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No, this is not a book for a `Survivor' wannabe, nor is it a guide for those who dream of crossing the great deserts of the world. But it is a guide of sorts, or more a companion for our pathways in life. This is a new reprinting of a collection of sayings from the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century.

You might ask, "Who are the desert fathers and mothers, and what written in the fourth century could be of any use to us today?" and they would both be good questions. The desert fathers were people who felt Christianity was losing its way, so they decided to return to a simpler life and went to the desert to seek solitude and god. However to some extent their plan failed; soon people realized these men and women had wisdom and guidance if one could ask them. So some of them developed great followings.

This collection is unique among those I have seen. in that it does not sort the sayings by author, or by subject, but rather it is a random smattering that the reader can meander through in order, or randomly flip open and read whichever one they come across. Merton in his introduction states, "This collection of sayings from the Verba Seniorum is by no means intended as a piece of research scholarship--this book is designed entirely for the reader's interest and edification." I believe it lives up to that goal.

At just under 200 pages, this book is short and sweet. Some of the more obscure sayings have been omitted and what is left is a collection of thoughts, meditations and reflections that can help us examine our lives. A few examples of the wisdom are:

"XLVI
Abbot Pastor said: `If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after a long while they will spoil and turn bad'."

And

"XLVII
He said, again: `Malice will never drive out malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice'."
For more, pick up the book and check it out.
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on 7 October 2007
Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk and wrote this book that contains his favorite quotes from 'Verba Seniorum'. He chooses these for himself and his fellow monks in order to make some of the sayings of the Desert Fathers more accessible. He begins this book with a very well written introduction.

Merton wrote this book not as a history of the early Desert Fathers. What he provides are a selection of extracts from their writings that had proved useful for him in his contemplative life. The book is definitely worth reading. A book you will keep by your night stand.

If you are looking for a book that gives you a history of the Desert Fathers and a wide range of their writings, then this is the wrong book for you.
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on 18 April 2008
It's taken me several weeks to understand this book. I still don't get half of it, but I can feel it working somehow, now that it's in my head. The wisdom of the title is the sayings of the desert fathers, the monks of the fourth century who fled to live as hermits in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, renouncing the world and embracing silence, solitude, and the hardships of a wilderness existence.

I think I've actually read this three times now (it's only short). The first time I flicked through it and laughed. The second time I began to put together the details of their lives and the structure of their communities, the elder and novice relationships, and their spiritual practices. Now I'm reading it again, a little at a time, and it makes sense.

What strikes me is how close we may be to this form of spirituality again - they fled to the desert because they felt their faith was simply incompatible with the cultures of their day. If you were to live completely without compromise today as a Christian, you probably wouldn't be able to drive a car, shop at supermarkets, or own a television. If we take our faith to be something larger than personal choices, there are structures of trade and industry that we simply have to flee from. Are sweatshops, the oppression of third world farmers, or the gross pollution of carbon fuels, compatible with following Christ?

