"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Wisdom of the Desert in our Time

I was delighted recently to receive in the mail from St. Vladimir Seminary Press a new book that I said more than ten years ago needed to be written. In the early part of the last decade I was taking a graduate class on the Desert Fathers/Mothers, and trying to see connections between the "psychology" of such monastics as Evagrius and the world of the twenty-first century, especially in the aftermath of Freud. I was greatly attracted to the vision of "interiorized monasticism" that Paul Evdokimov touched upon in his lovely and lyrical (but not unproblematical) book The Sacrament of Love, but found that vision underdeveloped and not adequately "translated" and thus made accessible to non-scholars today.

Now, however, we happily have a very useful and edifying attempt to link the wisdom of desert monasticism to the world of our own day in a way that does not require all of us to flee to real deserts or try to climb atop a stylus somewhere. That book is  A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World (SVS Press, 2015; 201pp.) by Daniel Opperwall, whom I asked for an interview. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

DO: I was born and raised in suburban Detroit. I was baptized Presbyterian as a baby, but my family stopped going to church at all when I was about six. I got a really excellent education that left me interested in philosophy and literature. As most teenagers interested in that kind of thing, I decided to be an atheist for a time. In my early twenties, though, as I kept on reading, atheism became more and more absurd to me, and Jesus Christ became more and more compelling. But a lot of the Christianity I knew still seemed off. Then I encountered Orthodoxy, and everything connected. So, I converted.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World, in particular?

DO: There is a big trend in the Orthodox Church of people getting interested in patristic literature and monastic spirituality. But people often struggle when they are reading this stuff--they worry that maybe it's impossible to seek salvation without becoming a monk or a nun. It seemed to me that the problem comes when we fail to assess the core teachings being shared in this kind of literature so as to appropriately translate them into our real lives. How do I seek detachment while owning a car? How do I seek chastity if I am married and thus have sex? We cannot just try to do what ancient monks did--our lives don't permit that. So, we have to seek the same holiness as they did, but through our own lives as we really live them (not, that is, in spite of those lives). I decided to look at John Cassian's Conferences to see how that might be possible. Layman is what came out.

AD: Some might be puzzled by the seeming paradox in your sub-title: monastic wisdom for a life in the world. Don’t we all assume that monks are supposed to be world-fleeing and world-denying?

Well, for one thing, the notion that there is a great chasm between monastics and the rest of the world is far less true than we sometimes imagine, and it was, if anything, even less true in the ancient world. The ancient monks, even hermits, were constantly receiving news and visits--they were very engaged. So, one thing that became important in Layman was simply bringing forward what St John already says about worldly life--he knew a lot about it. 

But still, there is a difference here. The ancient hermits were trying to get away from the world as much as they could. Yet, they came to tremendous wisdom about God and human beings--wisdom that applies to everyone no matter what their situation. Layman is precisely about getting at that insight--that wisdom--and developing a theory of how to bring it back into our lives in the world. I hope that task seems a bit less paradoxical in light of the book, and I hope this is far from the last word we see on it.

AD: Your Athonite interlocutor, quoted in your preface, notes that a “monastery” is simply a place where people help one another unto salvation—just as a family does together. But why do you think that many people either fail to realize that, or otherwise assume that a family is a “lesser” calling?

I think it is a natural mistake to see monastics as special. There are far fewer of them then us, and nobody is born a monk or nun. We also tend to mistakenly equate Church-related things for the work of being Christian. So, since monastics spend far more time in church, we think of them as somehow more Christian. If we are only Christian in church, though, then there is no hope for anyone. And, honestly, the Church could do a much better job of disavowing people of these ideas. We have far too little material on married saints, for example--and what we have often involves couples living in celibacy so that they are basically just monastics again! The priest I met on Mt Athos knew far too much about real monastic life to fall into these traps, but for us lay people monks and nuns often remain mystical super-humans. We have to stop thinking like that.

AD: You note that Orthodox today do not want for practical books on fasting, praying the Jesus prayer at work, moral isues, or generally leading a life in the world; but that of those many books, few focus on what the “essential spiritual character and purpose” of a lay life is. Tell us how you understand that character and purpose.

