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excerpts from Thomas Merton's
The Wisdom of the Desert

The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton's favorites among his own books, probably because he wanted to spend his last years as a hermit. Merton did his own translation of the sayings and parables of the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia.

For your meditation, we include some of these sayings, along with Merton’s insightful introduction, as well as questions for your own personal reflection. In the future we will focus more on the Desert Mothers, forgotten and neglected until recently.


The Desert Fathers [and Mothers] "did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values....

"What [they] sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in 'the world.' They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was 'given' in a set, stereotyped form by somebody else....

"There was nothing to which they had to 'conform' except the secret, hidden, inscrutable will of God which might differ very notably from one [eremitical] cell to another! It is very significant that one of the first of these [Desert Sayings] (Number 3) is one in which the authority of St. Anthony is adduced for what is the basic principle of desert life: that God is the authority and that apart from His manifest will there are few or no principles." (Merton, Thomas; The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions, 1960, pp. 5-7)


III

A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby? The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? And that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe. (pp. 25-26)

If you find this provocative, you may elect to respond to questions for Personal Reflection.

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