Who are these fathers and mothers of the desert to whom this beautiful work brings life?
When the time of persecution ended with the Edict of Milan in 313, men and women began to flee the world to live in the desert, another form of martyrdom; a martyrdom no longer bloody, as in the first three centuries of Christianity, but intimate and inner. These evangelical maximalists traveled to the loneliness of Egypt, Palestine, or Syria to fight with their “old man” so that the “new man” could be born and strengthened in them.
They sought at all costs to remain unknown to their contemporaries: “If you want to be known by God, then be unknown to men”, said one of them. But it did not succeed! Very quickly, they became sources of inspiration for hundreds, indeed thousands, of people who came to find them in the hope of receiving a word of wisdom, a teaching, counsel. These desert fathers and mothers, around whom more and more groups of disciples settled, are thus the origin of the monasteries.
How do you understand this paradox?
In his introduction, Mattias Rouw compares them to today’s politicians, artists and athletes. The Desert Fathers were also inspiring personalities, with this ability, this charisma to lead the crowds, set them in motion. But unlike today’s public figures, they did not seek their own honor. God alone, his wisdom and his truth interested them. And it was the Spirit himself who made them known, who revealed their spiritual light before the eyes of the world, “for nothing is hidden, which must not come to light” (Luke 8:17).
Besides, they have mostly not written anything …
Everything we know about these athletes of God, we owe to their followers. It is they who gathered their thoughts and words who transmitted them orally and then in writing; these are the famous “apothecaries”. It is also for this reason that we do not know the first names of most of them. The anonymous fathers are actually much more than the remarkable figures whose portrait the book paints (such as Antoine le Grand, Pambo, Jean Climaque, Poémen, Marie l’Égyptienne, etc.)
Their wisdom still arouses real interest today. How to explain it?
The great historical disturbances that characterized the Middle East in IVandVand where does he liveand centuries is in no way reflected in the phrases of the fathers, to the point that historians struggle to locate them in a chronology. It is as if they had lived outside of time. Nearly 15 centuries separate us, and yet their apothecaries seem to have been written today! They are timeless. Why ? Because the fathers set themselves a single goal: perfect union with God, what the Eastern Christian tradition called “divination”. “Our goal is to be filled with love, that is, to be fully inhabited by God, who is love! » (Saint John Climacus). The foundation on which they built their existence can therefore serve as an example for us today.
What are these foundations?
First of all, extreme simplicity. What impresses me most about reading the apophthegmers is not so much the grandeur of the asceticism or the longing of the fathers, but their simple and direct, realistic way of solving problems. Disciples question their abba (father), who is on his deathbed: “Why are you so happy now?” » And the old monk answers: “When I meet the Lord, he will ask me, ‘Have you loved me with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind?’ And I will answer him: “No”. “Have you kept all my commandments? – Nix.” “Do you pray without ceasing? – Nix.” »
Everything goes, then the father ends like this: “But I know he will eventually say to me, ‘You really see yourself as you are, and that’s good.’ » Here is a basic lesson: You must know yourself, for if you are not faithful to yourself, you can not be faithful to others or God.
How did the fathers arrive at this deep knowledge of man?
Not by an abstract study, but by the experience of the desert, which is the second basis of their lives, and which for them was like a psychological university! Beware: the desert is not the place for rest, but for battle. It is the space where God is not complete. In the wilderness, alone with themselves and with God, the monks identified all their imperfections, their thoughts, their spiritual diseases, and they fought by all means to find the divine perfection hidden in them as in every human being.
“How hard would you rub a dirty rock if you knew there was a diamond in it” writes Mattias Rouw. What they learned during these periods of loneliness and silence (a silence that is not understood as the absence of speech or noise, but as listening), they then practice in community life. Hence their fine knowledge of the inner life and of human relations.
“Desert monk is not moralizing”, emphasizes the author in the introduction. Is not that also the secret behind their current success?
In fact, their approach to the Christian existence is in no way moral or ethical. Because Jesus Christ did not bring us true morals. He brought us God! By assuming our human nature, he opened the way for us to unite with him. And that’s the good news. At a time when Christianity is too often reduced to a code of moral standards considered obsolete, it is good to listen to the fathers. That is the whole purpose of this book, which also addresses our contemporaries in search of peace and meaning. To them, too, the monks of the desert have something to say and pass on.
The Fathers of the Desert, by Mattias Rouw, foreword by Laurent Landete, first part editions, € 24.90.