Ashes to Ashes: The Desert Fathers and an Old Question

The other day, I pulled from my shelf a copy of Helen Waddell’s little book The Desert Fathers. In her introduction, she tells how various unsympathetic commentators have taxed these fathers with having fled the world to seek their own salvation, when what they ought to have done was to lend a hand to make the world itself more livable for the downtrodden. She mentions Rutilius, the fifth-century Latin poet; Gibbon; and Lecky, the 19th-century historian. “What ailed Rutilius and Gibbon and Lecky is the Roman civic conscience; and to the Roman civic conscience the exiles in the desert are deserters from a sinking ship, fugitives from a rotting civilisation, concerned only for their personal integrity.”

These ancient, holy, and celebrated troglodytes are sometimes quoted as pursuing “the flight of the alone to the Alone.” This is not altogether unfair. But the remark would be far from just, especially if we were to simply leave it at that. To be sure, it is easy enough to find madmen in any ventricle that leads off from any quarter of religion. Filth, eccentricity, even lunacy—make no mistake: You can find all this and more along the marches of Christianity.

But to speak of the hermits of Egypt as having merely ignored the world “is a kind of treason to the civitas Dei,” says Waddell, “nor does it represent the whole of the Desert teaching. ‘With our neighbour,’ said Antony, prince of solitaries, ‘is life and death.”‘ One Longinus (not the soldier with the spear at Golgotha) wanted to disappear into his cell for good and see no more men, in order to achieve holiness. “Unless thou first amend thy life going to and fro amongst men,” the abbot Lucius told him, “thou shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.” The Venerable Bede, far to the north, testifies to the same thing when he speaks of St. Cuthbert, who retired to Lindisfarne only after years spent among men: “The coming and going of the active life had done its long work upon him, and he rejoiced that now he had earned his right to climb to the quiet of meditation upon God.”

The active life. That is one-half of a distinction that was a commonplace throughout the Middle Ages: the active life and the contemplative life. Which is better? We have all heard a thousand homilies on Mary and poor Martha. Pity the homilist who finds himself with that text for the Sunday. An element of confusion can be introduced into the matter at hand, at least for the laity (and, in my own teaching experience, for seminarians), by an insistent and almost exclusive stress on the vocabulary of “caring and sharing” and “service”—which, taken alone, are certainly worthy categories. Such a confusion cannot infrequently have a stultifying effect. I have noticed that very often the whole burden of the homily and the public prayers at the liturgy concern themselves with the agonies abroad, so to speak. I do not mean merely overseas; I mean trouble in the public realm, which, God knows, offers us only agony, for which our prayers must go up daily. But the Christian’s real enemies are not usually “out there.” The interior wrestling is not often over foreign policy, public injustice, or capers in the Senate.

But those grizzled hermits, they sought the face of God. What is there to seek? How much time should one put in on that quest? These men put in a lifetime. The reading at Morning Prayer this very morning, as I write, says this: “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” I do not think this speaks merely of hell. We are all going to experience that fire either as bliss or horror one fine day, depending on how we have disposed ourselves here. Hence the life of prayer, ardor, and obedience.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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