The Desert Movement : fresh perspectives on the spirituality of the desert by Alexander Ryrie
Norwich, UK : Canterbury Press, 2011 ISBN 9781848250949
What a great little book! The Twentieth Century has seen an upsurge of interest in the history and religious practice of the Desert Fathers, particularly in the West. Most people with an interest in this area would have seen or read Helen Waddell's The Desert Fathers: originally published in 1936, it began a surge of scholarship in English that has enabled Ryrie to write the book under review here.
Traditionally the term "Desert Fathers" has referred to those monks and anchorites who moved into the deserts of Lower Egypt. Ryrie has chosen to title his book The Desert Movement because he sets out to show that there was not only a great flowering of monasticism in Lower Egypt in the Fourth Century, but in Upper Egypt, Judea, Gaza and Sinai as well.
Ryrie is a retired priest, but this is not really a religious book. Neither is it merely a history, although it does give an account of the rise of the movement across time. Ryrie instead has an aim in this book not to "attempt to propose a 'desert spirituality' for the twenty-first century; but ......provide a basis and an encouragement for people today who may want to develop and pursue a spirituality of the desert for our own time."
Ryrie's style in the first sections of the book is to deal with a particular area, write about the most well-known figures to come from that area and discuss how they lived, both physically and spiritually. While much is unknown about the day-to-day activities and history of these times, a reasonable picture can be built up of what the monks, anchorites and hermits did and believed. The first section of the book deals with Lower Egypt, the beginnings of the movement and goes into some detail about the structures of the Laura and Monasteries that existed in these areas, and how they managed to survive. He writes of Antony the Great and Macarius, and what they saw as important to living a life true to God.
The chapter on Upper Egypt deals mainly with Pachomius and Shenoute, and the federation of monasteries that grew in their time. Ryrie does not shy away from showing some of these figures as the hard men they were, and must have been, to manage communities under such harsh conditions. The Desert Movement in Upper Egypt differed somewhat from Lower Egypt in that monks did not move so much into the "utter desert", owing partly to the lack of water sources other than the Nile. The practice of members of monasteries moving out into desert regions for a short time (Lent, for example) and then moving back into community was more common here.
The chapter on Judea introduces Chariton, Euthymius and Sabas. The nature of the monasticism here differed again, with many of the monks not being local to the area, but from further North in Europe, being drawn to the Holy Land. Many of them had been involved in churches in the towns and cities, especially Jerusalem, before being drawn to the desert. Quite a few of them went back more-or-less regularly to the towns to perform duties for the church. The influence of Northern ideas was more influential than in Egypt, although most of the monks knew of, and showed reverence to, the Egyptian Fathers.
As Ryrie notes, there were not only Desert Fathers. Many women were also drawn to the way of the desert. The desert was a dangerous place, and many of the male monks did not want to have women around them to inflame their lust, so many of the women Ryrie mentions followed the asceticism and prayer of the desert in towns, in their own way. Some of the more hardy women did go into the desert and, dressed in the robes of monks, passed as men. This was easier for the women who chose to be hermits, of which there were quite a few.
While writing about the figures and localities involved, Ryrie discusses the beliefs and practices of these monks, both generally and by looking at the writings of major figures such as Evagrius and Cassian. He emphasises that the practices, especially the asceticism and solitude of the monks, was for a purpose, and that purpose was to be at one with God (in a short Afterword, Ryrie contrasts this with the more spectacular ascetic practices of the monks in Syria). All of the Desert Fathers emphasised moderate asceticism, as much as would help focus on prayer and God. After all, as they noted, too much ascetic practice gets in the way of the manual work and prayer needed for the monk or anchorite to be successful in their quest. In fact many of the Fathers wrote and spoke about the "demon" of vainglory, to which monks were particularly susceptible, and was often manifested by extreme ascetic practices.
Ryrie summarises the way of the desert as follows:
The practical features - 1. Withdrawal. Giving up possessions. 2. Solitude. Staying in one's cell. 3. Silence. 4. Obedience to spiritual director. 5. Ascetic practice: food and sleep. 6. Manual work. 7. Unceasing prayer and psalmody.
The inner features - 1. Facing one's inner self - Repentance. Detachment. Renunciation of will. Attention to oneself. Discernment. Guarding the hear: passions, thought, demons. Calling for God's help. 2. Seeing oneself in relation to others: Self as sinner, not better than others. Not judging. 3. Bearing insults.
The inner disposition - Humility. Stillness. Purity of heart.
The ultimate aim: to be with God - Desire for God. Keeping God before one's eyes. Living the heavenly life. Judgement and heaven.
It's fair to say that wherever there were people following the desert way (and Ryrie has chapters on Gaza and Sinai as well), they were all striving to be with God by following the above advice. Striving is an apt term - Ryrie shows that being a monk in the desert did not merely consist of sitting in one's cell meditating on life while acolytes came to the door. The life was one of constant struggle, physical certainly, but mostly mental and spiritual. Those that went into the desert had to constantly work at their practice - it didn't come easily - and many spent their whole adult lives striving for the humility, stillness and purity of heart required, and failing to reach it. Constant repentance is the theme of many of the surviving writing, as well as the mercy of God on those who truly did repent of their sins.
Ryrie ends his book with a short chapter on how the life and thought of the Desert Fathers is relevant today. Obviously it is pretty much impossible for most people today to move to the desert and become a hermit, and modern thoughts on ascetic practice, demons and miracles are quite different to those found in the writings of the Fathers. However as Ryrie points out, there is much we can take from their program of finding God - by looking deeply inside our own souls, fighting against the worst passions of our nature and keeping God uppermost in our minds, we too can try, as those in the desert did over 1500 years ago, to strive for Heaven.
I recommend this book as both educative (did I mention the excellent bibliography?), enlightening and thought provoking.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell