Tag Archives: Meditations

The Wisdom of the Desert

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

(translated) by Thomas Merton (1960)

The back cover says:

The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton’s favorites among his own books — surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit. The personal tone of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.”

The humor is evident, as you will see in later quotes, but let’s first view the Author’s Note:

This collection of sayings from the Verba Seniorum is by no means intended as a piece of research scholarship. It is, on the contrary. a free and informal redaction of stories chosen here and there in the various original Latin versions, without order and without any identification of the particular sources. The book is designed entirely for the reader’s interest and edification. In other words I have felt that as a monk of the twentieth century I ought to be quite free in availing myself of the privilege enjoyed by the monks of earlier days, and so I have made a little collection of my own, with no special system, order or purpose, merely in order to have the stories and to enjoy them with my friends. This is the way such books originally came into existence.

When the first version of this work was completed, I gave it to my friend Victor Hammer who printed an extraordinarily beautiful limited edition on his hand press in Lexington. Kentucky. After that, it was decided to expand the collection a little, and rewrite the introduction, so that New Directions could bring out a larger edition. So here it is. But I hope the book still preserves its original spontaneous, informal and personal aspect. Far from detracting from their wisdom, this informality will guarantee the stories the authenticity they have always had and keep them fresh and alive in all their concreteness and immediacy. May those who need and enjoy such apothegms be encouraged, by the taste of clear water, to follow the brook to its source.

– pg. ix

The first page of the book proper is a real grabber, these prefatory remarks extending on for nearly 25 pages:

In the fourth century A. D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one word as the quest for “salvation.” And what was salvation? Certainly it was not something they sought in mere exterior conformity to the customs and dictates of any social group. In those days men had become keenly conscious of the strictly individual character of “salvation.” Society – which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. We need not stop here to discuss the fairness of this view: what matters is to remember that it was a fact. These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the “world” was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.

It should seem to us much stranger than it does, this paradoxical flight from the world that attained its greatest dimensions (I almost said frenzy) when the “world” became officially Christian.

– pp. 3-4

And then come 150 translated sayings (averaging about three per page), matching in number the Psalms. Here are some samples:


Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I  have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John used to tell the above story, saying: This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.


To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: I am the Angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to thee. But the brother said: Think again — you must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel. Immediately the devil ceased to appear.

* CXLI *

Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose custom it was not to eat every day. But when he saw the brethren he invited them with joy to dine with him, saying: Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren.


 A certain brother asked Abbot Pambo: Why do the devils prevent me from doing good to my neighbour? And the elder said to him: Don’t talk like that. Is God a liar? Why don’t you just admit that you do not want to be merciful? Didn’t God say long ago: I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and on all forces of the enemy? So why do you not stamp down the evil spirit?




Love Set Free

Love Set Free: Meditations on the Passion According to St. John

by Martin L. Smith, SSJE (1998)

This is a short and reverent book, slightly larger than pocket size, approximately 70 pages. If the inside back cover didn’t tell you the author was Episcopalian, you might never guess.

The quote inside the front cover, from Chapter Three, “Intimacy”, will work here:

Through this simple pledging of Mary to the beloved disciple and of him to Mary at the foot of the cross, the evangelist takes the new commandment to love one another and places it directly in the vortex of death and self-offering. By doing so John squeezes every remaining drop of sentimentality out of our understanding of love. Love, love–the word is always ringing in our ears, but when is it not mixed up with something else? Love and the desire to possess, love and the need to control, love and the need to be needed, love and the lust to absorb, love and condescension, love and narcissism. In the Christian mystery love itself must be crucified, must die to be reborn as the grace of communion, as love set free. In a mysterious sign the evangelist points to the new home of the beloved disciple as the place where this has happened, the household from which the church’s authentic identity has its origin.

– pp. 38-39

Journey to Easter

Journey to Easter: Spiritual Reflections for the Lenten Season

by Pope Benedict XVI (2005; originally as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1987 (English) & 1985 (Italian))

This book opens with the text of homily-like talks that Cardinal Ratzinger delivered to Pope John Paul II and members of the Curia in a retreat that took place during the first full week of Lent in 1983. That alone makes this book remarkable and unique. Ratzinger is extraordinarily consistent: whether it is a formal academic work or the saved text of a speech, the quality and depth is characteristically world class. He can be a bit challenging to read at times, but this book is not one of them.

An excerpt from Chapter 12, “The Paschal Mystery”, should help solidify the point:

The Pasch was celebrated at home. Jesus did so too. But after the meal he got up and went out, went beyond the limits of the Law by crossing the brook Kidron, the boundary of Jerusalem. He went out into the night. Not fearing chaos, nor hiding from it, rather he went into its depths, even into the jaws of death. “He descended into hell, ” as we say in the Creed. He went out. And this means to say accordingly, though the ramparts of the Church are the faith and love of Jesus Christ, the Church is not a fortified citadel but an open city. And hence to believe means also to go out with Jesus Christ, not fearing chaos, because he is stronger, because he has gone there, and we, as we go out into it, are following him. To believe means to pass beyond the wall and into the midst of the chaotic world, to create with the strength of Jesus Christ a space for faith and love.

The Lord went out. This is a sign of his strength. He went out into the night of Gethsemane, into the night of the Cross, the night of the tomb. He went out because his love bears within it the love of God, which has greater power than the forces of destruction. It is therefore precisely in this going forth, along the way of the Passion, that the victorious deed lies, and already in this mystery is to be found the mystery of paschal joy. He is the stronger; there is no power which could resist him and no place which he is not. He calls us to attempt the way with him because where there is faith and love, there he is, and there too is the strength of peace which overcomes death and emptiness.

– pg. 109

Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

by Richard John Neuhaus (2000)

This book was published a year before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It could not have been timed better. I did not discover it until 2012, reading it three weeks into the Easter season. Nevermind that it was too late for Lent–with the author’s repeated appeals not to move too quickly past Good Friday on to Easter, it seemed unexpectedly appropriate to read it well after Easter. That is not to say it is not good Lenten reading: I reread it in Lent 2013, and it worked there, too.

This book does not falsely advertise itself: it really does read like a meditation. The blurb on the back cover is spot on: “Writing in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, Neuhaus sets out to unpack the macrocosmic truth of the Seven Last Words of Jesus, a truth that sets Good Friday apart from all other days, even from all other holy days.”

If you only know former Lutheran  Fr. Neuhaus for his political commentary, you will be in for a surprise. This is pretty much a purely spiritual book, with nary a trace of the political in sight.

I hope to read it again soon.

Here is an excerpt that rivals the style of the great G. K. Chesterton:

The judgment of the world