8) The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Translated and with an Introduction by Benedicta Ward
9) The Desert Fathers: Translations from the Latin with an Introduction by Helen Waddell
The Desert Fathers are a long-time interest of Anne’s, so I decided to sample them for myself. The Penguin collection edited by Benedicta Ward simply gives the complete text of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers compiled by Pelagius in the early fourth century; Helen Waddell has selected her favourite bits from that document, perhaps a third of it, and then added on various other texts, concluding with the Lives of St Pelagia the Harlot and St Mary the Harlot, which are about as exciting as you would expect. (If you really want to read them, there is another translation of St Pelagia here and here, with St Mary the Harlot starting a little way down the page here and ending here.)
Both of them are a fascinating insight into the lives and mentalities of the first Christian monastics – men and women who felt that they must go and live in the desert to get closer to God. Despite having been educated by nuns, and having a couple of friends who tried it and didn’t stick with it, I’ve never given much thought to how people who have chosen that path actually think about it and express it to other people. There is surprisingly little in either set of writings that is particularly Christian, and I would suspect that you might get much the same set of sentiments from Buddhist monks or their equivalents elsewhere. There is an uneasy and sometimes consciously very funny tension running through the writings, between on the one hand being deeply devout and determined, and pulling up the other monks who are not trying hard enough; and on the other hand not showing off one’s own piety. One is sometimes reminded of the Monty Python sketch about hermits, echoed in a recent episode of Doctor Who. But at the same time you can’t help but be impressed with the seriousness and dedication with which these people tried to develop their understanding of their creator and themselves by cutting themselves off from the world.
Of the two books, Helen Waddell‘s is much the better. She’s been on my radar screen for a while; although born in Japan and mainly famous for her contributions to mid-twentieth century literary London, she was brought up in Northern Ireland and left her papers to the Queen’s University of Belfast Library. She has written a respectful yet witty introduction to each of the ten pieces, and a longer one for the book of the whole, bemoaning the fact that the reputation of the early Christian monastics has never recovered from being mocked viciously in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. She complains that St Simeon Stylites, who lived on a pillar for thirty years, was not in fact a very important figure in Christian history: “His present reputation, vast as it is, dates largely from the eighteenth century, and balances delicately on a paragraph of Gibbon’s prose.” The Penguin edition is interesting for completeness, to see what Helen Waddell chose to leave out; but she got most of the good bits.