Review of The Book of the Elders by John Wortley (translator)

By and large, contemporary mainstream society is obsessed with pleasure, self-indulgence, and happiness; traditional monastic virtues are alien to its way of thinking. My own lifestyle is far from monastic, but most people are astonished when I tell them that I do not own a car, cell phone, or television, and have no Internet access at home. Few understand how I can relish solitude, because for them, solitude implies loneliness and boredom. They do understand that simplicity can be attractive, but I am not sure if I have personally met anyone who systematically pursues greater and greater simplicity as a life goal.

It is not surprising, then, that few people nowadays have heard of the so-called “Desert Fathers” (and “Desert Mothers”), who were among the earliest Christian monastics, living in the desert of Egypt beginning around the third century A.D. I had heard of the Desert Fathers a long time ago, but only recently decided to read more about them. After browsing through a few books, I settled on The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Systematic Collection. This is a modern translation (by John Wortley) of an ancient compilation of miscellaneous sayings and anecdotes by and about various elders and other members of that community. The term “systematic” means that the items are organized topically rather than alphabetically by name.

Although many of the ideals of monasticism—such as hēsychia [Greek ἡσυχία; interior silence], egkrateia [Greek ἐγκράτεια; self-control], diakrisis [Greek διάκρισις; discretion], avoidance of porneia [Greek πορνεία; lust], solitude, obedience, and humility—are not very fashionable today, I am sympathetic to many of them, so I expected to find much that I agreed with in this book. And indeed, that was the case. Here is a typical paragraph:

An elder said, “This is the life of a monk: work, obedience, meditation, not judging, not backbiting, not grumbling; for it is written, ‘O you that love the Lord, hate the things that are evil.’ The life of a monk is to have nothing to do with that which is unjust, not to see evil with one’s eyes, not to be a busybody, not to listen to other folks’ affairs, to give rather than to take away with one’s hands, not to have pride in one’s heart nor wicked thoughts in one’s mind nor to fill one’s belly, but rather to act with discretion in all things. In these the life of the monk consists.”

The sayings contain much pithy wisdom. For example, in the section on “passing judgment,” we read:

An elder said, “Should somebody sin in your presence in any way, judge him not but regard yourself as more sinful than him. You see the sin, but you do not see the repentance.”

Those who regard all monks as unrealistic extremists might be surprised to find anecdotes such as the following one.

There was somebody in the desert hunting wild beasts, and he saw Abba Antony enjoying himself with the brothers. He was offended, so the elder wanted to convince him that the brothers needed to relax from time to time. He said to him, “Put an arrow to your bow and draw it.” He did so. He said to him again, “Draw,” and he drew. Again he said, “Draw.” The hunter said to him, “If I draw too much, the bow will break.” Said Abba Antony to him, “So it is too with the work of God. If we draw on the brothers beyond measure, they will soon collapse; so they must relax from time to time.” The hunter was conscience stricken when he heard this and went his way greatly benefitted by the elder. The brothers went back to their place reinforced.

Other critics who regard the Christian emphasis on recognizing one’s own sin, and repenting from it, as psychologically unhealthy, may also be surprised to read the following nuanced explanation.

She [Holy Synklētikē] also said, “There is a sorrow that is beneficial and a sorrow that is destructive. Useful sorrow is to groan for one’s own sins and for the ignorance of [one’s] neighbor; [it is] not to fall short of the intended goal in order to attain the ultimate goodness. These are the characteristics of a godly sorrow. There is, though, a certain affinity of the enemy with them; for he too will project a totally unreasonable sorrow, what many people call accidie. It is necessary to scare this spirit away, especially by prayer and psalm singing.”

There are countless other passages that I could cite with wholehearted approval. However, in the rest of this review, I will focus on some aspects of the Sayings that I am not so thrilled with. I believe that they illustrate one of the greatest dangers of the monastic life, which is that its pursuit can become an idol, and the true message of the gospel can be lost.

Let me begin with what might seem to be a relatively innocuous account of two brothers who repented of their past sins, and came to the elders for guidance.

