Desert Wisdom

Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Introduced by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Translation and art by Yushi Nomura, Orbis Books, New York, 2001

Hermit Paul
Hermit Paul

p. xii [Monks in Egypt and Japan seek to leave behind “illusions and deceptions”]

Yushi also knew that the Christian monk in Egypt and the Buddhist monk in Japan are not strangers to each other. Both struggle to leave behind the illusions and deceptions of this world and both search for the undying light of God. Therefore Yushi placed the desert stories from Egypt in the monastic milieu of Japan, and so he created a place in which the Buddha and the Christ in him could reach out to each other.


p. xiv [withdrew themselves from the compulsions and manipulations]

Who were these desert fathers and desert mothers? They were men and women who withdrew themselves from the compulsions and manipulations of their power hungry society in order to fight the demons and to encounter the God of love in the desert. They were people who had become keenly aware that after the period of persecutions and acceptance of Christianity as a “normal” part of society, the radical call of Christ to leave father, mother, brother, and sister, to take up the cross and follow him, had been watered down to an acceptable and comfortable religiosity and had lost its converting power. The Abbas and Ammas of the Egyptian desert had left this world of compromise, adaptation, and a lukewarm spirituality and had chosen solitude, silence, and prayer as the new way to be living witnesses of the crucified and risen Lord. Thus they became the new “martyrs,” witnessing not with their blood, but with their single minded dedication to a humble life of manual work, fasting, and prayer.


pp. xiv-xv [find “true self” not who society tells me I am – to become mindful of who I am rather than cling to my false identities]

The life of these ancient hermits can be seen as a hard and often painful struggle to find their true identity. The world they tried to escape is the world in which money, power, fame, success, influence, and good connections are the ways to self esteem. It is the world that says, “You are what you have.” This false identity never gives the security and safety which we are searching for, but throws us in the spiral of a permanent desire for more – more money, more power, more friends – in the illusion that one day we will arrive at that dream-place where nobody and nothing can harm us. The hermits of the desert were deeply conscious of the fact that not only the society but also the church had been corrupted by this illusion. They escaped into the desert to free themselves from this compulsive self, to shake off the many layers of self deception and reclaim their true self. In the desert, away from human praise and criticism, they could slowly grow into the knowledge that they are not who people say they are, but who God made them to be: His own sons and daughters, created and recreated in His Spirit. In the desert they came to the realization that as long as they kept trying to find their identity outside of God, they ended up in that vicious spiral of wanting more and more. But there they also discovered that their true identity is securely planted in the first love of God Himself and that this first love frees them from their fearful compulsions and allows them to relate to their own society freely, joyfully, and peacefully.


p. xvi [“I” do not find transformation in “I” but in only the transcendent]

[finding our true self is not the] simple result of having a new insight. Reclaiming our true self requires a total transformation. It requires a long and often slow process in which we enter more and more into the truth, that is, into a true relationship with God and, through Him, with ourselves.


p. xvi [Mindfulness not for my own sake but at the service of God and what God wants to do in God’s people – the larger Christian community]

It would, however, be a mistake to think that the desert fathers and desert mothers only went to the desert for their own salvation. This was certainly an important aspect of their monastic life, but it was never disconnected from a deep sense of service to the larger Christian community. Their struggle was not just for themselves but also for their fellow Christians. They considered the desert as the place to which the demons withdrew after their destructive work in the cities and towns.


p. xvii [liberation from PRISON of the world in order to liberate others (Gandhi and the sugar addict or Nero “the One” who liberates The Matrix)

Escaping the world was, therefore, for the desert fathers and mothers like escaping from a prison with the intention to liberate the other prisoners too.


p. xviii [the constant reminder of God’s merciful love]

They stress the importance of service to the neighbour and they show the fruits of obedience, prayer, and simple trust in God. Undergirding all these concrete hints, suggestions, and counsels is the constant reminder of God’s loving and merciful presence in our lives.


p. xix [not offering theory on spiritual life but lived experience]

The desert fathers and mothers did not offer theories on the spiritual life; they did not give lectures or write essays. They were simple hermits who lived their lives silently, away from the great economic and cultural centres of their day, earning their living with manual work and praying unceasingly {How does one pray unceasingly??}. The words we have from them are responses to their fellow hermits, to their disciples, and to their occasional visitors. They are concrete answers to concrete questions. They were never meant to be general truths. They were meant to help a searching brother or sister, to correct an erring fellow monk, to give courage to a despairing friend, or to console a saddened parent.

[Comparative sayings]

Paradoxically, however, these sayings which were meant for just one human being have the power to give life to many. They share that power with many Zen and Hasidic sayings. What is most personal, most concrete, most specific is able to touch the hearts of people living in very different places, in very different times, and in very different circumstances. In their uniqueness they create a large space in which many can find a home. There is realism, humour, irony, reproach, invitation, challenge, and very fervent zeal. Together these qualities form the safe and flexible boundaries within which we can move and listen to God’s call for us.


p. xx.