The driving realization of Layman is that we, as lay people, have to be seeking our salvation through our lives in the world, not just in those moments of prayer or going to church. We have to be growing closer to Christ when mowing the lawn, cooking dinner, going to work, going to the bank. If we can't find ways to do that, then there really is no hope for us. Our purpose is nothing short of theosis in Christ--that is God's purpose for all people. But we are being asked to seek that in the world most of the time rather than through obviously religious things--that is the challenging character of our spirituality.

AD: You also note that we do not want for books, especially recent translations, of wisdom from desert fathers and mothers, but we do want for books translating that wisdom into an idiom for our own day. Why have we waited so long for a book such as yours? What has prevented others from undertaking such efforts as yours?

When it comes to the English-speaking Church, I think our writers and scholars have just had other priorities so far. I don't blame them for that. It was not long ago that we had virtually no books in English about Orthodox theology, church history, liturgics. We got some of those, so then we started working on translations of our classic writings, and that work has borne fruit only in the last few years. Now that we have our feet on the ground with those more essential things, we can start getting into the nuanced conversations about the shape of Orthodox life in the modern West.

AD: As you combed through the vast literature on desert wisdom, you came to focus in particular on John Cassian: The Conferences. Tell us, first, how you came to focus on him rather than other desert fathers and mothers.

The Conferences maintain a beautiful balance between accessibility and depth. A collection like the The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, for instance, would be hard to write about since it is all short snippets without many sustained themes or discussions. Conversely, the Philokalia is utterly vast, and often almost esoteric. The Conferences falls right in between so that there is enough to dig into for a book like this, but it remains approachable for those without lots of theological training. It also appealed to me because it bridges the East/West divide that we too often set up in thinking about Orthodox history. The Conferences is part of the full Orthodox heritage--east and west.

AD: Next, if you would, tell us a bit about the man and those Conferences.

St John is something of a mystery in a lot of ways. We can say just a few things with certainty. He spent a lot of time in several monasteries in Egypt, and travelled among the desert hermits there (whose teachings he records in the Conferences). At some point he went to Gaul (modern France) to set up several monasteries near Marseilles. That is around the time that he wrote the Conferences. We are not sure if he grew up speaking Latin or Greek, but he seems to have known both very well by the time he started writing (the Conferences are originally in Latin). St John can be a very beautiful, and remarkably honest writer. In the Conferences, he records accounts of what several desert hermits said to him and his friend Germanus as they went through the desert. He often records the questions that Germanus asks, and many of them can be challenging, critical, flippant, even slightly annoyed and funny. Sometimes St John will even express uncertainty about a teaching or situation--he does not try to make everything seem clear-cut. Because of all that, when reading the Conferences one really gets the feeling of sitting at the feet of the elders, talking back and forth with them. They feel like human beings, not impossible spiritual super-heroes. It's a beautiful way of recording all this ancient wisdom, and that is a big part of why the Conferences became some of the most influential texts in the development of Christian monasticism.

AD: Sum up what your hopes or goals for A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World are, and who in particular should read it.

My main hope is to start a conversation that lets us put lay spirituality into better focus. I'm not trying to transform the spiritual lives of lay people, or give them a different role in the Church, or anything like that; I want us to better understand the role that we lay people already play--the spiritual lives we are already living--and therefore try to strengthen them. So, to that end, I think basically any serious Orthodox lay person, and probably a good number of Catholics, would benefit from giving it a read. Other Christians might get a lot of food for thought as well, though the monastic tradition might seem a little more unusual to many Protestants and others.

AD: Having finished A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World, what are you at work on now? Other books in the works, or other research?

At the moment I have been thinking a lot about the Council of Chalcedon, in fact. I've just finished presenting at a conference on healing the Chalcedonian schism, and I will be teaching a course on the subject as well in January. So, that's a change of pace--back into heavy historical theology.

I haven't settled on a next book, but I am thinking very seriously about writing one on the Rule of St Benedict that would be in a similar vein to A Layman in the Desert. I'd like to explore how the Rule can be conceptually translated to help inform life in a family home rather than a monastery. My spiritual father is a Benedictine monk (yes there are Orthodox Benedictine monks!), and St Benedict drew a lot from St John Cassian, so it would be a natural next step.

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