My mother and I found The Desert Fathers in a Kansas City used bookstore called Prospero’s. It was my second trip to the store and her first—I brought her there after discovering a tall shelf devoted to Catholic spirituality that I knew she would want to see. While we browsed the packed display tables, one of the employees snored in an armchair while another laughed at his coworker from behind the counter. On one table, bundled together as if from a single donor, my mom and I found a sort of mystical trove: The Flowers of St. Francis, Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation, Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, and The Desert Fathers—Helen Waddell’s 1936 translation of the stories and sayings of fourth-century Christian monks living in the deserts of northern Egypt. We grabbed them all and walked past the sleeping employee to the counter, where my mother insisted on buying them for me, as a gift. The book would stay on my nightstand, along with the other mystical texts, for about a month.
It was a strange summer for me, and I think my mother’s gift was a small kindness acknowledging this. I’d just finished a year on a writing fellowship and, with no clear idea of what I’d do next and no money coming in until a nannying job began in the fall, I subleased my Ann Arbor apartment and moved in with my family in Kansas City for the summer. I spent those months staining strangers’ decks, watering plants, digging post holes, and, in one case, shaping a pile of five hundred bricks into a tidy stack of five hundred bricks. At night I’d return to my parents’ house covered in red deck stain, looking like I’d been attacked by wolves. I was lonely and often theatrically sad.
The other, greater reason she bought me the books was our shared interest in Catholic mysticism. Mine was ostensibly for fiction. I had grown up in Indiana, attending a strict Catholic school (a pre-Vatican II throwback) where we wore uniforms and were required to attend Mass every morning. At eighteen I had moved with my family to Kansas, where members of Fred Phelps’ congregation protested my college graduation with crude signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS!” By the time I applied for an MFA in fiction, I had disavowed religion entirely. Over the course of graduate school, I had come to explore religious themes in my writing, but with a what I’d hoped to be an ethnographic remove.
My mother’s interest in Christian mysticism was deeper and more urgent: In the fall she would begin the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius—a program of guided mediations and mental exercises—at a nearby Jesuit parish. She was preparing herself.
It was these, the Spiritual Exercises, that would finally bring me to read The Desert Fathers. Shortly before I returned to Michigan, my mother told me she had finished her written account of her faith journey to submit to her potential spiritual director. I asked if I could read it. Instead, she read it to me aloud, by the TV in the living room.
She’d written the story of her life: her identification with God the Father after her own father’s death when she was ten, her marriage to my father, her brother’s death from AIDS in 1995.
“Kansas was a desert,” she said, referring to the year my family moved from Muncie, Indiana, where my brother, sister, and I had been born and where she’d lived for twenty years, to Manhattan, Kansas. She talked about my brother’s and sister’s difficulties with the move, my depression, and her loneliness in all of it. This desert had humbled her, she said, and made her rely on God. This, all of it, was the first frank account of her loneliness and suffering I’d ever heard from her.
I asked if I could have a copy, and before she turned in the original to the Jesuits, she gave me a photocopy of the handwritten pages.
Later, while thinking about what she’d said about the desert, I picked up The Desert Fathers and began reading.
I found myself confused as to where, exactly, The Desert Fathers began, or what it was in the first place. The men known as the Desert Fathers (or simply “The Fathers”) fled the cities of Alexandria and Thebes to found their desert communities in the third and fourth centuries. For the next millennium their stories and sayings existed in various editions until they were compiled in the Vitae Patrum (“The Lives of the Fathers”) by a seventeenth-century Jesuit named Heribert Rosweyde. The resulting text is a messy, multi-book anthology—a patchwork of histories, accounts, books-within-books by different authors, many the subjects of biographies of their own (St. Jerome, John Cassian). Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, published in 1936, is a selected translation of the larger, motley text.
