Reflections on the Desert Fathers and Mothers - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I've written 52 articles (designed to be read over a year) on the fathers and mothers of the Egyptian desert in the 4-6th century. This week I’m reflecting on the series.
If you are just joining me on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Initially I set out to cover the Desert Fathers in one year. It took me about a year and a half. All told, I studied through the lives of 52 men and women, and did cursory glances at many others. The process was sometimes enlightening, sometimes life-giving, and sometimes excruciating. I don’t think I really found my stride until about 5 articles in, and that was with Abba Macarius. Macarius the Great was a father I had already greatly enjoyed, and had spent some time studying his writings. What I wrote seemed like a natural extension of my fondness for the stories and teachings of Macarius the Great.
In the mystical tradition of Christianity, there are a few consistent method to interpret the teachings contained therein. The parameters for understanding the writings of the mystics were laid out by later authors. There were further commented on by even later authors and more formal systems were developed to understand what was taught. I largely forsook the commonly held systems applied to men and women like the desert fathers and mothers in order to gain a fresh perspective on their lives and teachings.
The mystical life has been grouped into three different stages by many authors; the purgative, illuminative, and unitive. These ideas are foreign to most people. And they are generally only interesting to people hoping to systematically compile ideas on these authors. Purgation can be thought of as the stage one goes through in purging sin from the heart, illumination can be thought of as the shedding abroad of God’s grace within the heart, and unification is the rare stage of total unity with the Spirit of God through love.
For most, practical wisdom is not found in systematic approaches. Sure, you can broadly group the sayings and writings into categories like the active and contemplative life, but who is the one being helped with those categories? To introduce people to the system before the men and women would be to influence the teachings and constrain them to a particular viewpoint. I have hoped to let their teachings and wisdom speak for themselves.
Some may be frustrated that I never attempted to root them firmly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (though they are not exclusive to the Orthodox Church), or engage some of their teachings that mirror Neo-Platonism, or even deal with some of their Origenist leanings (Origen was an early theologian). At the core of their teachings, these men and women met Christ, much like Paul on the road to Damascus, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or (maybe more appropriately) John the Baptist in the wilderness. These men and women, absent their individual theological leanings, knew something about the spiritual life and life in God.
Generally speaking, among contemplative authors, there exist a few larger categories to group them within. The fist large divide would be between eastern authors and western authors. This divide is generally then between a cataphatic or an apophatic approach to the spiritual life. The split is largely over the knowability of God. Each mystical approach emphasizes the mystery of God, yet the east tends to an emphasis on his mystery, the west his knowability.
The term “cataphatic” refers to the revealed attributes of God as affirmed through scripture. A cataphatic approach to the mystical life states firmly that there are qualities and attributes about God that are eminently knowable because they are revealed through scripture. The term apophatic refers to the knowledge of God by affirming what he is not. To the apophatic, God is only known by stating what he is not, and the more that is understood by what he is not, the clearer he becomes. While the cataphatic would state that God is love, the apophatic would say that the statement God is love is fundamentally different than stating that God has love. Because no human (apart from Jesus) has ever “been love” as a noun, but have only “loved” as a verb, the finiteness of the human makes it impossible to fully grasp what it means to state that “God is love.”
Another divide would be over the state of perfection attained as the goal of the spiritual life. To some a state of pure peace, or a full renunciation of the passions that hinder the heart is the only acceptable view of spiritual maturity. To others, it is the transformation of the passions into virtues acceptable and empowered by the Spirit of God that defines the mature spiritual life. One would emphasize a state of pure passivity, another would emphasize a state of pure love.
This obviously oversimplifies a large body of literature, but it hopefully gives you an appreciation for variance when it comes to approaching growth and principles in the spiritual life. None of the approaches are right or better, they merely reflect the experiences these men and women had on the path to union with Christ. Some authors will be more meaningful to you, and others less. As Augustine said, reflecting on his own writing,
“And therefore it is useful that many persons should write many books, differing in style but not in faith, concerning even the same questions, that the matter itself may reach the greatest number— some in one way, some in another.”
Or to quote one of the desert fathers: