Thomas Merton's Preface to The Wisdom of the Desert

Thomas Merton published The Wisdom of the Desert in 1960, his contribution to short works collecting favorite sayings of the Christian desert hermits, or Desert Fathers. While the selecting was doubtless an enjoyable task, the Preface to the little ensemble surprisingly emerges as a clear, precise and useful introduction to eremitism as a whole.

Merton begins his introduction by asking what the hermits sought in going to the desert, in abandoning the cities for solitude. In a word, "salvation," he says. But Merton carefully notes that abandoning the cities was not only abandoning the pagan character of urban life but also abandoning their presumeably increasing Christian presence, "when the 'world' became unofficially Christian." Merton notes that

these men seem to have thought ... that there is really no such thing as a "Christian state." They seem to have doubted that Christianity and politics could ever be mixed to such an extent as to produce a fully Christian society ... for ... the only Christian society was spiritual and extramundane.

Merton argues that these hermits were ahead of their time, not behind it, that they understood what was necessary -- and unnecessary -- for establishing a new society. The line of Merton's thought may show its age in Merton's vocabulary, describing the hermits as the new "axial" men, as "personalists" -- but the point is important. The hermits were not pragmatic or negative individualists, not even rebels against society. They might be seen as "anarchists," -- and "it will do no harm to think of them in that light." They simply believed that their values were sufficient for ruling themselves, and for providing for humane fellowship. While acknowledging the titular authority of bishops, these were "far away" and had little to say about the desert for at least a century.

The hermits sought their own self, rejecting the false self "fabricated under social compulsion in 'the world.'" They accepted dogmatic formulas of the Christian faith, but without controversy, in their simplest and most elemental forms. But while the monks or cenobites living in nearby monasteries also conceived of formulas as necessary scaffolding to their spiritual growth, the hermits were entirely free to conform only to the "secret, hidden, inscrutable will of God which might differ very notably from one cell to another!" Merton quotes an early saying of St. Anthony: "Whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe."

But the quote refers specifically to the perogative of the hermit, to one

who was very alert and very sensitive to the landmarks of a trackless wilderness. The hermit had to be a man mature in faith, humble and detached from himself to a degree that is altogether terrible.

None other than the hermit could abide within these apparent extremes. Hence the prescribed maturity.

He could not afford to be an illuminist. He could not dare risk attachment to his own ego, or the dangerous ecstacy of self-will. He could not retain the slightest identification with his superficial, transient, self-constructed self.

The hermit, above any other person, had to lose himself to a transcendent and mysterious yet inner reality. To Merton this reality was Christ. Clearly, this Christ was not the popularized image of icons and evocations but a transcendent being dissolved from society and convention. How, then, could the hermit not lead a life of simplicity, compunction, solitude, labor, poverty, charity, purity of heart? The fruit of this self-discipline was quies, "rest." This "rest" the world -- meaning society -- could not offer.

Merton notes that the desert hermits never spoke of this quies, never distinguished it from their way of life. They did not theorize, philosophize, or theologize. "In many respects, therefore," declares Merton rightly, "these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks of China and Japan."

As is well known to those familiar with his biogrphy, Merton always chafed with his own monasteric life -- cenobitism -- while fulfilling a grand service to his readers by writing, a privilege that monastic life afforded him, or rather was afforded to him by his abbots. But he never shrunk from criticizing his contemporaries. Thus Merton states that men like the desert hermits don't exist in monasteries. Though monks leave the society of "the world," they conform to the society into which they enter, with its own norms and conventions, rules and penalties. While many desert hermits were once monks, they left monastic society and established a new path of "fabulous originality," to which nothing contemporary in Christianity can compare.

The desert hermits

neither courted the approval of their contemporaries nor sought to provoke their disapproval, because the opinions of others had ceased, for them, to be matters of importance. They had no set doctrine about freedom, but they had in fact become free by paying the price of freedom.

This price was the experience of solitude and simplicity. The words and sayings of the desert fathers are a prompt to reflection, but it was the lived experience of solitude that truly counted for them. Hence their sayings are plain, pithy, and trenchant, born of the experience of solitude and wrestling with the ego. Merton affirms their "existential quality." The hermits were humble and silent, with not much to say, which makes reading them refreshing. The secrets to their lives are thus revealed directly in their manner of living, expressed in it, and therefore deducible indirectly from their sayings.

Today (as much as in the past), the desert hermits are too often portrayed as ascetic fanatics. This is entirely the conclusion of one who has not read their sayings and tried to penetrate their values. In fact, the hermits strike the careful reader as "humble, quiet, sensible people, with a deep knowledge of human nature." Their world seethed in controversy but they "kept their mouths shut" -- not because they were ignorant or opinionless but because they became like the desert, offering nothing to the worldly but "discreet and detached silence."

Merton notes that the desert hermits were mostly "on their way" and not boasters of arrival. They were not passionless, bloodless, or "beyond all temptation." This is what makes their sayings and their way of life so compelling. The were laborers, and showed genuine concern for the welfare of their fellows in charity, exhibiting the ideal virtue of Christianity.

Isolation in the self, inability to go out of oneself to others, would mean incapacity for any form of self-transcedence. To be thus the prisoner of one's own selfhood is, in fact, to be in hell: a truth that Sartre, though professing himself an atheist, has expressed in the most arresting fashin in his play No Exit (Huis Clos).

Ultimately, charity is love, and holds the primacy over everything else in the spiritual life. Love in fact is the spiritual life, avers Merton, meaning not sentiment, nor mere almsgiving, nor mere identification with one's brothers and sisters because they are like oneself. Love here presents itself in all humility and with reverence toward the other and the other's integrity, identifying with that which is transcendent in both oneself and another. Love presumes a death of ego in order to accommodate the needs of charity and of others. The work of the hermits, which is the spiritual life, can accommodate the needs of others in this way, looking to the shortcomings of self always, and taking up the proscription of Jesus to judge no one. In this one is free, free to pursue one's own path without obligation.

By the end of the 5th century, the monasteries of Scete and Nitria, so close to the desert, had become "the world." Merton notes how they had virtually become cities, with laws and penalties. "Three whips hung from a palm tree outside the church of Scete: one to punish delinquent monks, one to punish thieves, and one for vagrants." To this the desert hermits would profoundly demur. Thehermits represented the "primitive anarchic desert ideal." And in the desert, in solitude, all transgressions eventually serve to enlighten the wayward soul.

Merton completes his preface with a sketch of some important names now familiar to the reader of the sayings: Arsenius, Moses, Anthony, Paphnutius, Pastor, John the Dwarf. Merton's book is brief but invaluable as a start, and worth revisiting for the familiar.

Merton  concludes with a telling paragraph that is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it in 1960:

It would perhaps be too much to say that the world needs another movement such as that which drew these men into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Ours is certainly a time for solitaries and for hermits. But merely to reproduce the simplicity, austerity and prayer of these primitive souls is not a complete or satisfactory answer. We must transcend them, and transcend all those who, since their time, have gone beyond the limits which they set. We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.


Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert is published by New Directions (New York, 1960), Sheldon (London, 1974), and Shambhala (Boston, 1994 and reprinted 2004).