

Or, A Little Walk With the Desert Fathers & Mothers

27 October 2013

James Ishmael Ford

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John (the Dwarf) used to tell the above story, saying: This is the door of God by which our fathers (and mothers) rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.

The Wisdom of the Desert
Thomas Merton, Editor & Translator

The Desert Fathers and Mothers were Christians of various flavors, ranging from gnostic to Orthodox who lived in the deserts of Syria, what we now divide as Palestine and Israel, and most of all in Egypt, throughout the fourth and fifth centuries of our common era. Their actions and sayings have been collected in a couple of books, much of which are now available in English translation, the most famous of which is probably Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert.

Among the interesting things about them is how so many of the collected anecdotes look so similar to the stories of Zen Buddhist teachers and students in China from a couple of centuries later. Well, they look similar if you squint your eyes just a little, and hold your head titled at just the right angle. But do that, and my goodness! Merton’s particular selection, chosen as it was, by a Christian mystic and social justice activist who had a deep interest in the world’s religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, emphasized and perhaps over emphasized the stories that do look so similar across ages and religions. But, my goodness, they really do.

That’s a bit of background. After we moved here to Rhode Island, I unpacked a box of my books that had not been opened in years, probably decades. In it I found an old copy of the New Directions paperback version of Merton’s little book. It wasn’t in very good shape, the glue was disintegrating and pages were beginning to pop out. What particularly caught my attention, however, was how many of those pages had check marks at particular stories, emphasizing my interest in them, and how a number also had marginal notes – from me, from so long ago I had no memory of writing them.

I realized the comments came from a period in my life where I had, I’m not sure exactly, but certainly more than a decade of hard Zen meditation practice including time in a monastery under my belt, as well as having studied with Sufis and gnostics and even a couple of wise Christians. Those comments showed how my spiritual journey was beginning to find its shape. I could see the contours of who I would become. I was, also, I saw in the reading, a little full of myself. You know how it goes. I was so much smarter then, than I am now.

For example, there’s a story about a young monk who complains that he can’t still his thoughts. The teacher grabs the monk, drags him outside into the desert with its howling wind, and tells him to open his robes and catch the wind. When the young monk stutters that that is impossible, the teacher responds “If you can’t catch the wind, neither can you prevent thoughts from rising in your head.” He concludes, “Your task is instead to say ‘no’ to them.” I appended my own comment, writing in the space to the side of the paragraph, “Almost right. Our job is to watch those thoughts and let them go.” Not bad. But, the advice of the ancient worthy was sufficient. Really, I was just adding frosting to the cake.

Now, at the same time, I think it is important for us, when we encounter things like Merton’s little book of ancient wisdom, if they’re worthy, and I’m certain this book is, to really engage them. We need to argue with the words. So, quibbling can be valuable. And, we need to listen to what they say. Not too quickly impose our own thoughts on top of what is being shared. Do this, and I’ve found good things can follow. We might even open ourselves to the grace of the world, to the rising of the wise heart. And there’s a lot of it in this little book.

So, a visitor to Abbot Theodore wanted to know about the consolations of the spiritual life, the blinding flashes of transforming insight and the deeper calm that infiltrates the heart and infuses the life of someone who has fully given herself, himself to the way of depth. The abbot replied, “you have not yet found your ship, you’ve not put your luggage on board, you’ve not begun the trip across the sea, but you want to talk as if you’ve already arrived.”

This is a common enough trap for the beginner in all spiritual traditions, and a standard pointer from an elder on the way. “Act,” the abbot told the visitor, “Practice the way. And then speak from your own knowledge,” echoing a common theme in the Zen way, to take the cup and drink your own water, and know for your self, whether it is cool or warm.

Also, while these stories are about people who’ve thrown themselves fully into the way, they caution not to be trapped by the forms. One of the most renowned of the women who fled into the desert, Abbess Syncletica, dryly observed to a student how “It is possible to be a person of the way within one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is (equally) possible for one who wears the robes to live within the crowd of one’s own mind.” Another Desert Mother, the Abbess Matrona drives the point home. “We carry ourselves wherever we go… we cannot escape… through mere flight.” In fact the invitation of these ancient teachers is never an invitation to run away from our lives, rather it is, always, a beckoning home.

The stories are filled with what that means, where we find home. A visitor to one desert community was surprised at how much time the monks devoted to work, tending their gardens and weaving baskets to sell in the town. The visitor had a different vision of what it means to be spiritual, and chastised Abbot Sylvanus, noting, “You work for bread that perishes.”