Anyway, this is a book of sayings in the old tradition of wisdom writing - you really have to dwell with it, muse on it, ask questions of it. And in time it will reveal its riches.
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HALL OF FAMEon 4 January 2006
Thomas Merton was perhaps the best known monastic of the last century. That he was a Trappist perhaps puts him in the best contemporary context from which to understand the Desert Fathers - the kind of hermit/distance existence that they had does not really exist in the world today (true, there are a few who carry on the tradition in the deserts of Egypt and a few other places, but often even they advise against this becoming a trend in Christian practice again). The Trappists are among those for whom silence and solitude are intentional practices, much like the Desert Fathers.
Merton, a talented writer on matters spiritual, states in the Author's note that his intention was not to produce a new 'edition' by academic standards, or to do any piece of new research. Rather, Merton set out to produce an accessible collection of wisdom sayings that had been contained in the collection 'Verba Seniorum', a Latin text of stories and proverbs handed down from the Desert Fathers and those who knew and wrote about them.
In the fourth century, while Christianity was still struggling as a minority (sometimes a violently oppressed minority) in the Empire, there were those who saw that the greater threat to the new faith was not the imperial officials and their forces, but rather the attractions and lure of the cities. It was very easy to put forth the claim that the world was not a Christian one, and that one would have to renounce the world to live an authentically Christian life - the Desert Fathers tended to do this renunciation in rather dramatic fashion (and, to varying extent, this is what monastics continue to do to this day). This renunciation was true even with official tolerance and imperial imprimatur, for Christianity was still the decided minority.
Merton states that it is a mistake to think that the Desert Fathers were isolationist individuals, however - 'the very fact that they uttered these "words" of advice to one another is proof that they were eminently social.' They sought an equality amongst themselves under God, and were welcoming toward those who sought them for instruction and wisdom.
In this collection, the 'Verba Seniorum' are perhaps the most true to the actual words of the Desert Fathers that we can get. Most writing about them came from people who added literary flourishes and often hagiographic legendary material into the mix; these are much more simple. They are 'the plain, unpretentious reports that went from mouth to mouth in the Coptic tradition before being committed to writing in Syriac, Greek and Latin.'
Over and over again, the Desert Fathers stress love above all. Their love reaches out for tolerance toward others, even as they sometimes seem to be intolerant toward themselves. Perhaps their generosity toward others came from a recognition of the faults of their own and the hope that God will deal more generously with them as they strive to deal generously with others.
'One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community. So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner!'
This is a wonderful, heartfelt, wise collection. It is not organised according to any overarching theme or systematic theological paradigm, but rather like a collecton of 'quotable quotes', often seemingly random. I often take the book and open it at random, to see what insights I can gain from it that day.
0Comment| 9 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
No, this is not a book for a `Survivor' wannabe, nor is it a guide for those who dream of crossing the great deserts of the world. But it is a guide of sorts, or more a companion for our pathways in life. This is a new reprinting of a collection of sayings from the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century.

You might ask, "Who are the desert fathers and mothers, and what written in the fourth century could be of any use to us today?" and they would both be good questions. The desert fathers were people who felt Christianity was losing its way, so they decided to return to a simpler life and went to the desert to seek solitude and god. However to some extent their plan failed; soon people realized these men and women had wisdom and guidance if one could ask them. So some of them developed great followings.

This collection is unique among those I have seen. in that it does not sort the sayings by author, or by subject, but rather it is a random smattering that the reader can meander through in order, or randomly flip open and read whichever one they come across. Merton in his introduction states, "This collection of sayings from the Verba Seniorum is by no means intended as a piece of research scholarship--this book is designed entirely for the reader's interest and edification." I believe it lives up to that goal.

At just under 200 pages, this book is short and sweet. Some of the more obscure sayings have been omitted and what is left is a collection of thoughts, meditations and reflections that can help us examine our lives. A few examples of the wisdom are:

"XLVI
Abbot Pastor said: `If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after a long while they will spoil and turn bad'."

