The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (review)
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Reviewed by
Douglas Burton-Christie. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Pp. xv + 336. Cloth $55.00; Paper $24.95.

"The subject of this book is hermeneutics and holiness" (15) in anchoritic monasticism, or more specifically, "how the use and interpretation of Scripture shaped the quest for holiness amongst the desert monks of early Christianity" (4). It is, even more specifically, a study of the spirituality of the Apophthegmata Patrum, which served as the basic source for the investigation. Burton-Christie fashions a wonderfully detailed picture of this spirituality through a careful study of the centrality of Scripture in the ascetic formation and practice of the monks whose sayings and deeds are recorded in the Apophthegmata. Examples from the sayings abound throughout the work, and as such the volume offers a excellent introduction to the form of asceticism portrayed in this literature.

The book is divided into three major sections. The first section, "The Desert Hermeneutic in Its Setting," establishes the need for the current investigation, identifies the significance of Scripture to that investigation, and defends the choice of the Apophthegmata Patrum as the primary source of evidence. The second section, "Approaches to the Word in the Desert," explores in a more general way the use of Scripture in the desert (oral and written word, recitation, meditation, etc.) and the complex relationship between it and ascetic practice. The final section, "The Word Realized," presents a description of desert asceticism based upon the ascetics' use of Scripture (the desert hermeneutic) as it is revealed in the Apophthegmata Patrum. Chapters in this section focus on "Eschatology, Penthos, and the Struggle against Evil," "Renunciation, Freedom from Care, and the Recovery of Paradise," "The Humble Way of Christ," and "The Commandment of Love."

There is much to commend this book. Burton-Christie's sympathetic and nuanced treatment of the motivations, teachings and practices of the desert ascetics offers the modern reader insight into the power of the desert's call and helps explain its broad appeal in Christianity's formative years. The role of Scripture in the process, long recognized though often understated in recent studies, is firmly established. While actual citations of scripture are infrequent in the Apophthegmata Patrum, its impact on the words and stories of the various monks is clear. The complexity of its role is underscored in sections that explore the issue of orality and the written word, the question of citation versus allusion, the hermeneutical significance of praxis, and the intriguing fact that "there was no clear distinction between the words which came from the sacred texts and the words that came from the holy exemplars" (108). Recognition of the ascetic ambivalence toward words (their negative power, their positive power, and the power of silence) further underscores the caution with which the monks approached language (the word) as a primary source of power. Burton-Christie's work establishes the nuanced sophistication of the desert hermeneutic, a sophistication that undoubtedly extended its appeal.

The ascetics that emerge in the final chapters (Section 3 : "The Word Realized")are not those driven by ascetic excess or the exploration of divergent opinions. Their practices are [End Page 99] designed to appropriate Scripture as a lived reality. Their lives are Scripture made flesh. Using the stories and words of the desert ascetics, Burton-Christie reconstructs a world centered on the commandment of love. These holy men and women are not so much fleeing the world as they are embarking on an voyage of spiritual transformation. They are not so much breaking new ground as they are following the humble way of Christ. Humility and compassion (love) are the keys to their success. They are also the interpretive keys to the stories of the Apophthegmata Patrum.

Burton-Christie's reconstruction of the desert hermeneutic and anchoritic spirituality is impressive. If there is a weakness in his approach, it lies in his failure to address sufficiently the literary nature of the Apophthegmata Patrum. While he supplies a fine chapter on the complexity of the sayings source, in the final analysis he uses it as a fundamentally...


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