The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

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New Directions Publishing, 1970 - Philosophy - 81 pages
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The personal tones of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.

The hermits of Screte who turned their backs on a corrupt society remarkably like our own had much in common with the Zen masters of China and Japan, and Father Merton made his selection from them with an eye to the kind of impact produced by the Zen mondo.

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I use this book often for daily meditation, as a prelude to reading scripture. Though the stories and sayings are extreme, I think they are hyperbole to emphasize the point the wisdom fathers are trying to communicate, perhaps better stated as silence than by words. The Desert Fathers were not of the Western World mindset, and they predate the Enlightenment Period by a millenium. As the Prelude eloquently states, the historical context is important because the Desert Fathers did not have dogma or a Baltimore Catechism to answer all their questions. And this is a good thing, because by bare simplicity the stories convey the extreme spirit and mindset one may need to overcome complex obstacles brought by the human condition and sin.
Thankfully, today we have broader definitions through theology and psychology to communicate our experiences, but as the Desert Fathers indicate, words themselves can bind us from growth. That being said, perhaps Thomas Merton's intention was to use these stories as a Christian koan by which to approach thought with mystery so the brain can ease into contemplative prayer and silence. Not to assume Fr. Merton's intentions, I do believe this book will find a home with kindred spirits on a similar single-minded path toward a deeper relationship with God.

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About the author (1970)

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) entered the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, following his conversion to Catholicism and was ordained Father M. Louis in 1949. During the 1960s, he was increasingly drawn into a dialogue between Eastern and Western religions and domestic issues of war and racism. In 1968, the Dalai Lama praised Merton for having a more profound knowledge of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. Thomas Merton is the author of the beloved classic The Seven Storey Mountain.

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