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Tim Vivian – The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers [Review]


An Essential Scholarly Work on Desert Monasticism

A Review of

The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
Tim Vivian, Editor

Paperback (Two Volumes): Liturgical Press, 2021 (V1) and 2023 (V2)
Buy Now (V1) : [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Buy Now (V2) : [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith

Over the last few years, a good portion of my recreational reading has revolved around immersing myself in the stories of the desert monastics. Many years ago, I had read Henri Nouwen’s little book on the desert fathers, The Way of the Heart, as well as Thomas Merton’s collection of stories entitled The Wisdom of the Desert. These desert stories, however, didn’t really capture my imagination until I read Rowan Williams’s helpful little book Where God Happens, which set them in a theological context that really brought them to life for me. Since my reading of Williams’s book, I’ve returned to Nouwen’s and Merton’s books and voraciously bought and read as many books as I could on the desert monastics. 

Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that Liturgical Press had published a new two-volume collection of The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, edited by Tim Vivian. This is a new, annotated translation of what is known as the alphabetical collection of sayings and stories (alphabetical because the entries are organized according to the desert monastic to whom they refer, and the sections for each monastic are organized alphabetically¹) Previously, the standard translation of the Alphabetical Collection was Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, and it is still a quite useful work for those who simply want to read the stories (and sayings) of the desert monastics. However, if one wants to really dig into these stories, and make sense of them in their context – interwoven with scripture, theology, and history – Vivian’s work is absolutely essential. 


Vivian’s translation of the alphabetical collection is not a huge departure from Benedicta Ward’s, but he does insert additional stories and sayings from other sources into the text (e.g., his appendix to the section on St. Anthony, which contains “Significant sayings Concerning Abba Anthony in the Systematic Apophthegmata Patrum.” However, what makes this new translation shine is the vast number of footnotes in which Vivian explains why he has chosen a particular translation, or explains alternate readings based on the particular Greek term. Each volume contains a glossary in the back of the book, which is useful for aiding readers in understanding key terms and what they meant in the world of the desert monastics. Throughout the text of the work, terms in the glossary are noted with an asterisk, which on one hand is helpful information, but in addition to the vast footnoting, makes the text hard to read without interruption. 

Two other portions of this new edition are especially stellar. First, the scripture index that links particular scripture passages to portions of the translated text. This index is a great resource for folks who are studying a particular passage of scripture, and are curious about what the desert monastics might say about it. My only quibble is that the scripture index is split into two parts (one for each volume), so to get a broader view of the desert monastics’ interpretation of a particular scripture passage, one would have to consult the index in both volumes. 

The other gem in this edition is Vivian’s 85-page introduction to the desert monastics, which could have easily been its own book. This introduction contains six sections that orient the reader to the translated texts that follow. The most substantial sections overview six crucial themes of the desert monastics and survey the practices they recommend for transformation. 

The six crucial themes are:

  • Community
  • Exquisite Mutuality
  • Helping Others: Neighbor and Stranger
  • Judging, and on to Discernment and Compassion
  • Habits of the Heart
  • The Wallpaper of the Soul: Compassion

And the practices in transformation are:

  • Love
  • Peace
  • Patient Endurance
  • Contemplative Quiet
  • Inward Stillness
  • Hope and Joy

Sandwiched between these two sections of the introduction is a meditation on ego and self, which also is enlightening for readers who strive to make sense of the witness of the desert monastics. 

This two-volume work is a treasure chest, the riches of which are immense. One nearly-hidden gem that I found tucked in a footnote early in the work, was the fact that the source texts in Greek and Latin from which Vivian translated this work are available online in the Google Books library. This realization brought me great delight, as one who, like Vivian, likes to dig into source texts. 

Vivian’s work is undoubtedly the new gold standard for scholars who are researching the desert monastics. While it may prove overwhelming for the casual reader, it is an essential work of scholarship that should be in every theological library, and the personal library of every scholar interested in Early Christianity.


¹  Alphabetically, that is, by the Greek alphabet, not the English one.

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

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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