The elders confined them for a year, giving each one the same amount of bread and water. Now they looked very much alike; but when the time of their repentance was fulfilled, they came out and the fathers saw that one of them was downcast and pale while the other looked flourishing and joyful. This was cause for wonder since they had each received the same nourishment. They asked the one who was downcast this question: “What occupied your logismoi [Greek λογίσμοι; mind, thoughts] while you were in your cell?” “I was thinking of the wrong I had done and the punishment to which I was about to go. ‘My bones cleaved to my flesh’ for very fear,” he replied. Then they asked the other one, “And you, what were you thinking in your cell?” “I was giving thanks to God,” he replied, “for having delivered me from the uncleanness of the world and from the impending punishment—also for having brought me to this angelic way of life. ‘The remembrance of God filled me with joy.’” The elders said that the repentance of the two was equal in the sight of God.

The evaluation of the elders might seem fair enough, but something strikes me as not quite right here. Surely the point of repentance is to put us in a position to receive grace from God, which is the most deeply joyful experience a person can have. Wasn’t the brother who remained downcast even after “the time of their repentance was fulfilled” missing the fundamental experience of forgiveness from God? It seems to me that this is precisely the “totally unreasonable sorrow” that Holy Synklētikē warned of. I had a similar feeling about the following short anecdote (in the section on “sorrow for sin”):

When an elder saw somebody laughing, he said to him, “We are going to have to render an account of the whole of our own life before heaven and earth, and you are laughing?”

Another very basic tenet of Christianity is that forgiveness is available to all who repent. But the following saying does not seem to convey that message.

Abba Antony once heard about a young monk who had worked a wonder on the road. When he saw some elders travelling and toiling along the road, he ordered some wild asses to come and carry them until they came to him. So the elders reported these things to Abba Antony, and he said to them, “To me that monk is like a vessel filled with all kinds of goods, but I do not know whether he will come into the harbor.” Shortly after, Abba Antony suddenly began to weep, to tear his hair, and to lament. His disciples said to him, “Why are you weeping, Abba?” and the elder said, “A great pillar of the church just fell.” He said this about the young monk. “But go to him,” he said, “and see what has happened.” So the disciples went off and found the monk sitting on a mat, weeping for the sin he had committed. On seeing the elder’s disciples, he said to them, “Tell the elder to beg God to grant me just ten days; I hope to give an account of myself and repent”—then he died within five days.

Even more disturbing to me was the following story (unless perhaps we are expected to realize that the main character’s beliefs are fundamentally flawed—but the narrative itself does not seem to be clear on this point).

There was a devout virgin living in a city whose neighbor was a soldier. Once when her mother was out, the soldier assaulted the maiden and raped her. After that, she took off her virgin’s habit and sat on a mat weeping, having torn up even the clothes she was wearing. When her mother came, she told her what had happened. For many days the maiden sat there sorrowing in that way. Afterward, when some virgins and clergy heard [what had happened], they came to her and began saying, “Put the virgin’s habit on; you are not responsible for the sin,” but she would not be persuaded. “God has cast me off,” she said. “How can I put on again the habit of the God who does not want me? Could God not have prevented the affront? If he saw that I was unworthy of the habit, then so I am remaining.” And until the day she died, she continued weeping and lamenting in salutary grief with excessive sorrow for sin.

There are many sayings that seem to idolize asceticism.

They used to say of Abba Macarius that when he was in the company of brothers he would impose a rule on himself that if there was wine, he would drink for the brothers’ sake, but, for one cup of wine, he would not drink water for one day. The brothers gave him wine by way of refreshment, and the elder took it with pleasure in order to torture himself. But his disciple, aware of [his] practice, said to the brothers, “For the Lord’s sake, do not give him [wine], for otherwise he is going to afflict himself in the cell.” When the brothers learned [this], they did not give him [wine] any more.

In the section on obedience, there is a rather shocking anecdote, reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Isaac, except with an elder playing the role of God.

Somebody came to Abba Sisōēs the Theban wanting to become a monk, and the elder asked him if he had anything in the world. “I have one son,” he said, but the elder said to him, “Go and throw him in the river; then you will become a monk.” After he set out to throw [his son into the river], the elder sent [someone] to prevent him. And when he was about to throw [his son into the river], the brother said to him, “The elder said again not to throw him,” and leaving [his son], he came to the elder and became an excellent monk on account of his obedience.

On another occasion, the elders encounter a humble and highly hospitable married couple; the saying praises their abstinence from sex.

