Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thomas Merton's Wisdom of the Desert

Thomas Merton, that great Trappist monk, is an American treasure. Merton is a creative and wonderful writer, who wrote many important books on monasticism and spirituality. Today, I'd like to briefly discuss Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert (1960), one of Merton's shortest books, a collection really, and explain why the book is important from a Celtic perspective.

As I have discussed in other blog articles, Celtic Christianity derived part of its unique blend of spirituality from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a group of monastics who had fled the "society" of Europe for the stern quietude of mid East. Men and women went there by the thousands. they must have been seen as unique centers of learning at the time. There were large monastic communities in Egypt, modern day Israel, and Arabia. These places offered an alternative to the popular Christianity of the day. Their stories circulated in the writings of Cassian and others and generated much interest. And herein demonstrates the breadth and adaptability of the Celtic view: blending the wisdom of the East with the Druidic vision on the home front as well. How difficult is that?

Merton's Wisdom of the Desert begins with a wonderful essay which sets the writings of the Desert Fathers in context. There Father Merton shares with us, that the Desert writers have always been one of his favorite group of writers, and that what follows is a collection of  his favorite "sayings". I went through the book this morning (it's only 81 pages long) and selected some of my favorite "sayings". These Zen like quotes tell us something about the spiritual experience of the Fathers and their desire to live authentic spiritual lives. For me, this is feature is the magnet of the book, which keeps me coming back for more.

Here are a few:

A brother asked one of the elders, How does far of the Lord get into a man? And the elder said; If a man have humility and poverty, and judge not another, that is how fear of the Lord gets into him.

A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him; Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

Abbot Pastor said: The virtue of a monk is made manifest by temptations.

An Elder said: Just as a tree cannot bear frut if it is often transplanted, so neither can a monk bear fruit if he frequently changes his abode.

Once some robbers came into the monastery and said to one of the elders; We have come to take away everything that is in your cell. And he said: My sons, take all you want. So they took everything they could find in the cell and started off. But they left behind a little bad that was hidden in the cell. The elder picked it up and followed after them, crying out: My sons, take this, you forgot it in the cell! Amazed at the patience of the elder, they brought everything back into his cell and did penance, saying: This one really is a man of God!

These "sayings" invite us to an inner-directed Christianity which I think is needed today. "Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything"! In other words, you already possess in you, all that you need. One just has to ruminate! And it is my experience, this is what drives folks to be part of monastic communities today. To be more "real".

I love these "sayings" and reading them often sets off other thoughts. Check saying XXVIII, on the principle of stablity. St. Benedict later made this the backbone of his religious order, and helped to transform Europe. And how about saying XCIV? Ever seen that one before? Reminds me of that great scene in  Hugo's Les Miserables when Bishop Myriel gives his silver candlesticks to Jean Valigean. Who knows, maybe Hugo got his idea for that scene from here.

If you want more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, check out Benedicta Ward's The Desert Fathers (2003).

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