The Way of the Heart

Henri Nouwen

Nouwen’s little classic was where I first met the likes of Anthony, Arsenius, and Theodora. The Way of the Heart is indispensable reading for understanding how solitude, silence, and prayer mark the life of holiness. Writes Nouwen: “The words flee, be silent, and pray always summarize the spirituality of the desert. They indicate the three ways of preventing the world from shaping us in its image and are thus the three ways to life in the Spirit.”

The Wisdom of the Desert

Thomas Merton

Few have lived the wisdom of the desert as radically as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. His book of collected sayings gives a beautiful glimpse into what motivated the Fathers and Mothers. As Merton observes, “What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in ‘the world.’” Amen to that.

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

Transalted by Benedicta Ward

At some point, getting into the desert fathers and mothers means immersing yourself in primary-source material. Which brings us to these translations from Benedicta Ward, one of the foremost modern authorities on desert spirituality. Her volume organizes desert sayings and stories by theme, making it a handy guide. (Mine is a mess of notes and markings and dog-ears.) A must-have for those looking to go deeper.

John Cassian: Conferences

Translated by Colm Luibhéid

One reason we know about the desert fathers and mothers at all is because of John Cassian. As a young man, Cassian traveled to Palestine and Egypt to drink from the wells of desert wisdom. Twenty-five years later, he founded a monastery near Marseilles, France. Benedict of Nursia later used Cassian’s writings to found his own monastic communities, which shape Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist life to this day.

Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another

Rowan Williams

This book blends the sayings of the desert with Williams’s unmistakable theological clarity and cultural analysis, showing just how relevant the wisdom of the desert is to our increasingly polarized time. As Williams writes, “What is to be learned in the desert is clearly not some individual technique for communing with the divine but the business of becoming a means of reconciliation and healing for the neighbor.”

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