Booknote: In the Heart of the Desert  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert, World Wisdom, 2008.

A native Australian, John Chryssavgis is a deacon in the Greek Orthodox Church and currently serves as adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues. He has a doctorate in patristics from Oxford (his thesis supervisor was Kallistos Ware) and he was on the faculty of Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts.

In the Heart of the Desert is a comprehensive, approachable introduction to the spirituality of the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers. These people flourished during a very crucial, very seminal period in the history of Christian contemplative spirituality. Starting with Antony of Egypt in the late 3rd century and lasting more or less until the advent of Islam, they protested the overly cozy relationship between church and society that followed in the wake of Constantine's edict of tolerance. Perceiving that Christianity was getting too watered-down, they fled to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine and, in effect, started over from scratch.

The book is essentially an explication of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a compendium of material originally in Greek, Coptic, Syriac, and Latin that records the aphoristic insights of these pioneering monastics, which were originally transmitted orally. Following introductory chapters on the text and the overall historical background of the desert fathers, Chryssavgis treats the material topically, delving into such subjects as solitude, detachment, spiritual guidance, and life in the cell. There are also chapters on "The Desert and the Environment" and "The Desert and Gender". The text is richly larded with quotes from the fathers and mothers, which the author has translated himself--in a very fresh and lively manner, I should add. All in all, this is the best treatment of the subject I've come across since Derwas Chitty's The Desert a City.

Let me include some quotes by Chryssavgis, followed by excerpts from the actual Sayings.

If God is right there, in the middle of our struggle, then our aim is to stay there. We are to remain in the cell, to stay on the road, not to forgo the journey or forget the darkness. It is all too easy for us to overlook the importance of struggle, preferring instead to secure peace and rest, or presuming to reach the stage of love prematurely. It is always easier to allow things to pass by, to go on without examination and effort. Yet, struggling means living. It is a way of fully living life and not merely observing it. It takes much time and great effort to unite the disparate, disjointed and divided parts of the self into an integrated whole. During this time and in this effort, the virtue of struggle was one of the non-negotiables in the spiritual way of the desert. The Desert Fathers and Mothers speak to us with authority, because they are in fact our fellow travelers. They never claim to have arrived; they never indicate that they have completed the journey. (104)

These heroes of the spirit are filled with joy; they are also characterized by humor. The desert stories are filled with witty situations and entertaining sayings. Their humor is, in my view, undoubtedly connected to their humility. If they take themselves less seriously, it is because they want to take God more seriously. They are neither obsessed by their ascetic struggle nor preoccupied with their particular virtues. The desert dwellers can be joyful because they know that they are human and that failure comes with the territory of being human....The desert elders knew that perfection rests with the divinity; and certainly not in our frailty or in any ability that we may have to negotiate with the divinity about our virtues and our vices. (105)

Opportunities present themselves to us continually, even in a busy space. We can discover the "desert", even in the noise of a city. We can all look for a place and a moment where we will struggle with our selves and encounter God. Those are the places and the moments of temptation; those are also the places and the moments of transformation. Then we shall discover the mystery of the extraordinary in the most ordinary, the wonder of the commonplace, together with the surprise of beauty. When we have addressed our demons, will we not also know the presence of angels in our life? (109)

From the Sayings:

Abba Agathon said: "If I could meet a leper, give him my body and take his, I would be very happy. For this is indeed perfect love".

A brother who had sinned was dismissed from the community by the priest. Abba Bessarion stood up and walked out with him, saying: "I, too, am a sinner".

They asked Abba Macarius: "How should one pray?" The old man replied: "There is no need to make long discourses; it is enough simply to stretch out one's hands and say: 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: 'Lord, help!' He knows very well what we need and shows us his mercy".

Abba Pambo said, "If you have a heart, you can be saved".

Abba Sarmatas said: "I prefer a sinful man, who knows that he has sinned and repents, to a man who has not sinned and considers himself righteous".

This entry was posted on Monday, October 20, 2008 at Monday, October 20, 2008 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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