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on 23 September 2007
This is a classic of Western Spirituality, summing up the past and defining the future.
Let me unpack that slightly: It is a classic because of the movement it expresses. The desert fathers and mothers had a theological and political impact far in excess of their direct interventions. They were the ideals of central theologians of their time, and inspired the likes of Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine. I say Western (not Eastern) spirituality, because this is a translation of the LATIN text ("Verba Seniorum"), not the Greek, which is also translated by Ward elsewhere in its alphabetical form. The Latin text is probably a little earlier than the Greek texts we have, although the sayings were probably translated into some Greek form before they arrived in the Latin speaking world.
It sums up a good deal of the past, presenting Christian versions of earlier philosophical wisdom and exercises, and defines the future: Cassian wrote his Institutions and Conferences based on the same sources, and this collection became standard reading for all Western monks, not least by recommendation from Benedict of Nursia.
They are extremely accessible, and you don't have to take a good deal of time to read them: the sayings are generally short, independent paragraphs. Good for chewing over!
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on 21 July 2005
This is a book to be kept. There is a small intro by the editor and then the sayings of the Fathers and Mothers are reproduced under various chapter headings, such as humility.
I found myself often smiling to myself or indeed laughing aloud because there is a kindly of a childlike simplicity evident in the sayings, coming close to madness (at least in the eyes of the modern world). Whilst the sayings can appear outlandish, one knows that there is truth there. One of my favourite stories concerns a very holy monk, who is asked would he stand in faith if a dragon came bearing down on him. He says that he would run because if he did not run from the dragon he would have to run from something far worse, namely his own pride. There are many nuggets of wisdom in this book - its the kind of booked that one keeps in order to dip into repeatedly.
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"In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses [a much-revered monk originally from Ethiopia], but he would not come. The presbyter sent for him again saying 'Come, the monks are gathered together waiting for you'. Moses took with him an old basket [i.e. with a hole] which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said 'What does this mean, abba?' He said 'My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.' They said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him."

This collection of sayings and stories attributed to the early "desert fathers" gathered together for the spiritual edification of the reader are arranged according to certain ideal qualities, such as non-judgement (from which the above quotation), self-control, discretion, humility, patience, charity and so forth.

Bendicta Ward's introduction is brief but enough to give a flavour of the history of the early monastic movement and the motivations behind it - often thought to be world-hating but not necessarily so ("They did not talk, not because they hated conversation, but because they wanted to listen to the voice of God in silence; [...] they did not avoid company because it bored them, but, as one of them said, 'I cannot be with you and with God.'").

A good bedside book to dip into.
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on 8 July 2013
This is a little gem of a book, with so much wisdom packed into just a few pages, if only some of our polititians were to read this and act upon it the world would become a better place.
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on 27 April 2015
This is a collection of the sayings of the early christian monks, as published under the Penguin Classics label and translated by Benedicta Ward. As a very early piece of writing, it needs a good translation to be able to convey the message across centuries and languages. I'm no expert in languages so cannot speak as to the faithfulness of the translation. All I can say is that it was readily accessible.

Having flicked through a copy in the bookshop, I could see that it seemed to be made up of multiple short paragraphs, arranged in mini chapters by theme, but with no overall narrative or timeline. In that way, it rather resembles the book of Proverbs. One would be ill-advised to read that all the way through from start to finish in as few sittings as possible.

As such, it is almost impossible to review as one might a more conventional book. The sayings are grouped thematically. In some cases, the individuals are named, though frequently we are simply told the saying or the story comes from "a hermit" who remains anonymous. So what I'll do is highlight a few of the sayings that particularly caught my attention.

One of the examples that struck me as particularly odd was the case of Macarius who, for reasons unknown, decided that he would sleep in an old pagan burial place, using a dead body as a pillow. Here he was taunted by some vocal demons including one who feigned to be the woman's body upon whom he was sleeping. His response was to thump the body and speak dismissively. What exactly this was meant to demonstrate is lost on me. Was it about courage in the face of demons? If so, it seems a bizarre way to go about things. I'm certainly not going to be advocating sleeping on top of corpses.

Some of the most perturbing instances come from when these monks interact with one another. For example, in some cases they advocate being hospitable to those who visit them, but in others they will refuse to speak to someone, even their own family, causing much upset. One example is Theodore of Pherme was rude in such a manner to someone who knocked on his door for 3 days and eventually said to one of his disciples, "As a matter of fact, I said nothing to him because he's only interested in getting credit by reporting what others have said to him." So my question is: who ensured that this account was written down?

This next one I shall simply quote, suggesting it be filed under WTF:

"When Nesteros the Great was walking in the desert with a brother, they saw a dragon and ran away. The brother said, 'Were you afraid, abba?' Nesteros answered, 'I wasn't afraid, my son. But it was right to run away from the dragon, otherwise I should have had to run away from conceit.'"

For the most part, the sayings are fairly lifestyle-based and/or concerned with wisdom. There's very little by way of biblical theology. What there is, though is disappointingly wrong-headed. For example, there is one tale of a monk who gets the symbolic nature of communion but he himself is portrayed as a heretic by those who have fallen prey to a functionalist understanding. He is rebuked thus: "You mustn't say that, abba; according to what the Catholic Church has handed down to us, even so do we believe, that is to say, this bread is the Body of Christ in very truth, and is not a mere symbol." Yet this flaw should not detract one from engaging with their more sound teachings.

Having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, the lasting impression is rather mixed. On the one hand there is great admiration for their devotion and some of the levels of commitment are far beyond anything I have ever witnessed. Yet this is tinged with sadness at the withdrawn and ascetic life they chose, which seems to be the very antithesis of a life-filled church. There is no sense of community or of a mission to the world. If anything, it is about personal holiness and about appeasement, seemingly linked to a works-based justification. The number of times "doing penance" is referred to adds weight to this conclusion.

I would recommend that you read it, but I couldn't agree with all of it. I doubt many would.
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on 1 March 2014
This is an excellent little book, with little snippets from a host of different desert Fathers, funny, serious, some of the advise well over the top to our way of thinking! You will not be bored!
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on 16 April 2011
A priceless collection of sayings and stories attributed to the Desert Fathers. Well worth reading if you have been inspired or interested by The Rule of Benedict, or any of Christopher Jamison's books. The introduction and notes on the text by the translator, Benedicta Ward, are particularly informative.
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on 4 June 2014
a very well researched subject and a fascinating account of the early christians beliefs - some truths never change !!!
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on 14 March 2014
A deeply spiritual book - to be read in small doses so as to allow it's truths to sink in slowly. Will last a lifetime.
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on 4 March 2016
Have just dipped in and out of this book, many profound truths from the desert fathers of centuries ago ring down to this age. Some amusingly quirky sayings with a twinkle of truth. Other totally religious and seemingly harsh self chastisement that the poor souls felt they had to suffer, to gain Jesus acceptance. Not a lot of joy in the Lord - but beautifully put together, still have to dip some more.
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