The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a book by Benedicta Ward which collects and catalogues the sayings of Christian ascetic monks in Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. It interests me primarily as an observer of human behaviour and as one seeking to make sense of it. One can read through the book even at random and begin to get a sense of the mentality of these people, how they think, what they value, what their aims in life are, and so on. I find in them a strange mix of the philosophical, the theological and the very human. One saying in particular has stayed with me since I first got the book and not least because it is attributed to a namesake, Abba Andrew:
Abba Andrew said, “These three things are appropriate for a monk: exile, poverty and endurance in silence.”
I must admit that I have stared at this apophthegm many times and found in it many pathways of thought. I note several things initially. For starters, the saying does not say that its three things are good; it says that they are “appropriate” and for a monk. It is, thus, not focused on people in general but on those who have taken a specific religious vocation and what is appropriate, not good, to it. Next I note that the three appropriate things are things which cut the monk off from society in general. A monk is exiled, economically bereft and uncommunicative. There is a sense here that the monk is perfecting himself, taking responsibility for his own existence and not expecting things to just happen except by attention to them and focus upon them. Third, I note that this is a kind of “how to be a monk” saying. There is no reference in the saying to anything outside of this. “Monk” thus seems to be a very single-minded vocation - and perhaps one in which the monk separates himself (it was usually a him) from society and community. It seems a vocation in which the individual life looks beyond itself to an eternal context in which it becomes the thing at stake. Here the existential and the eternal seem to meet and interact, in fact, and in a way in which the temporary and ephemeral existential are not extinguished by the sheer awesome overwhelmingness of the eternal but in which it is, in some sense, purified or perfected by it. We see from numerous other sayings of the Fathers that to take this vocation was to take suffering as a vocation and Christians, in Jesus, have from their very first writings taken their God as their paradigmatic forebear in such “perfection through suffering”. A Christian is led to think, “If Jesus suffered then why shouldn’t I?”
But I turn to Andrew’s three things in turn now beginning with “exile”. Exile is a prominent theme throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures where the exile is from God but also from his promises such as “land” or “salvation”. We may sum up the notion of exile here as being cut off from God. Meanwhile, both modern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and theologians such as Tom Wright have used “exile” as a metaphor in their own academic work, the former perpetuating an argument about language as an alienating and exiling force whereas the latter has argued that Jesus was God’s agent of the end of human exile from Himself in a theological interpretation of the historical Jesus. If we ask ourselves what the monks are exiling themselves from the answer must be “society” and so, basically, outside influence or temptation to straying from the existential path the monk has set before them. This is not an inconsequential choice or an easy path to take, as anyone who has ever been alone for a decent period of time will likely testify. It is noteworthy, however, that here exile is regarded as a positive thing, something which gives the monk space and time to go about their monkish business. Often exile is perceived religiously as a punishment or in a negative light in contrast to this.
So why is exile appropriate for a monk? Because they are those who have single-mindedly chosen to focus on a vertical relationship with God which, they believe, will result in their own eternal good. But in choosing exile from society they have also chosen exile from friendship, from comfort, from diversion from themselves, from simple help, for such monks historically lived alone in cells. Exile is a choice to bear one’s existence alone without assistance, to forego the horizontal community for the vertical eternity. This puts oneself under a terrible microscope in which hitherto unnoticed details about the self become apparent. It seems that Abba Andrew finds this entirely appropriate for the monk who must seek to root out all insufficiencies from the one who seeks to dedicate himself to a God thought perfect. That one cannot be of God and of the world is an old Christian thought and so the monk is to choose exile from the world in an attempt to better approach God instead. Abba Arsenius is reported to have heard God say to him, “Flee from men and you will be saved.” This is the attitude that Andrew also preserves here. Human society in general, so it is thought, can only distract and contaminate thought that should be on higher and more eternal things. “The perfection of the self cannot be carried out amongst the distractions of the crowd” is the thought at work here.
