The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions)

by Thomas Merton

Paperback, 1970




The personal tones of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East. The hermits of Screte who turned their backs on a corrupt society remarkably like our own had much in common with the Zen masters of China and Japan, and Father Merton made his selection from them with an eye to the kind of impact produced by the Zen mondo.


New Directions (1970), Edition: Revised ed., 81 pages


½ (78 ratings; 4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
20th-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton here provides a collection of translations from the Verba of the "Desert Fathers," who were Egyptian hermits of the early Christian centuries. His aims in presenting these English versions of originally Coptic materials are inspirational rather than
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historical. But in something of a contrast with the ascetic and mystical expectations that a reader might bring to bear on these texts, they turn out to be full of practical psychology and all-too-human concerns. Nevertheless, I read this short volume while in the midst of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, and it actually supports his thesis by demonstrating an impressively pure form of Christianity in its rejection of worldly values in favor of subjective strivings for autonomy and power over personal feelings.

The long essay with which Merton prefaces his translations is pleasant and fairly wise. I was quite struck by his quotation from what the body text offers as Saying III: "Therefore, whatever you see your soul desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe." (c.f. Quid voles illud fac.) Merton comments, "Obviously, such a path could only be traveled by one who was very alert and very sensitive to the landmarks of a trackless wilderness" (7). Reading these sayings put me in mind of my own experience of the psychic difference between the urban and the rural (the suburban being only the worst of both worlds), with an awareness of the way in which Christianity simultaneously denigrates and exalts the former.

Among the 150 sayings are a fair number of interesting and valuable ones concerning the spiritual worth of silence. There is, however, only one saying in the entire book (LXXXIX) which credits a female authority ("Abbess Syncletica of holy memory"), although women figure as sinfully tempting objects in several, and even as a deceitful accuser in the final one. My favorite is probably number CIX, in which an ass provides oracular confirmation of a hermit's priestly vocation.
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LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
This is Fr. Merton's contribution to the Desert tradition. The desert fathers were the first Christian monks, and the stories about them are both entertaining and enlightening. Within these stories you see the seeds of grace and love, discipline and challenge, humility and pride, success and
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In other words, this is authentic spirituality, and this book brings it to us in a neat and understandable package.
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LibraryThing member davidpwithun
The sayings of the Desert Fathers are, of course, excellent; every Christian without exception should at some point read them. They are filled with spiritual wisdom that applies even today, more than 1500 years since these great heroes of the Orthodox Christian Faith fought the good fight in the
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deserts of Egypt. This particular translation, though, is lacking. For instance, I'm not sure why Merton chose to use the term "abbot" rather than the original "abba" or the English translation "father" to refer to the Desert Fathers, but it is distracting and its implication (namely, that all of these men were abbots in the modern Western sense) is incorrect. While the translation is lacking, the presentation is beautiful. The book features a very nice, easy to read font, a soft chord bookmark, and a layout that makes it both easy to read and a great overall experience. If someone combined the presentation of this book with the translation of another, it would be an A plus.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Merton translated and compiled the wisdom and advice of monks living a hermit-like life in the desert in the fourth century. It’s an interesting collection with some wonderful bits. I’ve listed some favorites below.

There’s one parable of a man who steals a book from one of the monks. He goes
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to sell it in the local town. The man he tries to sell it to asks the monk who originally owned it if it was a valuable book. Instead of turning the man in and explaining that it was stolen, the monk just told the buyer that it was valuable. His actions led the man to return the book and ask for forgiveness. Showing mercy was a much greater act of kindness and it reminded me so much of the powerful scene with the priest in Les Miserables.

BOTTOM LINE: Incredibly quick read with some great advice.

"Malice will never drive out malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice."

"Never acquire for yourself anything that you might hesitate to give to your brother if he asks you for it, for thus you would be found as a transgressor of God's command. If anyone asks, give to him, and if anyone wants to borrow from you, do not turn away from him."

“We have thrown down a light burden, which is the reprehending of our own selves, and we have chosen instead to bear a heavy burden, by justifying our own selves and condemning others.”
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LibraryThing member deusvitae
A small collection of Merton's favorite quotations from many of the "desert fathers" of late antiquity.

Merton's introductory essay is compelling, explaining the purpose of the collection and speaking highly of the "desert fathers" in a way that is not hagiographic but in appreciation of the wisdom
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Many of the quotations are humorous, some can be a bit misanthropic, but on the whole there is some good wisdom to be found in many of the quotes. Much can be gained from a passionate pursuit of the ways of Jesus, although it is best in the context of people, as Jesus lived.
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LibraryThing member b.masonjudy
I found this collection of sayings to be an excellent resource for short meditation / contemplation. Merton's introduction goes a long way to help frame the purpose of the collection and the lives of the desert fathers. For the most part the monks seem legit, that's about it.
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