Around the early fourth century AD, a significant number of Christians began to withdraw from ‘the world’ as they had known it.
They left their families and towns and moved out into the arid desert regions bordering the Fertile Crescent from Egypt to Syria. Their purpose was to live largely solitary lives, seeking God in the profound silence and austerity of the wilderness. They spent their weekdays alone, gathering together on weekends to receive Holy Communion, to worship God, and to provide one another with mutual encouragement.
The more experienced recluses were sought out for spiritual guidance and their ‘words’ were remembered, circulated and, by medieval times, gathered together in written collections.
In By Way of the Desert, Bangley provides a daily devotional guide that draws on the literature associated with the desert fathers and mothers.
Each daily offering provides a sentence or two from scripture, an anecdote or saying from the desert, and a final short summarising phrase for reflection during the day.
A devotional guide of this kind fails to take seriously the very different cultural context from which the desert sayings arose and the extraordinary (and alien) ways in which the desert hermits sought to live. For example, scripture was experienced not so much as the subject for meditation, but as a transforming fire that drew these early monastics into a fearfully demanding encounter with God.
They were willing to stay with a single verse until they had put it into practice and this might take months, even years. Their own ‘words’ or sayings were usually given in the context of a particular spiritual need and the recipient might then seek to assimilate the truth of this ‘word’ over their entire life-time.
Unless contemporary readers are willing to engage in the serious exploration of the whole experience of these early monks of the desert, they will risk misunderstanding the lived reality that was sought to be conveyed through their actions, gestures, lives and words.
Approached out of context and simply as a devotional reading exercise, the sayings will be either trivialised, misunderstood – or more probably – rendered incomprehensible.
Reviewed by Rev Jenny Tymms Mission Consultant (Discipleship, Formation and Spirituality) for the Queensland Synod.