Next in the list of things appropriate for a monk is poverty. Monks should not have “things” in general and for much similar reasons as to why they should not have neighbours: they can only act as a distraction from the focus required for the task at hand. Abba John the Dwarf is reported to have said that “if a man goes around fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak” and we see this thought in Andrew’s imposition of poverty upon the monk. Theodore of Pherme said, “It is best of all to possess nothing,” another desert witness to the same thought. Here possessions are simple distractions, unnecessary things which can only take up time and thought and get in the way. Having things or wealth are those things which will demand attention of their own which the monk can ill-afford to give away since he must always be watchful. Interior peace is regarded by many Desert Fathers as something necessary and how can one have that if one is worried about his possessions - or has possessions to worry about? Better, then, not to have any and here we see the very ascetical bent of the Fathers brought to the fore. This ascetical poverty is an enforced simplicity, a mindset of “having enough” as being good enough. If one survives then one has achieved one’s goal and one, by very definition, has had enough, all that was required, to do so. Here “excess” would be any more than this bare minimum. This poverty would seem to enforce a necessary simplicity and humility upon the monk in his reduced circumstances. And this, in turn, reminds me of the second two of the “Three Treasures” from the 67th saying of the Tao Te Ching, those being frugality and humility.
The third item in Andrew’s list is “endurance in silence,” a composite notion that needs unpacking. “Endurance” suggests something that needs to be endured and in the notions of both exile and poverty we have suitable referents for neither are simple matters easily negotiated. “Endurance” here also suggests to me the New Testament Greek word (the Fathers were Christians after all) “makrothumia” which is longsuffering, forbearance, fortitude (sometimes simply rendered “patience”). It is literally makro - long - and thumia - temper - and so cultivating a “long temperedness” as opposed to being short tempered. Paul gives makrothumia, the ability to calmly play the long game, as one of the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. But here the endurance is “in silence” and this is not an unimportant addition for, once more, talk is seen as a problem because it is a distraction, something else to be concerning yourself with instead of the thing the monk should be focused on. To be a monk is, as one Father says, “to be always mindful of God.” Another, Abba Pambo, was asked by the brethren to say something to Theophilus the Archbishop when he came to visit the Fathers in their desert cells. But he replied to them, “If he is not edified by my silence then he will not be edified by my speech.” Here silence is taken as having better things to do with one’s time than talk and is indicative of a more important communion than oral discourse. “Endurance in silence” is then an inward attitude of silent resilience without distraction yet also a witness to something beyond words.
Having given brief thoughts I now want to change tack and interpret this from a Taoist / Zen perspective. Consider the following Zen / Taoist sayings culled from a popular Twitter account dedicated to tweeting such things within 24 hours of me writing this:
Mirror facing mirror. Nowhere else. - Ikkyu
If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it. - Taoist proverb
The art of simplicity. - Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Without the Tao, kindness and compassion are replaced by law and justice. - Lao Tzu
The supreme form of wealth is contentment. - Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. - Zhuangzi
The valley stream's rushing sound is the eloquent tongue of Buddha. The mountain's vibrant colours are nothing but the Buddha's form. - Dogen Zenji
If you let go a little you will have little happiness. If you let go completely you will be free. - Ajahn Chah
Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity. - Lao Tzu
Silence is proactive. - B. D. Schiers
When you have realized understanding, even one word is too much. - Zen proverb
Fundamentally, the marksman aims at himself. - D.T. Suzuki
What mindset, what attitude, what worldview, is being cultivated and recommended by these sayings? How does it compare with that put forward by Abba Andrew as an example of the Desert Fathers? One big difference is that the Desert Fathers, as Christians and monotheists, have personalised the infinite and eternal, that which is beyond them, whereas Buddhists and Taoists in general have not. Taoists, for example, have “the Tao” which translates loosely as “the Way” and it is thought to be in, around and through all things. “Buddha” itself is a title (like Christ is whether applied to Jesus or not) meaning “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one” and not a name and the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is not a god within Buddhism but merely the most enlightened human being who ever lived, one in balance with all things and at perfect peace. This latter point, however, is a point of possible contact with the Fathers who also seek peace yet through communion with their god. Yet we may say, in general terms, that there is a very different point of emphasis for these two ways. The focus of the Desert Fathers is God and they themselves are regarded as those who need to be perfected to be in perfect communion with him. Along the way they may expect to struggle, to have to purge themselves of sin or evil desires and this will more than likely be a painful experience. In contrast, the Buddhists and Taoists might be represented by the quote of Zhuangzi above: To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. Here the focus is the individual themselves, albeit in the context of absolutely everything else one may experience or encounter. Neither Buddhists nor Taoists seek communion with a being but perhaps they do seek it with Being, an ineffable oneness with all things in a peaceful harmony. Peace or serenity we may see as a, if not the, goal of these latter paths.
