One of the things that I’ve found myself drawn to time and again over the past year, and especially during times of lockdown, has been the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. If you’re not familiar with them, these were women and men in the 4th century who took themselves off into the North African desert to live lives of simplicity and prayer. The sayings and stories of figures like St Anthony, Abba Poemen, and Amma Theodora were collected and shared widely at the time and continue to provide inspiration and challenge for Christians to this day.
The early monastics lived in caves or simple huts in the Egyptian desert, alone or in small groups, in a quest for holiness. They took very literally Jesus’ call to the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor, and St Paul’s encouragement to pray without ceasing. One of the most well-known sayings comes from Abba Moses who, when asked for a word of wisdom by a brother, said “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
And yet, as Douglas Burton-Christie writes, “It is surprising in some ways, given how harsh life in the desert could be, that the final word in desert spirituality is tenderness.” So many of the stories of these hermits are tales of tiny acts of tenderness, of kindness. Stories such as the time when a young brother dozed off during prayers and the abbot, seeing the disapproval of the older monks, pretended to fall asleep too so as to spare the youngster any embarrassment. Or the time when a visitor arrived at a monk’s cave during a period of fasting and the monk, realising that the call to hospitality far outweighed the discipline of fasting, immediately prepared and shared a meal with his exhausted guest.
The disciplined lives which the desert mothers and fathers lived enabled, rather than restricted, their capacity for generosity of spirit. Burton-Christie concludes that “Such acts of tenderness towards others were preserved because the monks were convinced that it was here above all that one could see the fruit of long years spent struggling in the desert.”
It’s been fascinating to observe during the COVID-19 pandemic that it has been simple acts of tenderness rather than grand gestures that have been noticed and celebrated. Picking up a prescription for a shielding neighbour, dropping off food parcels for a vulnerable family, offering a word of comfort to a lonely friend. In the face of the harsh reality of lockdown, of living through a global pandemic, it would be easy to lose sight of their importance, and yet in a time of great challenge these tender acts have sustained our communities.
The Prophet Micah, writing a thousand years before the desert monks, reflected this call to simple, faithful, acts of tenderness over grand gestures when he said “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? … What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:7-8 abr.)
In the face of the far greater environmental challenges of climate breakdown and ecological collapse, it can be easy to get frustrated, especially for those of us with a particular role in persuading others of what we know to be real and serious, and urgent. And yet the example of the desert monks, the experience of the coronavirus pandemic, is a reminder of the importance of speaking and acting with tenderness.
In her introduction to ‘Words For A Dying World’, Hannah Malcolm picks up on the importance of tenderness in the face of ecological grief, writing “The tenderness of caring for the dying is not a despairing act but a courageous one… Adopting an orientation of grief means choosing to invest in things that are small, that are temporary, and celebrating them in the broken, fragile beauty they bear in the eyes of God. It is soft, cruciform foolishness.”
The lives of the desert monastics, living out in the wilderness, was a huge challenge to people. It stretched their understanding of what it meant to be holy, what it meant to follow Jesus, and yet that challenge was offered with an extreme tenderness.
As Christians called to the task of communicating scientific and theological truths about the environment we too are called to challenge, to stretch people’s understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. But in doing so we too are called to tenderness, to humility, to soft, cruciform foolishness. Not because the issue isn’t urgent, but precisely because it is urgent, and we need to carry people along with us as we journey through the wilderness together.
Rev’d Richard Clarkson is Rector of two parishes on the edge of the Black Country. He has degrees in Physics and Theology and wrote his Masters dissertation on Nature Contemplation in the writing of Maximus the Confessor. He is Environmental Officer for Lichfield Diocese, a JRI director, and dad to three wild boys!
Burton-Christie, Douglas “The Word In The Desert” (1993)
Malcolm, Hannah (ed.) “Words For A Dying World” (2020)
Merton, Thomas “The Wisdom Of The Desert” (1960)
Ward, Benedicta “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” (2003)
Photo: Morocco mountains by Marc Gallagher.