Helen Waddell’s reputation nowadays is modest (she edited the journal The Nineteenth Century, socialized with Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw, and Siegfried Sassoon), but her output—a novel, two plays, nearly a dozen translations of medieval Latin verse—is astounding. Her 1936 introduction to The Desert Fathers gives a sense of her energy. Here, Waddell gives an overview of the Desert Fathers’ philosophy and legacy, mostly through reproducing the accounts of their lives found later in the book, or framing the Fathers’ ethics in contrast to the Roman civets of their urban, humanist contemporaries. What is more interesting, however, is the stirring moment in which Waddell champions what the Desert offers the human arrogance of her own time. After an anecdote of a young monk’s sad, unnecessary death, she offers her own, frank Jeremiad that reads as a prophesy not only for the world war only three years in the future, but for the rest of the twentieth century as well:
For the martyr’s grave of these lesser pilgrims is not only the waste of youth in human experience. Leaving aside the annihilation of an entire generation in four years, not yet a quarter of a century ago, how many have died or been maimed in chemical or biological research: how many liter the track to the Northern or Southern Pole: how many have been taken by Everest and his peers: how many dead and still to die in the conquest of the air, or in that last exploration which gives this generation its nearest approach to religious ecstasy, the annihilation of space in speed? (22-23)
As for the lives and sayings of the Fathers themselves, the text is certainly hagiography. Abbott Macarius converses with a severed head (XX.xvi). Agathonicus cuddles with a lion (Patrum Spirituale clxvii). Occasionally the Devil shows up and complains about the monks’ annoying piety. But the most fascinating passages of the Vitae Patrum have nothing to do with the magical or miraculous. While much of the Vitae Patrum depicts frightening feats of self-denial and deprivation (what might look like eating disorders to modern readers), others offer mysterious, moving stories of love and compassion:
There is another place in the inner desert […] called Cellia. To this spot those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live a remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbor, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them: only on the Saturday and on the Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven. If by chance one is missing in that gathering, straightaway they understand that he has been detained by some unevenness of his body, and they all go to visit him… (History of the Monks of Egypt, xxii)
A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, “I too am a sinful man.” (IX.ii)
The Fathers privilege silence, and when they do speak, it is mostly in koans: “An old man said, ‘The cell of the monk is the furnace in Babylon, where the three young men found the Son of God: and it is also the pillar of cloud from which God spoke to Moses,’” (VI.xxxviii). The bulk of The Desert Fathers consists of terse parables depicting the monks’ rigor as they overcome the temptations of the world within and beyond their cells. As Waddell reminds us, “[T]he records are of their ways with men. There is little or nothing of their ways with God.” The monks, in keeping with their conception of God as a mysterious being, do little to define or contain the divine in terms of doctrine. These accounts are, in many ways, about the inexplicable nature of a god that lives somewhere far beyond language or comprehension. This is perhaps their greatest legacy. Thanks to the Fathers, Waddell says, “The sense of infinity is now in our blood.”
That summer, my Kansas City certainly wasn’t a desert. (If anything, it was a vast, sprinklered lawn.) But in The Desert Fathers I found a pursuit of holiness, of goodness, that was without dogma—one that has helped me find a “sense of infinity” in my own blood. And it was in my blood. Reading the Fathers’ book and hearing my mother’s testimony, I felt moved by the longing for a kind of truth I found in both accounts. It is this, the lonesome striving for truth and goodness, that I so admire in my mother. Together, they have helped me to understand religion as a language for the ineffable, not simply as an excuse for uniforms or hateful protest. They have allowed me to see myself as one of many inheritors of the ancient projects of making meaning in the sprawling deserts of the world, whether in Egypt or Kansas.
The end of Waddell’s selection offers the biographies of two women, St. Mary the Harlot and St. Pelagia, also known as “the Harlot.” As their titles suggest, these women’s stories are more about their conversions (credited to monks) rather than their wisdom. Reading beyond Waddell’s selection, however, I learned more about the other women who shared in these monks’ search for holiness in the desert. The accounts of the Fathers were written by men for a male monastic audience (no surprise here), and so the Mothers have mostly been overlooked—aside from the short “harlot” biographies, they represent only two or three lines within The Desert Fathers. But since the publication of Waddell’s translation, their lives have been rediscovered. Saint Paula, Amma Syncletica, Amma Sarah of the Desert. These women, like my mother, came to the desert striving for their own sense of the divine. There were Desert Mothers, too.
Daniel Hornsby‘s work has appeared in Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry, and Unstuck. He is currently working on a novel.