Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Desert Wisdom I


We have a weekly email going out over the university holidays based upon the sayings of the desert fathers, a fascinating group of fourth-century Christians who fled the newly Christianised Roman Empire and it's civilized life for the adversities of the desert, here's one of the excerpts...

A certain brother came to Abbot Silvanus at Mount Sinai, and seeing the hermits at work he exclaimed: 'Why do you work for the bread that perishes? Mary has chosen the best part, namely to sit at the feet of the Lord without working'.

Then the Abbot said to his disciple Zachary: 'Give the brother a book and let him read, and put him in an empty cell'.

At the ninth hour the brother who was reading began to look out to see if the Abbot was not going to call him to dinner, and sometime after the ninth hour he went himself to the Abbot and said: 'Did the brothers not eat today, Father?'

'Oh yes, certainly,' said the Abbot, 'they just had dinner'.

'Well,' said the brother, 'why did you not call me?'

'You are a spiritual man,' said the elder, 'you don't need this food that perishes. We have to work, but you have chosen the best part. You read all day, and can get along without food.'

Hearing this the brother said: 'Forgive me, Father'.

And the elder said: 'Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised'.


Often I find myself giggling when I read the desert fathers. Like many monks I have met, something about living in community brings out and ripens in them a keen sense of humour (Jorge in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose - currently serialized on Radio 4 - would not have approved!).

Abbot Silvanus gently deflates the young brother's misunderstanding about the 'spiritual life'. The truth is, that none of us can be detached from our bodies and their needs - or our neighbours - and imagine we can enter some form of nirvana privately in our 'souls'.

This is too inhuman - and also too unholy - a path. The message of the Incarnation is basically that 'matter', 'work', 'food' and so on, are good. (Indeed, 'very good', as the Creation story in Genesis puts it - not just necessary).

Though occasionally the hermits did experience strange 'phenomena' (visions of angels etc), the concept of 'spiritual' was really about becoming more fully human. If you like, in this last desert these hermits hoped to return to the first Garden - to an original harmony.

Those who have watched the recent series The Convent, or it's predecessor The Monastery, may have noticed that the vocation the nuns/monks are pursuing is not about achieving some personal 'spiritual' ecstasy. It is much more basic: it is how to live together as God intended, being the person each has been called to be.
I wonder whether the question I ought to ask myself more often is not 'how spiritual am I?', but 'how fully human am I?'.

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