Love was at the heart of the desert fathers’ world. Whatever diverse motives may have first drawn them to the desert, whatever particular struggles occupied them during their sojourn there, the end of all their longings was ultimately expressed as love. The language, the attitudes, and the actions of the desert fathers were filled with this longing, with the desire to be touched and transformed by love. Nearly every significant act in the Sayings either moved toward or grew out of the commandment of love. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the biblical commandment to love, more than any other, defined and gave shape to the world in which the desert fathers lived. The memories of that world, preserved by later generations of monks, suggest that love was seen as the hallmark of early monastic life. A brother once asked an old man why in these [latter] days the monastic life did not bear the kind of fruit it had born in earlier days. The elder answered him simply and directly: “In those days there was charity.” The desire to remember the days when life in the desert was characterized by love accounts for the many stories preserved in the Sayings which portray the desert fathers’ struggle to love.
Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (Oxford, 1993)
The Sayings referred to in the remarkable excerpt above are, of course, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (the alphabetical collection), often referred to by their traditional Latin title, Apophthegmata Patrum. [There is a widely available English translation by Sr Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Cistercian Press, 1984); I began a translation here, as well, which I will recommence soon.] Burton-Christie provides a thorough introduction to the Sayings through a very sympathetic reading. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting a quick overview of the intructional ethics of the desert fathers. This introduction in the end is larger than the work itself, which is not too surprising, though it has only barely skimmed the depth of the riches of the Sayings. Can you tell I’m impressed? My only quibble is with the subtitle “Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism”. It smacks of an editorial hand, for one thing. For another, Scripture does not play so primary a role in Burton-Christie’s book on the Sayings. What he does show is how well-internalized Scripture was amongst the desert fathers, to the degree that their lives and instruction were permeated by not only Scriptural phrases and imagery, but by what we might recognize as the underlying ethic of much of Scripture as understood in the first centuries of the Church. The majority of the book therefore focuses on the phenomenon of the “word” given by a desert father in response to a request for such. To anyone who has read the Sayings attentively, none of Burton-Christie’s book will be new. But such a person will (like myself) recognize the value of his book as a sympathetic introduction to the Sayings for a thoughtful and well-read reader who is interested in the Sayings but uninformed concerning the expression of monasticism in Egypt of that day. This will be an excellent introduction in that sense.