Abba Bessarion whispered into the ears of Abba Doulas, “God is here, and God is everywhere.”



Abba Sisies said: Seek God, and not where God lives.


p.4 [Purpose of stilling the mind]

One of the fathers said: Just as it is impossible to see your face in troubled water, so the soul, unless it is clear of alien thoughts, is not able to pray to God in contemplation.


p.5 [pebble carrying]

It was said about Abba Agathon that for three years he carried a pebble around in his mouth until he learnt to be silent.


p.9 [keeping the commandments of God over the commandments of people]

Once the rule was made in Scetis that they should fast for the entire week before Easter. During this week, however, some brothers came from Egypt to see Abba Moses, and he made a modest meal for them. Seeing the smoke, the neighbours said to the priests of the church of that place: Look, Moses has broken the rule and is cooking food at his place. Then the priests said: When he comes out, we will talk to him. When the Sabbath came, the priests, who knew Abba Moses’ great way of life, said to him in public: Oh, Abba Moses, you did break the commandment made by people, but you have firmly kept the commandment of God.


pp.12-13 [mindfulness is not about escaping life]

It was said about John the Little that one day he said to his older brother: I want to be free from care and not to work but to worship God without interruption. And he took his robe off, and went into the desert. After staying there one week, he returned to his brother. And when he knocked at the door, his brother asked without opening it: Who is it? He replied: It’s John, your brother.

His brother said: John has become an angel and is not among people anymore. Then he begged and said: “It’s me!” But his brother did not open the door and left him there in distress until the next morning. And he finally opened the door and said: If you are a human being, you have to work again in order to live. Then John repented, saying: Forgive me, brother, for I was wrong.


p.14 [your cell will teach you]

In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. And the old man said: go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.


p.17 [Prayer = an expression of love not a duty to be fulfilled]

Some old men came to see Abba Poemen, and said to him: Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake? The old man said to them: Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.


p.26 [beginning is hard but later you will get the desired result]

Amma Syncletica said: In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of hard work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.


p.33 [overcoming my fundamental compulsion]

A brother asked an old man: What shall I do? For many thoughts are bothering me, and I don’t know how to fight back. The old man said: Do not fight against all of them, but against one. In fact, all the thoughts of monks have a single head. Therefore, you have to figure out which and what kind it is, and fight against it. By doing so, you can defeat the rest of those thoughts.


p.39 [Salvation = is not about sacrifice but about mindfulness in love]

A brother asked Abba Hieracus: Give me a word. How can I be saved? The old man said to him: Sit in your cell; if you are hungry, eat; if you are thirsty, drink; and just do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.


pp.42-43 [Mary and Martha : contemplative and work]

A brother came to visit Abba Silvanus at Mount Sinai. When he saw the brothers working hard, he said to the old man: Do not work for the food that perishes. For Mary has chosen the good part. Then the old man called his disciple: Zachary, give this brother a book and put him in an empty cell. Now, when it was three o’clock, the brother kept looking out the door, to see whether someone would come to call him for the meal. But nobody called him, so he got up, went to see the old man, and asked: Abba, didn’t the brothers eat today? The old man said: Of course we did. Then he said: Why didn’t you call me? The old man replied: You are a spiritual person and do not need that kind of food, but since we are earthly, we want to eat, and that’s why we work. Indeed, you have chosen the good part, reading all day long, and not wanting to eat earthly food. When the brother heard this, he repented and said: Forgive me, Abba. Then the old man said to him: Mary certainly needed Martha, and it is really by Martha’s help that Mary is praised.


pp. 48-49 [self-awareness releases one from judgement]

Once a brother committed a sin in Scetis, and the elders assembled and sent for Abba Moses. He, however, did not want to go. Then the priest sent a message to him, saying: Come, everybody is waiting for you. So he finally got up to go. And he took a worn out basket with holes, filled it with sand, and carried it along. The people who came to meet him said: What is this, Father? Then the old man said: My sins are running out behind me, yet I do not see them. And today I have come to judge the sins of someone else. When they heard this, they said nothing to the brother, and pardoned him.


p. 53 [God in all things even our vengeance]

A brother who was insulted by another brother came to Abba Sisoes, and said to him: I was hurt by my brother, and I want to avenge myself. The old man tried to console him and said: Don’t do that, my child. Rather leave vengeance to God. But he said: I will not quit until I avenge myself. Then the old man said: Let us pray, brother; and standing up, he said: O God, we no longer need you to take care of us since we now avenge ourselves. Hearing these words, the brother fell at the feet of the old man and said: I am not going to fight with my brother any more. Forgive me, Abba.


pp. 56-57 [Awareness of my motivations – my trying won’t get me there]