Here the mention of silence in both traditions is interesting and worth exploring. From both Abba Andrew’s words here and those of some of my Zen and Tao quotes we can see that words have their limitations. For Andrew words were confusers or distractors that pulled the monk from the place he needed to be. Yet for both Abba Pambo and B.D. Schiers silence itself is saying something, perhaps plenty, yet without words. In both these religious traditions more widely conceived it seems to me that there is just so much room for what cannot be said, for acknowledging that words fail and language reaches a limitation. One need not be overtly religious to reach this conclusion either since 20th century philosophers of language, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, both seemingly come to similar conclusions should you read their work. I see in both of these ways, that of Christian Desert Fathers and that of Zen Buddhists and Taoists, that neither perceive of everything as a mass of facts scientifically understood, a very instrumental and detached mode of thinking. The world, existence, could not for any of these people potentially be tagged and catalogued so that one day we could imagine that everything could be logged, known and worked out. Both operate with a much more experiential and even existential understanding of knowledge than that. For them, we are in a world of experience and not one of subjects and objects where the former can, with ingenuity, skill and patience, learn all about the latter. I see the importance of silence in all these traditions as related to this. I see the recognition that words stop as a recognition that “knowledge” stops too. It is not the supreme need, the major requirement. It is merely a tool but the true riches are so much more than it can ever provide. Words are inadequate to experience as knowledge is inadequate to understanding.
So what happens when the talking stops? For one thing, other things then become possible such as listening and thinking (the latter perhaps being a kind of listening to yourself). In the Zen proverb quoted above “understanding” takes one beyond the realm of words so that even one is too much, or, perhaps, never enough. Thinking like this even seems to make something like a Derridean deconstructive operation something of religious significance. Here, according to Derrida, language is itself insufficient to the task it sets for itself. In use we find that it cannot fix the price of things. It sets out to say something but, in the act of so doing, we find that it disrupts its own operation. It can also be seen to say other things it did not mean to say, it can be subverted and used against itself, it falls short of its target. This, in philosophical guise, is not far from the monkish notion that silence can be more edifying than speech or the Zen notion that even one word is too much. According to one Buddhist proverb “the no-mind thinks no-thoughts about no-things” which expresses this mode of thinking perfectly. Not only is there no-mind but there are no-thoughts and there are no-things. How would a knowledge-based, instrumental, objective, scientific mindset cope with something like that? Neither tradition here has to worry about that, though, since, I argue, they are experience-based mindsets and not epistemologically-based mindsets. They are focused on experience not facts. Experience, unlike facts, is not simply known; it is felt, it is intuited, it can be instinctive, it embraces more than intellect. Experience gives cash value to the lives, and the pathways those lives take, of every thinking being.
I discussed above how, for the Desert Fathers, exile was primarily a matter of separation from the world for the purposes of personal devotion to God and the cultivation of that vertical relationship. The figure of exile applies in Buddhist and Taoists contexts too but here it is in the guise of alienation from the Tao, if Taoist, or “all things” if we talk more generally. The aim of these religious paths, it seems to me, is therapeutic: they aim at universal peace and harmony and so rest which becomes understanding or enlightenment. Their aim is the dissolution of a grasping, desirous existence which can only lead to conflict and turmoil. As Ajahn Chah says above, the aim is to “let go completely” and here the notion of Wu Wei, the action of non-action, plays a large part. Here again we can see how knowledge or fore-knowledge is consequently deprioritised for in these traditions we are not knowing subjects who progress through our existence by the manipulation of objects we know facts about. Indeed, it is hard to see how these traditions are based on knowledge at all as an essentialist, foundationalist or realist (in the philosophical sense) might understand these things. This idea of letting things be is totally alien to a modern Western mentality based on knowledge about things and this knowledge as the means to their instrumental use. For the Taoist, for example, it is not our job to impose our will upon things. The viewpoint here is much more holistic than many are capable of being, the idea is that, in a meaningful sense, everything is already a part of everything else and it a part of that in return. So when D.T. Suzuki says that, fundamentally, “the marksman aims at himself” he really does literally mean it. “Mirror facing mirror. Nowhere else” says Ikkyu, to change is to ruin, to hold is to lose, runs another Taoist proverb. The worldview here is one of movement, of constant change, of the idea of knowledge, beloved of others, being one that is static and ossifying and so not at all true to the world of experience for that is never still and always changing. A Buddhist or Taoist experiences exile, alienation, when out of this stream of existence, not in balance with the way of all things. This is not something we know facts about and so attempt to control; it is that which, with non-action, we become one with.
