I had a glorious retreat at Worth Abbey in March. One of the books I found in the library was a translation of the writings of the Desert Fathers by the lovely Irish playwright Helen Waddell. It is a lovely piece of work, and her lyrical introduction is one of the most remarkable reflections on the desert tradition I have read. I sourced a nice copy for myself and it arrived today, a beautiful hardback first edition from 1936.
In the introduction there is a passage that took my breath away when I read it. It is about a companion of St Augustine who discovers the Life of St Anthony, and opens it to read;
“Let no on who hath renounced the world think that he hath given up some great thing… the whole earth set against heavens infinite is scant and poor.” As he read ambition fell from him: about him was the “twilight air that hath made anchorites of kings.”
I think perhaps I encountered that same twilight air, and I was no less shaken. It is a magnificent description of the work of the spirit of God in the desert. But actually although the line above is footnoted as being from Vita S. Antonii that line of verse in quotation marks is unidentified. A little searching after it led me to someone else who had asked the same question. Aaron Taylor at Logismoi did some good work in tracing the origin of that line to a poem by George William Russell (1867-1935).
And with a twilight air
I can make anchorites of kings. I overcome
Fierce things by gentleness.
Russell like Waddell was an Irish writer, and she must have read him at some point, and the phrase stayed with her. Perhaps she couldn’t remember exactly where she had read it – it is slightly misquoted. Nevertheless she uses it to fine effect.
I need to write more on the theme of ambition too. The falling away of ambition is unthinkable in our day, yet there is almost no use of the word in the New Testament that is anything other than negative. In fact the one at all positive use of the word is in 1Thes4 where Paul writes.
make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands
Now that is ambition I can live with.