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My Top 5 Books on Desert Spirituality
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As Christians from all branches of the church today rediscover the ancient traditions of Christian spirituality, the literature of early Christian monasticism is a welcome voice in our conversation with the saints. Many sources are now available in accessible English translations, so enter into the world of men and women who forsook the expectations of their society to pray in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt. Primary sources predominate on the list below, but each translation is accompanied by useful introductions and commentaries by top scholars. Enjoy!
These early words of spiritual direction from desert fathers and mothers are compelling, sometimes disturbing, and far more relevant to 21st-century life than one might think at first glance. Don't hurry through this work, but make time to absorb and reflect on these words of spiritual wisdom from a culture far distant from our own. And remember—the words of the monks were shocking to their own contemporaries as well.
This life of the Egyptian-peasant-turned-holy-man was a best seller in antiquity; translated into many languages, it spread throughout the Mediterranean world and played a role in the conversion of the erudite Augustine of Hippo. The urbane and educated author Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, held up the rustic Antony as an exemplar of ascetic holiness and a staunch defender of the orthodox Nicene faith. Through this literary account, St. Antony became the model monk for generations to follow.
Sister Benedicta offers a delightful combination of riveting primary sources about female converts to monasticism and thoughtful analysis of the theological message of these texts. She is the rare scholar who masters both the historical context of these texts and their spiritual significance.
People tend to think of the desert monks as loners who fled all human contact. Gould argues to the contrary that community, compassion, and hospitality were at the very heart of desert spirituality.
Barsanuphius and John of Gaza are my own favorite desert fathers. They are from a later generation (6th century), transplanted from Egypt to Gaza, but their remarkable collection of letters to monks, priests, civic officials, and lay people captures the intimate conversation between spiritual fathers and disciples. Through their letters we catch a glimpse of the dynamic human relationships behind the enduring but static Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Jennifer Hevelone-Harper is associate professor and chair of history at Gordon College, and author of Disciple of the Desert: Monks, Laity and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza (Johns Hopkins, 2005)
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