- The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A Select Edition and Complete English Translation by John Wortley
The tradition of “apophthegmata,” maxims ascribed to the great spiritual teachers of the Egyptian desert, is probably best known to general readers through various collections of the fifth and sixth centuries—typically, very brief narrative scene setting followed by a memorable piece of counsel on prayer and the ascetic life. But the genre continued to develop, and the collection presented here shows something of what was happening to the tradition between roughly the sixth and the tenth centuries. Wortley disclaims any intention of offering a full critical text, chiefly because the nature of the manuscript tradition is so very complex; this is a collection with the most fluid boundaries, and any attempt at a “definitive” edition would misunderstand the nature of the texts themselves. So what is offered is a composite Greek text, with a basic but sound apparatus and a very serviceable English translation.
Quite a lot of the familiar sayings will be found here, but what is most striking is the significant number of enlarged narratives, edifying stories about monks and their neighbors. At their fullest and finest, some of these are real “short stories” from the pen of a Byzantine Kipling or Stevenson, spinning out narrative tension, displaying moral dilemmas, offering sketchy but strong characterization. A notable feature is how many show women positively—women who bring men back to their senses, who display a spiritual insight or courage denied to men in general and monks in particular. Many give a vivid picture of village and small-town life in the early Byzantine Middle East before the arrival of Islam, demonstrating very clearly how monastic individuals and communities were involved with the social life of their environment. Despite the “Anonymous” of the title, many of the stories are attached to the names of great monastic saints, but the overall sense is of an almost folkloric world of nameless governors, farmers, ascetics, soldiers, husbands, and wives. There is plenty more research to be done on what this family of texts brings to light, both theological and historical, and this handsomely produced volume is a welcome invitation to further study. [End Page 510] The introduction is minimal, and there could with advantage have been a word or two about some of the ways in which the conceptualities and vocabulary of earlier monastic tradition are altered in these stories—the most dramatic instance being that the word logismos, originally meaning a train of (usually distracting) thought and image that can upset spiritual equilibrium, has become a synonym for direct diabolical temptation, sometimes personified as an agent or speaker. But this book will be a valuable tool for anyone wanting to understand Byzantine society and the early evolution of Eastern Christian devotion at a popular level; valuable too for those who simply want to understand what the Desert Fathers and Mothers understood.
Rowan Williams was, from 2002 to 2012, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury and has been the thirty-fifth master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, since 2013. A member of the UK Privy Council and House of Lords (as Baron Williams of Oystermouth), he is also chancellor of the University of South Wales, a member of the British Academy, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and formerly Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. His many books include Peacemaking Theology; The Truce of God; Faith and Experience in Early Monasticism; Arius: Heresy and Tradition; Faith in the Public Square; The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language; Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction; and The Poems of Rowan Williams.