A Feature Review of
Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Annotated and Explained,
Christine Valters Paintner
Reviewed by Craig D. Katzenmiller
Often the very act of slowing down becomes countercultural. In today’s world, we find ourselves in a race to “hurry up and matter.”[i] Every now and then, however, we need to be reminded that life is not about accruing goods, but rather, life is about emptying ourselves in order to love. We need to hear again and again the radical call of the gospel: namely, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Thus, reading Christine Valters Paintner’s recent book about desert spirituality reminds us of what life is about. I read this book over the course of a weekend, but even my hasty reading pricked me and told me to slow down, to reorient my focus. Nevertheless, speedy reading for the purpose of reviewing the book does miss the point. As Paintner writes, “This is not a book to sit down and read cover to cover. . . . A more effective approach is to allow some time each day to read one section at a time twice through slowly” (xxxii). The desert mothers and fathers leave us with a legacy for transformation. Transformation, as Paintner says, is a long process (see e.g., 106).
Therefore, spending time with a collection of the saying of the desert mothers and fathers always proves beneficial. But the added wisdom of a collection’s compiler often makes or breaks the collection. For example, Thomas Merton’s excellent introduction to his book on desert spirituality[ii] is itself worth the price of the whole book. So it is with Paintner’s introduction, she covers everything from the socio-political climate of the desert elders’ world to biographical sketches of the important desert monks to strategies for reading the mothers and fathers. Her discussion of gender in the desert, where she successfully demonstrates that “[t]he history of the ammas reveals that, from the very beginnings of the life of the church, women have been initiators of new patterns and teachings” (xxi), is especially helpful for understanding the full scope of desert wisdom. She concludes her introduction stating her goal: “to develop [in readers] an appreciation for the profound wisdom these ancient men and women have to offer us” (xxxiv).
Readers will find that this goal is easily accomplished. The publisher has arranged this book so that the words of the desert mothers and fathers are on the right hand pages (i.e., the odd numbered pages) and Paintner’s commentary on the selections is on the left (i.e., the even numbered pages). This system works well, and indeed another strength of the book is Paintner’s commentary, which mixes both contextualization for the “words” from the desert elders as well as suggestions for practices that can deepen one’s spiritual life. Truly, Paintner offers the commentary not of a learned academic—which she undoubted is—but of an amma who herself wants to speak a word to her readers.[iii] The result is a book that you will not want to put down and that you will no doubt revisit often for Paintner’s wisdom as much as the mothers’ and fathers’ wisdom.
The reader also benefits from the book’s thematic organization; each theme builds upon the previous ones. The book starts with the basic notion of receiving a word from the elders. From there the reader is taken through words and commentary on: the monastic cell, transformation of the heart, passions and humility, spiritual friends, compunction, practice, virtues, hesychia, and gifts. The book concludes with a chapter on “how to become a monk.” Though brief, this chapter helpfully draws the reader into the vocation of the desert mothers and fathers. Paintner writes, “There is no distinction between the path of the monk living in the desert and the monk living in the city. This path . . . is for everyone. We are each called to it no matter what our life circumstances” (142).
And so, Paintner’s Desert Fathers and Mothers creates space for the reader to slow down and start on the path of the “urban monk” (12). Being a collection of desert wisdom, it is difficult to find weaknesses with this volume; however, one could nitpick about the two uses of secondary source quotes in Paintner’s commentary (82, 140) and about the lack of actual chapter numbers in the text, which creates problems when searching back through the book for cross-referenced items. The book’s strengths, on the other hand, are manifold. As already noted, Paintner’s introduction and commentary along with the sayings of the mothers and fathers create a very worthwhile volume. Additionally, the bibliography for “further reading” will keep the reader engaged should the reader want to dig deeper.
Uses of this book will vary. Primarily, it’s a book that belongs on one’s nightstand to be read upon waking in the morning and then reread when lying down at night. But this book also belongs in classrooms where the desert mothers and fathers are discussed, e.g., History of Christian Spirituality and even Early Church History classes. The format of the book lends itself to engagement and creative teachers will no-doubt find various ways to use it in their classrooms.
In the end, Paintner has offered a succinct introduction to and a lively commentary on the desert mothers and fathers. There are many other introductions to desert spirituality out there vying for your attention. But to those interested in the wisdom of the desert, I cannot recommend this book highly enough as a starting point.
Craig D. Katzenmiller is a PhD student studying liturgy and ethics at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg. He also works as the social media editor for www.TokensShow.com.
[i] I am indebted to my friends David Dark and Richard Goode for introducing me to this phrase.
[ii] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (New York: New Directions Books, 1970).
[iii] One example of how the text and commentary flow can be found in the initial chapter on receiving a word. An anonymous saying tells the story of an elder who tells a young monk to love God with his whole heart; twenty years later the young monk returns, saying he’s struggled to obey the word he received early and asking for another word. The elder tells him to love his neighbor as himself (5). The story itself is powerful, but Paintner captures a nuance that might otherwise be missed in her commentary, saying, “The word being sought . . . was part of a relationship that had developed between elder and novice and the assumption was that this word, when received by the disciple, would be life-giving” (4). Thinking about receiving a word as part of a relationship injects notions of community and mutual affection into a saying that might otherwise be read as a simple recounting of the greatest commands.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com