David G. R. KELLER, Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005. Pp. xxii+181. $16.95
Reviewed by Alice L. LAFFEY, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610

In this volume, Keller retrieves the wisdom of the holy men and women who lived during the first centuries of the Christian era for the benefit of twenty-first century Christians and other seekers. Though he presents "the environment of solitude, ascetic disciplines, work and charity that became the sources of the wisdom," (p. xvii) he does not do so in a vacuum. Rather, he shows how the cultural, political, economic and ecclesiastical issues of the surrounding society influenced the spiritual formation and way of life of the desert mothers and fathers. While admitting that their austerities are foreign and even repugnant to our culture, K. posits that they were not ends in themselves but were freely chosen as instruments to help them seek God, "unencumbered by the influences, distractions and futility of the inhabited world of their day" (p. xviii). They withdrew "from the misuses of human relationships, material goods, power, and labor that they judged as inhumane and a desacralization of life. In order to restore life's original goodness they chose a life of intentional awareness of God's presence and a limitation of worldly pleasure.... Their goal was to experience God's presence in each moment and activity through a disciplined pattern of prayer, reflection on Scripture, and labor" (p. xviii).

The monograph is organized with an Introduction and ten chapters. The introduction sets forth the book's purpose described above. Chapter One describes the four patterns of monastic life that evolved: 1) the village ascetics or apotaktikoi; 2) the eremetic life; 3) the semi-eremetic life; and the 4) coenobitic life. Chapter Two describes the intellectual, social and cultural worlds out of which monasticism emerged, in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Asia Minor, while acknowledging that this monograph's emphasis is Egypt. The consequences of Roman occupation, Greek philosophy (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Antony), and evolving Christian theology and worship (Evagrius of Ponticus and John Cassian) are considered.

The next seven chapters present fundamental aspects of desert monastic life:

1) Chapter 3, the prayerful rhythm of daily life;
2) Chapter 4, the cell as an environment for seeking God and one's true self;
3) Chapter 5, the function of patience;
4) Chapter 6, the formative and nourishing functions of the ascetic disciplines;
5) Chapter 7, the sanctification of work, time and community life;
6) Chapter 8, the practice of solitude and silence in order to let go of self and be present to God, self and others; and
7) Chapter 9, the practice of humility, understood as the embodiment of love of God through love of neighbor.
The book's final chapter confronts the reader with two deserts. One is an "empty world of our own creation," what he calls "a house of fear dominated by three weapons of mass destruction: self-reliance, self-interest and self-centeredness" (p. 157). The other desert is the place of withdrawal to seek God, which involves humility, purity of heart, reliance on God's power and love of neighbor. Keller does not call for a return to the Egyptian desert but to a conscious seeking in our time of that which the desert mothers and fathers sought in theirs: withdrawal to "a life of transformation and a change of consciousness about life itself" (p. 157).

I found the book well written, inspiring and provocative. It allows the desert mothers and fathers to speak for themselves; it provides a context for their sayings that neither ignores nor dismisses but acknowledges the differences with out own place in history, nevertheless retrieves the wisdom of these holy men and women in a manner attractive to contemporary longings.


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