It was said about an old man that he endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week. He asked God about certain words in the Holy Scripture, but God did not answer him. Then he said to himself: Look, I have put in this much effort, but I haven’t made any progress. So now I will go to see my brother, and ask him. And when he had gone out, closed the door and started off, an angel of the Lord was sent to him, and said: Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God. But now that you are humbled enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to you to reveal the meaning of the words. Then the angel explained the meaning that the old man was seeking, and went away.


pp. 62-62 [spirit of detachment – non-possessiveness (e.g.; Dalai Lama after the 1947 Chinese invasion]

When Abba Macarius was in Egypt he found a man with a mule stealing his belongings. Then, as though he were a stranger, he helped the robber to load the animal, and peacefully sent him off, saying: We have brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything with us. The Lord has given, and as he has wished, so it has happened. Blessed be the Lord in all things.


p.64 [detachment]

Once some bandits came to the hermitage of an old man, and said: We have come to take away everything in your cell. And he said: Whatever you see, my sons. Then they took whatever they found in the cell and went away. But they left behind a little bag that was out of sight. But the old man picked it up, and ran after them, shouting: My sons take this! You forgot it! They were indeed amazed by the endurance of the old man, and brought everything back into the cell. And all of them repented and said to each other: He really is a man of God.


p.65 [humility and detachment]

The devil appeared to a brother, in the disguise of an angel of light, and said to him: I am the angel Gabriel and I have been sent to you. However, the brother said to him: See if you are not being sent to someone else. I certainly do not deserve to have an angel sent to me. Immediately, the devil disappeared.


p.67 [Love not judgement even of oneself]

Abba Xanthias said: A dog is better than I am because it also has love, but it does not pass judgment.


p. 68 [“The Word of God is right in front of me” – mindfulness of God’s Word alive in ALL things]

A philosopher asked St. Anthony: Father, how can you be enthusiastic when the comfort of books has been taken away from you? He replied: My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and whenever I want to read the Word of God, it is usually right in front of me.


pp. 74-75 [God is here and God is everywhere – human thinking separates God from life]

Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion, said: When we were walking along the sea one day, I was thirsty, so I said to Abba Bessarion, Abba, I am very thirsty. Then the old man prayed, and said to me, Drink from the sea. The water was sweet when I drank it. And I poured it into a flask, so that I would not be thirsty later. Seeing this, the old man asked me, Why are you doing that? I answered, Excuse me, but it’s so that I won’t be thirsty later on. Then the old man said, God is here, and God is everywhere.


p. 96 [Pray always]

As he was dying, Abba Benjamin taught his sons this: Do this, and you’ll be saved: Rejoice always, pray constantly, and in all circumstances give thanks.


p. 104 [re confusion]

Abba Nilus said: Do not want things to turn out as they seem best to you, but as God pleases. Then you will be free of confusion and thankful in your prayer.


p. 106 [on how to pray]

They asked Abba Macarius: how should we pray? The old man answered: A long speech is not necessary, but instead stretch out your hands and say, Lord, as you wish and as you know, have mercy. Yet if you feel a conflict is breaking out, you have to say, Lord, help! He knows what is good for us and treats us mercifully.


pp. 120-121 [a solitary journey – being alone but not alone – Archbishop de Boismenu ‘to stand alone under the ye of God alone’]

In the community life at YDS, Henri Nouwen remained very close to the students and often he behaved as if he were just one of us. Whenever he was invited to students’ gatherings and parties he would come by… After one such gathering, when I volunteered to clean up the kitchen, I opened what I thought was a cupboard door only to find a very small altar with an icon beside it. In front of it was a small space, big enough for just one person. I closed the door immediately… Noticing this, Henri came and opened the door to show it to me in the manner of a little boy proudly showing off his secret hiding place.

“What is this place for?” I asked. “Oh, this is my personal prayer chapel,” he answered. “I often meditate and pray in this place so that I can pray in solitude away from other people as Jesus told us to do.” “But you live all by yourself. You don’t have to hide from other people.”

To this Henri said, “When you want to pray seriously, you may have to stay away from yourself.”

As I was finishing this book I heard that Henri was planning to leave Yale… A few days after a party for Henri, I received a peculiar call from him. He sounded tense and desperate. I went straight to his house, [he said] “I had a terrible daydream. A lot of good friends gathered and started to dance around me. When the music stopped … there was nobody left. I found myself in the middle of a barren land.” “You’re not alone, Henri,” I said. “You know we’ve been working together in that desert.” “I know, I know. Thank you for reminding me that I’m in the middle of the desert and I’m not alone there.”

When one goes into the deepest part of the human soul, one cannot ask someone to accompany him. Step by step, he has to go down all the way to the bottom. When he finds something shining there, he holds it to his bosom, and starts going up the way he came down so that he can share it with others.