Desert


I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Pietermaritzburg to see my mother, travelling by bus instead of flying as I had done on recent trips. And, while driving through the Karoo, I realised that, while I had travelled through it by bus shortly after coming back to South Africa, that had been at night. I realised with something of a shock that it must have been at least fifteen years since I had travelled through it by day.

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I have always loved the Karoo, that vast expanse of emptiness and semi-desert at the heart of South Africa. I remember driving through it as a child and, long before I had heard of the Desert Fathers or learnt the language of monasticism, longing to wander off into it, plunging myself into its arid emptiness. This was not an obviously religious longing, at least not in terms of the religious vocabulary that I knew at the time. And yet I somehow think that it may account for quite a lot. Later on I used to fantasize about a monastery in the Karoo, although I have learnt in the meantime that fantasies are not a good basis for monasteries.

Driving through the Karoo I became aware of how air travel has distorted our sense of time and space, although I suppose that our ancestors could have said similar things about any automated travel. It is so easy to hop between cities without realizing what is between them, and to rarely experience the endlessness of a road that stretches on and on. And it is so easy to assume that the concerns of the “city” – and of instant communication that now encroaches even into the “desert” – are indeed the real and only ones.

I have been reflecting a bit in recent months on the need for a thorough consideration on how the patristic teaching on the passions relates to the various “issues” that are thrown at me through the daily news. From rape and violence, to greed and corruption, to the way we are programmed to become consumers, to the various discussions around sexuality, to what often seems like a mindless cultivation of anger and aggression … the list could continue and I suspect that many of them are intertwined. And yet all too often the response of religious leaders is mere platitudes and moralism, whether of the “right” or of the “left.”

Driving through the Karoo and thinking about these thoughts that had been going through my mind, I was reminded that the systematization of Christian thinking around the passions and the virtues originated in the desert. It was in the starkness of the Egyptian desert that the early monks came to insight into what it means to be human, the forces that shape and control us, and how we can engage them at their roots and be transformed by actively cooperating with God.

The proper locus of theology, in an Orthodox understanding, is in the desert. This is not just the emptiness or the endless permutations of postmodern thought. The desert has a history and a clearly dogmatic content. But it is a content that leads to transformation. And somehow, if we are to speak of transforming society, we surely need to pay attention to this content.