The headwaters of the Christian contemplative and mystical tradition — aside from the Bible, of course — is the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, hermits and early monks and nuns who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syrian in the third and fourth centuries.
A literature of stories, parables, wisdom teachings, biographies, and even travelogues grew up around the lives and sayings of the Desert dwellers, giving us valuable insight into early Christian understandings of community, prayer, devotion, holiness, meditation, and contemplation.
While none of the Desert Fathers or Mothers appear to have the kind of profound mystical life such as Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Ávila, their down-to-earth (and often quite funny) wisdom remains surprisingly relevant for seekers of deeper intimacy with God, even now in the third millennium.
Many books are available that collect the sayings of the Desert elders, or that interpret their spirituality for 21st-century Christians. Here are seven that I have found the most useful for my own learning and spiritual formation:
- The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Paraclete Essentials) — this introductory anthology includes two important biographies of Desert elders, “The Life of St. Antony of Egypt” and “The Life of Paul of Thebes,” along with a generous sampling of sayings attributed to 24 of the Fathers and Mothers.
Desert Christians by William Harmless — far and away the best book I’ve ever read about the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the world they lived in. Harmless provides excellent, and accessible, historical background and detailed description of their lives, their circumstances, and the personalities of the most renowned of the Desert elders.
- The Book of the Elders translated by John Wortley — a big and expensive book, but probably the largest collection of sayings by the Desert Mothers and Fathers currently available. This collection arranges the sayings thematically rather than by personality, making it easy to search out what the Desert elders had to say about particular topics, like humility, obedience, and watchfulness.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward — sayings and “words” (brief wisdom teachings) of over 100 Desert Fathers and Mothers are anthologized in this collection, arranged alphabetically according to the subjects’ Greek name. An excellent way to get to know the personalities of the various figures, such as John the Dwarf and Amma (Mother) Syncletica.
- The Lives of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward — an English-language version of “The History of the Monks in Egypt,” one of the most popular hagiographies (saintly biographies) of the Desert tradition. Biographical sketches of over twenty-five of the Desert elders is included, in a narrative about pilgrims traveling the Nile in search of the saintly monks and hermits.
The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus — unlike many of the Desert elders, Evagrius was well-educated, and so brings a philosophical and theological sophistication to his writings. This collection of two of his most important works show just how deeply contemplative the Desert elders were, lauding silence and self-forgetfulness as key elements of mature prayer.
- The Conferences by John Cassian — Cassian was the founder of European monasticism, and influenced St. Benedict among many others. But before establishing monasteries in what is modern-day France, he travelled for many years in the desert regions, studying under the great elders. Two of these conferences particularly deal with prayer, and give us an exciting glimpse into the practice of repetitively praying a verse of scripture — the practiced which evolved into later forms of prayer such as the Prayer of the Heart (the “Jesus Prayer”) and the silent prayer practice known in our time as centering prayer.
Read these seven books and you will have a rich and nuanced overview of the history, wisdom, and spirituality of the Desert. Enjoy!