In the Heart of the Desert – John Chryssavgis

I bought this book on the recommendation of Rowan Williams. In the introduction to his wonderful ‘silence and honey cakes’ he says that every time he writes a book on a subject, someone else publishes a better one at the same time. ANd in this case, Rowan isn’t just being humble, this is better than silence and honey cakes. And that is to take nothing away from Rowans book.

Nevertheless, this is a marvelous insight not simply into the lives and sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, but into the way their wisdom has flourished within the Orthodox tradition. It is delightful becasue it is so fresh, and yet so rooted.

These quotes are my highlights. I’ll come back and shape this into something more complete at a later date.

Heart of the Desert quotes

The hermits who lived in that desert tested and studied what it means to be human—with all the tensions and temptations, all of the struggle beyond survival, all of the contacts with good and the conflicts with evil.

“Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God.”

There is no need at all to make long discourses. It is enough to stretch out one’s hands and to say: “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer, just say: “Lord, help!” He knows very well what we need, and He shows us His mercy.

Amma Syncletica said: “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are a solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”

We come to self-knowledge through stillness and silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness ( nepsis, nÁyis). When words are abandoned, a new awareness arrives. Silence awakens us from dullness of awareness, from dimness of vision.

Silence is the first duty of life, the first requirement for survival in the desert.

Silence is fullness, not emptiness; it is not an absence, but the awareness of a presence.

The reality is, of course, that we tend to be impatient; we tend to wander; we tend to interfere with the process. And so we are tempted to speak; we break the deafening silence. Words are ways of affirming our existence, of justifying our actions. We speak in order to excuse ourselves, within ourselves and before others; whereas silence is a way of dying—within ourselves and in the presence of others. It is a way of surrendering life, always in the context and in the hope of new life and resurrection.

Then, when you arrive at the end of your individual resources, an infinite and eternal source can open up. Not that divine grace is absent beforehand; it is simply unnoticed, while we yet depend on ourselves.

Tears confirm our readiness to allow our life to fall apart in the dark night of the soul, and our willingness to assume new life in the resurrection of the dead.

Someone said to the blessed Arsenius: “How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?”

A brother came to Abba Theodore and spent three days begging him to say a word to him, but without getting a single reply. So, he went away aggrieved. Then the old man’s disciple asked him: “Abba, why did you not say a word to him? See how he has gone away grieved?” The old man said: “I did not speak to him because he is a trafficker who seeks to glorify himself through the words of others.”

in general, the desert pro- duced healers, not thinkers. It cultivated the heart, not letters. It sought to quench a thirst of the soul, and not merely a curiosity of the mind. The desert was a place of inner work and of personal experience.

we must, he claimed, be totally alone with God and with ourselves in order to rebuild and reshape ourselves.

In particular, the way of the desert teaches us how to pray: how to stand before God, how to speak to God, and above all how to keep silent before God. It reminds us that God is born in barrenness, where there is an absence of pride, of masks, of illusions and of false images. Paradoxically, God fulfills in emptiness. God appears when we are not too filled with other attachments and distractions, when we are not full of ourselves.

“How should one pray?” The old man replied: “There is no need at all to make long discourses. It is enough to stretch out one’s hands and to say: ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’

In the struggle—in the very place where we meet God, and where we are loved by God—we too discover how to love others.

He said to them in response: “For my part, when I see a brother falling asleep, I place his head on my knees and let him rest.”


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