Sometime during the 4th century A.D., certain men abandoned their corrupt cities like a shipwreck and “swam” to the solitary deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia in a daring quest for salvation.

To go along with the world would be disastrous — even more so since the Emperor had become a Christian and the world was beginning to associate the cross with temporal power. They were the hermits, helping to develop the archetype of wisdom.

Thomas Merton writes in his introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert,

They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values. But they did not intend to place themselves above society. They did not reject society with proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men. On the contrary, one of the reasons why they fled from the world of men was that in the world men were divided into those who were successful, and imposed their will on others, and those who had to give in and be imposed upon. The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over others themselves.

This book has been one of my favorites. I’ve read it again and again. It is dog-eared, and the pages are wavy because the rain got to it. I slip it in my purse, in my briefcase, in my pocket.

In it, I see similarities in Thoreau‘s writings. Individualism without pride. Freedom without license. Losing oneself to find it. The tensions drawn tight across the chasms of life so one can walk across it, oh so carefully. Merton writes:

Obviously such a path could only be travelled by one who was very alert and very sensitive to the landmarks of a trackless wilderness.

Such is simplicity — a trackless wilderness through which one must use all to navigate it. Merton is talking about complete freedom — which means not being a slave to your own desires or any sin, nor being a servant to your “will” and any structure.

The hermits had nothing to which they had to “conform” except the secret, hidden, inscrutable will of God which might differ very notably from one cell to another.

Here are a few sayings to meditate on.

This one has not quite made it to the inner places of my heart because I love to argue — but I’d say it’s helped me to improve:

And if anyone speak to you about any matter do not argue with him. But if he speaks rightly, say: Yes. If he speaks wrongly say to him: You know what you are saying. But do not argue with him about the things he has said. Thus your mind will be at peace.

Here are some others:

An Elder said: Do not judge a fornicator if you are chaste, for if you do, you too are violating the law as much as he is. For He who said thou shalt not fornicate also said thou shalt not judge.

One of the elders said: Pray attentively and you will soon straighten out your thoughts.

Abbot Pastor said: Do not dwell in a place where you see that others are envious of you, for you will not grow there.

This one is my favorite and I’ve repeated it in my mind over and over. I’ve thought often about how John the Baptist fasted and lived in solitary places in the desert and how Jesus went about eating and drinking with sinners.

Yet both did the will of God. It baffles me when people feel the need to colonize their ideas of service to God or feel threatened when you serve God differently. That’s why this little story is one of my favorites:

A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby? The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? and that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.

 

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