[The husband said,] “Here we have these sheep from our parents. Whatever by the grace of God we gain from them we divided into three parts: one part for the poor, one for hospitality, the third part for our own need. From when I took my wife I have not been defiled, neither I nor she (she is a virgin), each of us sleeping alone. We wear sackcloth by night, our clothes by day. Nobody knew this until now.” The elders were amazed when they heard this, and they went their way glorifying God.

In Acts 16, a jailer asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” In the Sayings, a rather different answer is suggested.

[The brother] besought him, saying, “Father, utter a saying for me. How can I be saved?” He said to him, “Flee from folk and keep silence, and you shall be saved.”

Could the reason for these seeming departures from traditional Christian teaching be that the Desert Fathers were not too concerned about orthodoxy? Probably not; there are several explicit warnings against heresy. In one anecdote, an otherwise admirable elder doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation—that the bread and the wine of the Eucharist are really the body and blood of Christ and not mere symbols—and was spectacularly disabused of his error. When challenged, he agreed open-mindedly to a direct test of the doctrine; here is how it played out.

When the week was over, they came to the church on Sunday; the three solitaries sat on one cushion, with the elder in the center. Their inner eyes were opened, and when the bread was placed on the table, it appeared to the three solitaries as a child. When the priest put forth [his hand] to break the bread, here there came down from heaven an angel of the Lord; he had a sword and he slew the child, emptying its blood into the chalice. When the priest broke the bread into small pieces, the angel cut the child into small pieces too. When they went to receive the holy mysteries, there was given to the elder solitary bleeding flesh. He was terrified when he saw it and cried out, saying, “Lord, I believe that the bread is your body and the chalice is your blood.” Immediately the meat in his hand became bread, as in the sacrament, and he partook of it, giving thanks to God. The elders said, “God knows that human nature is such that one cannot eat raw flesh, and for that reason he transformed his body into bread and his blood into wine for those who partake in faith.” They gave thanks to God for not allowing the elder to lose his toil; the three of them went to their own cells with joy.

Incidentally, there are a number of other miracle tales in the Sayings, including a short section devoted specifically to the subject of wonder-working. In addition to familiar miracles such as healing, providing food, or battling with demons, there are some more curious anecdotes, such as the one about the widow who was threatened by a loan shark.

When she came, the elder [Abba Macarius] said to her, “Why are you crying all the time?” The woman said, “My husband died having taken a loan from somebody, and when he lay dying, he did not say where he had put it.” “Come and show me where you buried him,” the elder said to her, and taking the brothers too, he went out with her. When they came to the place, the elder said to her, “Go away to your house,” and when we had prayed at the place, the elder called upon the dead man, saying, “Ah, so-and-so, where did you put the loan you had from somebody else?” and replied, saying, “It is hidden in my house at the foot of the bed.” The elder said to him, “Go back to sleep again until the day of resurrection.”

The brothers fell at his feet when they saw this, and the elder said to them, “This did not happen on my account, for I am nothing. God achieved this thing on account of the widow and the orphans. The great thing is that God looks for the soul without sin, and [that soul] receives whatever it asks.” He came and told the widow where the loan was lying; she took it, gave it to her master, and set her children free. Those who had heard glorified God.

My favorite is the case of the elder who was tricked into performing a miracle by accident.

A person possessed of a demon once came to Scete, and prayer was offered on his behalf in the church. The demon did not come out, for it was a difficult one. The clergy said, “What can we do about this demon? Nobody is able to cast this one out other than Abba Bessarion, and if we appeal to him on this fellow’s behalf, he will not even come into the church. Let us act like this: see, he comes to the church before everybody at dawn. We will make the afflicted fellow sit in his place, and when he comes into church, let us stand in prayer and say to him, ‘Wake the brother up too, Abba,’” So that is how they acted; when the elder came at dawn, they stood in prayer and said to him, “Wake the brother up too, Abba.” He said to him, “Get up and get out,” and right away the demon went out of him, and the fellow was cured from that hour.

But I digress. Let me conclude with my overall assessment. I believe that the Sayings make for interesting and edifying reading. In today’s world, I find the lack of respect for monastic virtues rather distressing, and the Sayings do provide a partial antidote. Unfortunately, as I have tried to indicate, the heterogeneity of the collection means that there are numerous passages of doubtful value interspersed with the gems. I would recommend the book only to those who are well-equipped to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Posted July 2014

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