The Taoist and Buddhist alike also know about Abba Andrew’s “simplicity” (which he calls “poverty”) and they would see its necessity. I have already mentioned that the Taoist Tao Te Ching regards frugality and humility as two of its “three treasures” - and this is not merely for monks, those dedicated to a life of religious devotion, but for all to be in accord with that which is beyond them, be that a Way or a God or simply the Everything. For neither religious tradition here, the Christian and the Buddhist/Taoist, is the personalised, self-concerned form of existence that we experience all that there is. For these traditions, Man is not the measure; instead human beings are part of a much greater whole the overwhelming majority of which is unknown and, to all intents and purposes, perhaps even unknowable. For a Christian their God is not reducible to human minds and understanding anymore than for a Taoist the Tao can be put in a box and explained. Both retain concepts of the Beyond, the Ineffable, That Which Can Be Experienced But Not Known. Its also worth pointing out that this isn’t necessarily about us doing anything either. It is about our not-doing. “Do your work, then step back,” says Lao Tzu, suggesting that we just go about our business quite matter-of-factly. In these traditions simple things become sacred things, not because they are special but because the whole, everything, anything, is, in that sense, special. Here we partake in the All just because we are, because we exist. We seek peace within it not by grasping it and bending it to our will but by flowing as it flows. Unlike the God of the Desert Fathers, the Tao is not a will and so it is not a matter of using our will or bending it to that of another. Instead, its absence and negation is sought. “Simplicity” here is a life of non-action lived without will, an openness to all things. And if we are open to all things then the value of specific things dissolves accordingly. Things are made simpler. Less is more.
I have not wanted to suggest in this brief essay that Christian Desert Fathers and those of Buddhist or Taoist persuasions are versions of the same thing. This essay has been far too brief for even a cursory evaluation of such issues and my intuition is that, if such an essay were attempted, it would find areas of common interest but also others of conflict and differing agendas. But what I would take from the words of Abba Andrew, and from the Buddhist/Taoist interests that I introduced to discuss those words, is that exile, poverty and endurance in silence are not merely matters for monks in the desert in the conscious gaze of their god nor Eastern mystics seeking enlightened harmony with all things. They are matters for all of us. Exile, alienation, is very prevalent in the world of anybody who looks out of the window. The question of what is needful for a human being, and if the economic treadmill so many willingly climb onto, and to which so many others are either coerced or forced, is beneficial or necessary, is very apparent. That people’s experience of life is disregarded and vilified to their detriment for a mentality of “knowledge is power,” the logical conclusion of an epistemological approach to life, takes its toll upon the existence of many who are regarded as inconsequential casualties of progress or as natural wastage, those who couldn’t keep up. “Exile,” “poverty” and “endurance in silence” my seem very objective things in Abba Andrew’s statement but when read through any number of real lives they come to have consequences far more far-reaching than Andrew himself can ever have imagined. They also come to be relevant to every human being.
Human society is constructed from an ever growing number of human beings. Each, by means of any number of connections, is connected to all the rest. Each, by virtue of living in a shared space, has consequences for the rest. It is my intuition that it would do us good to concentrate on these notions of exile, poverty and endurance in silence, and their consequences, some of which I have teased out in this short essay, and that doing so would be to our common good. It is my view that we each have our part to play in the world and that any “change” that we think the whole needs begins with each one of us. You cannot change a system if you cannot change the people within it and so positive change of any kind is a matter not merely of changed circumstances but of changed people. Abba Andrew recognises this in the monk when he requires him to completely change his lifestyle in order to change society for, in fact, the Desert Fathers were taken as examples by many of how to devote oneself to God. They acted for many as examples of devotion and commitment. We may not believe in God but the point remains that to change the whole it starts by changing yourself. (Of course, it may be granted that Christianity in general has had a mixed record of effects upon society in general and that all but the most bitter of its critics would admit that these were not all bad.) The Buddhists and Taoists, too, recognise this in that their thinking is about a program of personal change which works a holistic harmony through the dissolution of both individual wants and an obsession with knowledge as power. No one can force people to change themselves. No one can even enlighten them to the notion that they need to be changed. Yet it remains my own personal, perhaps spiritual, conviction that when people change, societies change. And if they can change then why not for the better? The battle is not merely at societal level but, fundamentally, at the personal one as Abba Andrew, sundry Zen Buddhists and Taoists seemingly know so well.
This essay is taken from a forthcoming collection of philosophical, theological and hermeneutical essays I am writing called Being-in-the-midst: Hermeneutics, Interpretation, Tradition.