And

"XLVII
He said, again: `Malice will never drive out malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice'."
For more, pick up the book and check it out.
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on 31 March 2006
Merton wrote this book not as a history of the early Desert Fathers or as a selection of their writings, although it incorporates both these elements. Rather it is a selection of texts compiled for friends out of his own contemplative experience. In encountering the writings of the Desert Fathers he compares their spiritual environment to that of the modern world, and offers a selection of extracts from their writing that have proved useful for him in contemplation.
Having read the thoughtful introduction to the selected extracts, I took several months reading the extracts themselves. My method was to read one, turn it over in my head and let it dwell there until I felt that I knew what it was saying to me, and then move on. I spent several days on each extract - with a lot of distractions! People will encounter this book in their own ways though: as something you read very quickly and then come back to later, or as a resource to turn to for prayer or inspiration when you are feeling dried out and lacking in energy or inspiration.
I highly recommend the book as a resource for anyone seeking to engage with the world and themselves more reflectively.
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on 17 November 2010
This is a translation from the Latin text called the Verba Seniorium (Words of the Father), which itself was a collection of fourth century origination. An anonymous Greek scholar is believed to have gathered these sayings of the first Christian hermits, living in the Scete Desert area, situated at the southern end of the Nitrian Valley, Egypt. The words of wisdom hang heavy with the chosen life of voluntary withdrawal from the chaos of city life. The words are clear and compassionate.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), himself a Christian monk, gives a rendering into English that is both compelling and spiritually uplifting. This monk, who spent part of his life observing Buddhism, presents a translation that has a certain quality not dissimilar to the wise sayings of the old Chinese Ch'an masters, and their Japanese Zen counter-parts.

The book has three parts:

1) Author's note.
2) The Wisdom of the Desert.
3) Some sayings of the Desrt Fathers (150 in total).

The New Directions edition dated 1970 contains 81 numbered pages. Like all of Merton's work, this is a spiritual gem of great value to the spiritual seeker of profound wisdom. A perfect book.
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on 8 July 2013
I found this a very concise and informative book, which has led me to much deep reflection and subsequent understanding
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HALL OF FAMEon 4 January 2006
Thomas Merton was perhaps the best known monastic of the last century. That he was a Trappist perhaps puts him in the best contemporary context from which to understand the Desert Fathers - the kind of hermit/distance existence that they had does not really exist in the world today (true, there are a few who carry on the tradition in the deserts of Egypt and a few other places, but often even they advise against this becoming a trend in Christian practice again). The Trappists are among those for whom silence and solitude are intentional practices, much like the Desert Fathers.
Merton, a talented writer on matters spiritual, states in the Author's note that his intention was not to produce a new 'edition' by academic standards, or to do any piece of new research. Rather, Merton set out to produce an accessible collection of wisdom sayings that had been contained in the collection 'Verba Seniorum', a Latin text of stories and proverbs handed down from the Desert Fathers and those who knew and wrote about them.
In the fourth century, while Christianity was still struggling as a minority (sometimes a violently oppressed minority) in the Empire, there were those who saw that the greater threat to the new faith was not the imperial officials and their forces, but rather the attractions and lure of the cities. It was very easy to put forth the claim that the world was not a Christian one, and that one would have to renounce the world to live an authentically Christian life - the Desert Fathers tended to do this renunciation in rather dramatic fashion (and, to varying extent, this is what monastics continue to do to this day). This renunciation was true even with official tolerance and imperial imprimatur, for Christianity was still the decided minority.
Merton states that it is a mistake to think that the Desert Fathers were isolationist individuals, however - 'the very fact that they uttered these "words" of advice to one another is proof that they were eminently social.' They sought an equality amongst themselves under God, and were welcoming toward those who sought them for instruction and wisdom.
In this collection, the 'Verba Seniorum' are perhaps the most true to the actual words of the Desert Fathers that we can get. Most writing about them came from people who added literary flourishes and often hagiographic legendary material into the mix; these are much more simple. They are 'the plain, unpretentious reports that went from mouth to mouth in the Coptic tradition before being committed to writing in Syriac, Greek and Latin.'
Over and over again, the Desert Fathers stress love above all. Their love reaches out for tolerance toward others, even as they sometimes seem to be intolerant toward themselves. Perhaps their generosity toward others came from a recognition of the faults of their own and the hope that God will deal more generously with them as they strive to deal generously with others.
'One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community. So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner!'
This is a wonderful, heartfelt, wise collection. It is not organised according to any overarching theme or systematic theological paradigm, but rather like a collecton of 'quotable quotes', often seemingly random. I often take the book and open it at random, to see what insights I can gain from it that day.
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on 20 September 2015
Spiritually enlightening.
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