The visitor then schooled the abbot in their shared tradition, citing the famous story of Martha and Mary, where Martha worked at housekeeping while Mary stayed with Jesus talking. The visitor concluded, “Mary chose the best part.” The abbot had nothing more to offer at the moment so had his attendant show the visitor to a room, telling the attendant to give the visitor a spiritual book to read. The visitor settled in, I imagine he sat comfortably and could look up from his book through a window at that astonishing desert landscape. The hours passed and the light began to fall and he noticed when the dinner hour arrived, but there was no bell and no one came to collect him. After another hour or so he went to the abbot and asked why he hadn’t been called to eat. The abbot replied, “We worked for our living, and then ate. But you who chose the better part, and are so spiritual, well, obviously you don’t need to eat.”

There’s a more charming telling of this lesson when the young man who would become the celebrated Abbot John the Dwarf, decided he was tired of working and wanted to be an angel. He took off his robe and flapping his arms ran into the desert. That evening tired and hungry he went to the hut of his teacher only to find it for the first time since he had arrived barred shut. Knocking on the door saying he was hungry his teacher provided the same lesson, repeated in Zen circles as, “a day of no work is a day of no eating.”

There’s a spiritual lesson.

The heart sings true, we only need to listen.

So, what is that soft song being sung by our hearts? What do we find when we bring our work and our spirit into this place that we are now, when we slow down a little, and just attend? Here these ancient Egyptians offer their own unique take on the universal wisdom. It is something I really think worth listening to.

They touch most of the difficulties in finding a life worth living.

Someone told Abbot Pastor, “I follow the rules of the community. But, my heart isn’t at rest. What else should I do?” The abbot gave some of the clearest advice I’ve ever heard from the wise of any tradition. “Despise no one. Condemn no one. Rebuke no one. And God will give you peace.” This call to surrender into the mysteries of love runs a deep current through the teachings of the Desert, life giving waters in a parched land.

And, always, the call is to the real. So, again, when the young John the Dwarf was still finding his way, he prayed to be delivered from all passions. Feeling God had in fact answered his prayers he went to one of his teachers and declared, “You see before you, one who has transcended temptation, my heart is completely at rest.” The teacher yelled at him. “And you’ve completely missed the point! Go back and pray for the struggle to return. And when it comes, pray not to be delivered from the task, but for strength to persevere.” Similar, I feel, to that Zen story of two monks meeting on the road and walking together until they come to a river. The one proceeds to walk across the river his feet barely touching the water. The one left behind, muttering, “If I’d known he was like that, I’d have given him a swift whack from my staff.”

We’re called to a grounded spirituality, a spirituality that brings heaven and earth into one place, this place. Another of the stories of the Desert repeated by Thomas Merton has a young seeker go to an elder, saying there are two monks. One remains in his cell, praying, fasting five days in the week constantly repenting his sins. The other takes care of the sick. Which is most truly following the way, he asks? Not as a trap, I think, but a real question. The answer is brief. “The one who prays by himself doesn’t even come close the holiness of the one who cares for the sick.”

Finding it all here. Finding it all now. Finding it as much in our hands as in our hearts. There’s something to wrestle with.

An aspirant approached Abbot Pastor and asked, “How do I make my way?” The abbot replied with what is probably the heart of the whole spiritual path, whatever our tradition, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, earth-centered, humanist. Whatever name we give the way as we walk it. And it is so easy. And it is so hard.

He said, “Constantly ask, ‘Who am I?’ and judge no one.”

My annotation, my midrash on this, not from back when I knew so much more, but from now, from a life where my heart has been broken so many times, from a life that has also constantly been surprised by love. I suggest we reduce that question to the deep curiosity of our hearts, allowing the longing of our human condition to become a deep interest in the matters of life, a constant noticing, looking, watching, listening; allowing all our senses to simply be present.

Then from there, want to see how the rubber hits the road? John the Dwarf, now an abbot himself, accompanies a number of worthies going to visit a very old abbot deep in the desert. The ancient sage offers the weary travelers water to drink. Out of respect and not wanting to impose, all decline, except John. Instead, he says, “yes, thank you,” takes the cup and drinks deeply. Later when he is rebuked for taking water knowing the old man has trouble going to the well, even to get enough water for himself, John replies, “I know that when I offer refreshment, I am happy that people accept it. I saw he wanted to give the gift. Of course, I could only accept.”

Only accept.

Only accept. Words from people who learned there was a time to receive and a time to act, and who schooled hearts into knowing when for each.

The wisdom of the desert.

Worth a little struggle. Worth some argument. Worth trying on for ourselves.

Indeed, may we all be so blessed.


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