Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert (1960) opened the eyes of many of us to the sayings of the fourth century Desert Fathers and Mothers, those “anarchists” who, while swimming for life from the shipwreck of society, sought to immerse themselves in a disciplined search to become fully human. They seemed a wild and crazy bunch, full of deep insight, compassion, mercy. These abbas and ammas—Antony, Macarius, Poemen, Arsenius, John the Dwarf, Moses, Syncletica, Pambo—formed a strange and intriguing cast of characters, alternately comforting and exasperating.
Henri Nouwen later structured a spirituality of ministry around the desert tradition: Flee, Be Silent, and Pray Always (The Way of the Heart, 1981), bringing this primarily eremitic tradition into the active life of contemporary ministers. And Parker Palmer incorporated the story of Abba Felix and his disciples into the heart of his reflections on a spirituality of education (To Know As We Are Known, 1983, 1993): “Some brothers…went to see Abba Felix and they begged him to say a word to them. But the old man kept silence….” Over the years more and more writers have turned to the wisdom of the desert as a source and foundation for spirituality today: John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert (2003; David G.R. Keller, Oasis of Wisdom (2005); Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers (2001); Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (1993); Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998); and many others. All of these based on the Apophthegmata Patrum, perhaps best known through Benedicta Ward’s translation of them in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (1975).
Like Zen koans the sayings and stories of the desert fathers and mothers force us to set aside our ordinary assumptions about spirituality, to grapple with the strange and holy in that stark and arid landscape of our own hearts. The temptation (ah, there were so many of these in the desert), of course, is to move quickly from one story to the next, avoiding the struggle embedded within each. Better to ponder one or two at a time to see what each might mean in our contemporary world. Tim Vivian has done just this in his most recent book, Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers— “a volume of early monastic sayings and stories…that offers the reader each day what Sr. Joan Chittister calls ‘ wisdom distilled from the daily’.” From January through December Dr. Vivian offers the reader the fruit of his own long acquaintance with the desert dwellers; many, but not all, of the sayings are connected with the themes of the seasons and feast days of the Church calendar—Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Monastic calendars. Each day we find one or two, occasionally three, stories/sayings for reflection—and in several cases one long story may be spread over two or three days—without commentary, the fathers and mothers being allowed to simply speak for themselves (an appropriate method for truly hearing those who often felt there were too many words spoken already!). This listening and exploring allows the reader to dig down to “the fountain of divinity that the mystics rightly and rightfully say bubbles up within each of us. That fount aches to burst through the mud and debris of our quotidian horror shows to wash away not only our sins and offenses but also, and perhaps just as importantly, at least more often, our fears, worries, doubts, insecurities, self-loathings and projections that lead to so much offense and sin.”
Tim Vivian proves to be a very trustworthy guide through the barren landscape of these desert dwellers. His many years of scholarly reflection, translation, and writing on early Christian monasticism have given him an ease and familiarity with the likes of Abba Moses and Amma Syncletica to be able to bring these many stories/sayings together into a very well organized whole. An Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and a priest of the Episcopal Church, Dr. Vivian has written or edited more that a dozen books—along with numerous scholarly papers, book reviews and presentations—on early Christian monasticism. He clearly loves and enjoys these challenging characters, but also admits the sometimes perplexing quality of their lives. As he says in his introduction, “Some of these sayings and stories amaze me with their wisdom and prescience; others startle me into saying ‘Are you kidding me?’.” This book is indeed for all those who want to deepen their spirituality by entering into this wisdom of the desert day by day, story by story.
This well-structured and thoughtfully organized book includes a Preface by Stephen Emmel and a Forward by Aelred Glidden, OSB, as well as a helpful Introduction by Tim Vivian. A Glossary defines many names and terms used in the translations. Tim Vivian’s thoroughness is reflected in the other helpful resources included at the end of the book: Abbreviations, Sources, & Bibliography; a List of Sources; Word Index; and Scripture Index.
A brother asked Abba Serapion, ‘Tell me a word.’
The old man said, ‘What can I tell you? You have taken what belongs to the widows and orphans and put it on this shelf.’ (He saw that it was full of books.)
Now there is a challenge! Becoming Fire might just be one of the few books to remain on that shelf, challenging the reader each day with the gospel in the desert.