Desert Fathers: Monks Telling Lies

  • The text: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
  • The translator: Benedicta Ward
  • Notes: Because this book records an oral tradition, it doesn’t have an ‘author’ per se. It’s a collection of sayings that were handed down within these communities, starting around the fourth century.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using a Penguin Classics version, but if you google around you’ll be able to find some of the sayings online.

So here’s something kinda cool about the desert fathers. Turns out they would just straight up lie to people about shit. They have a big thing about not being showy – so, for instance, people would come poking around, and they’d be like hey are you that famous monk, and the famous monk would be like uhh nope, just to try and get rid of them. Or, in some stories, a monk would come along and be like hey I’m amazing look at this great fasting that I do or whatever, and all the other monks will be like hey buddy shut the fuck up. Even more than that, though, they’ll even insist on not keeping to their own practices if it’s in any way obvious or obtrusive. For example, in one story, a monk is fasting, and he goes to visit some of his mates, and they make him soup, and he takes like a single pea or whatever, because he’s fasting, and one of the other monks is like bro stop being a fucking bell-end:

“‘Brother, if you visit someone, don’t make a display there of your way of life. If you want to keep your own rule, stay in your cell and never go out.’ The monk accepted the advice, and thenceforth behaved like other people and ate what was put before him.”

Sticking to your own way of life is actually seen as shitty and intrusive if you’re showing it all off in front of people. It’s considered peacocking – which is quite at odds with the public performances of Christianity that we get today, particularly in the States – I’m thinking about, you know, the God’s Not Dead films or whatever, where it’s all about Sticking To Your Principles and Fighting For Your Faith in that dramatic fucking stupid way. These monks would have been first in line baking cakes for gay weddings. But even that’s not quite what I’m talking about, either. It’s not just about being reserved, and not showing your faith off in front of other people – the thing is, right, the monks would also just outright lie to people about the path to advancing in the faith. They’d only tell you what you’re ready to hear. Sometimes that means you get the opposite advice to what you might get if you’re further advanced. In one saying, a monk finds a couple shillings, and – he’s supposed to give everything to the poor, but he asks his mentor, and he’s like can I keep these shillings in case I need them in an emergency, and his mentor is like uhh yup sure. And the monk goes away, but he’s stressing about keeping the money, and he goes back to his mentor and is like okay but seriously should I keep it or not? And his mentor says:

“I told you to keep them because I saw you intended to do so anyway. But it is not good to have more than the body needs. If you keep two shillings, you will put your hope in them. If by chance they are lost, then God will no longer be interested in your needs. Let us cast all our care upon the Lord, for He cares for us.”

So this monk was worrying about not having enough money for emergencies, right, and the point that his mentor is making is about trusting God. If an emergency does come up, God can probably conjure up another couple shillings. You don’t need this money right now, so give it away, and if in future you do need money, trust in God, and He’ll fix you up. That’s the general principle. But this mentor can also see that the monk isn’t ready to let go of the money – he’s clearly latched onto it as a tangible form of security. So the mentor lets him hold onto it, and doesn’t try and force him to develop that aspect of his faith. It’s only when the monk comes back and demonstrates his willingness to pursue the question that his mentor tells him the actual answer. Again, that’s interesting – even if only in contrast to what exists in our contemporary culture. I don’t know if this is something you’ve experienced, but I grew up in one of those faux-edgy church cultures, where it was all about dudes in skinny jeans with caps telling hard-hitting truths to push the church out of its comfort zone. It’s very much modeled after the letters to the Corinthians, where Paul writes to reprimand the church there – you get some preachers who take that idea and run with it, styling themselves as provocateurs or gadflies, dragging the church forward despite itself. It’s just funny to have that context, and then to look at these monks, who’re like, yeah, he didn’t seem ready, so I just lied to him and let him be comfortable. It’s not that the monks don’t care about developing people’s faith – I think they more consider it to be something that has to arise out of the individual, as something organic and internal, rather than something provoked by an external agent. They’ll give you what you want if you ask for it, but they’re not going to drop anything on you unless you go looking. I’m not sure whether to compare it to self-directed learning or therapy. Interesting, huh.

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