The Desert Fathers as Regular Guys  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In The Wisdom of the Desert Thomas Merton addresses the stereotype of the monk as spiritual superman, a kind of angel in a habit.  Merton's own life was human, at times all too human.  The desert fathers are relevant to us because, paradoxically, they sought solitude so that they could become themselves.  The excerpt is on pp 479-480 of  A Thomas Merton Reader, ed Thomas P McDonnell, Doubleday 1989.


The desert fathers insisted on remaining human and "ordinary".  This may seem to be a paradox, but it is very important.  If we reflect a moment, we will see that to fly into the desert in order to be extraordinary is only to carry the world with you as an explicit standard of comparison.  The result would be nothing but self-contemplation, and self-comparison with the negative standard of the world one had abandoned.  Some of the monks of the Desert did this, as a matter of fact:  and the only fruit of their trouble was that they went out of their heads.  The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves.  There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world.  And thus to leave the world, is, in fact, to help save it in saving oneself.  This is the final point, and it is an important one.  The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves.  They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage.  But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different.  Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.

This is their paradoxical lesson for our time.  It would perhaps be too much to say that the world needs another movement such as that which drew these men into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine.  Ours is certainly a time for solitaries and for hermits.  But merely to reproduce the simplicity, austerity, and prayer of these primitive souls is not a complete or satisfactory answer.  We must transcend them, and transcend all those who, since their time, have gone beyond the limits which they set.  We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster.  But our world is different from theirs.  Our involvement in it is more complete.  Our danger is far more desperate.  Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

We cannot do exactly what they did.  But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.  This is not the place in which to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve.  That is still unknown.  Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion, and strike out fearlessly into the unknown.