Wisdom of the Desert – Thomas Merton

I just finished this book a few days ago, and highly recommend it. Merton, who is an incredibly skilled writer, gives a brief introduction to the desert ascetic fathers that is quite insightful. Merton offers clear reasoning why these individuals fled society to pursue holiness alone. I’d say in a world as loud and distracting as ours, we would do well to consider how we too might retreat from the world (although not necessarily physically) to pursue with relentless fervor the holiness of the Lord.

The quotes Merton selects from the desert fathers cover a wide range of specific topics, but they all are concerned with personal holiness. These individuals stressed the significance of bringing about the Kingdom of God personally before one is able to bring it about communally. Makes sense, right?

Reading through the selection of sayings from the desert fathers showed me that I’m not the first person to struggle with certain vices. Some of the questions asked sounded like they could’ve come from my own mouth. And, the answers given were freeing, humbling, and convicting at the same time.

Merton is now two-for-two for me. Merton has broadened my horizons and shown me sources of encouragement I will return to again and again.

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11 thoughts on “Wisdom of the Desert – Thomas Merton

  1. Hello! I just discovered your site here. Looks like a wealth of edifying, profitable posts! I wanted to say that I’m about halfway through this same book by Merton. Glad to see your post is so recent! Have you seen much of what YouTube has to offer regarding this topic? For example: Documentary material concerning Mount Athos, or Fr. Lazarus the Coptic? Sister Irene Gibson of Ireland is of immense inspiration to me as well. What is the previous book you’d read by Merton? Have you read “The Hermitage Within”? That’s another book I’m absorbed in right now, written by a humble, unnamed Monk. It was issued by Cistercian Publications.

    –Brandon, CA

    1. Hey, Brandon.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I have not seen the YouTube videos you are referencing, but will need to check those out. I’ve read Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain.” This book is his spiritual autobiography and it’s fantastic. His journey towards the ancient faith is remarkable.

      The book you mentioned by the unnamed Monk sounds great. If you come across a good book along these lines, please pass it along. I’m reading as much as I can get my hands on in the ancient faith tradition (particularly Orthodoxy). There’s a book called “The Way of the Pilgrim” written by an unnamed monk who is on a journey to learn and practice ceaseless prayer. Wonderfully enriching. There’s others, too. Maybe my most highly recommended book is St. Theophan the Recluse’s “Turning the Heart to God.” Jaw-dropping.

      Again, thanks again for saying hello!

      1. I’m reading a lot on Orthodoxy right now, too. I think you would appreciate, and possibly relate to, Sister Irene’s insistence on something such as the upholding of the Latin Mass (although Roman Catholic). There is a website I wonder if you’d draw anything valuable from: “Death To The World.” You’ve introduced me to St. Theophan the Recluse, thanks! I will read “Turning the Heart to God” and tell a friend about it. In fact, I wish you could attend a lecture with us Wed. night at an Antiochian Orthodox Church, and visit its renowned bookstore! (Throwing that out there in case you’re located in the Los Angeles area.) I have also heard that “The Orthodox Church” by Ware is good. Just so happens that my favorite form of Orthodox chanting so far is the Russian! I hear that the writings of Seraphim Rose are absorbing. If I would have known of the Desert Fathers some years back, I never would’ve stepped a foot into the Protestant assemblies! Even Arthur Pink understood the solitaries!

      2. Brandon,

        It seems we are on a similar journey. I will check out “Death to the World.” I don’t know what Protestant tradition you are associated with, but there’s a website that’s rather fantastic you might want to check out if you from the Reformed/Presbyterian world. One site in particular is Calledtocommunion.com. While it deals with conversions to Roman Catholicism, it’s a fascinating site with people journeying from traditional, conservative presbyterian churches (almost anticatholic?) into communion with the RCC. There’s a website that I’ve more recently found that is specific to Orthodoxy called journeytoorthodoxy.com. People share their conversion stories from all around the protestant world. Equally impressive.

        I haven’t read Ware’s “Orthodox Church”, but his “Orthodox Way” is phenomenal. I think I underlined or highlighted about 80% of his book. That book is a fantastic introduction to the “worldview” of Orthodoxy and one in the Protestant world cannot help but notice the differences.

        I resonate with your statement regarding how life might be different if you’d discovered the Fathers earlier in life. If I would’ve encountered Orthodoxy earlier, I would’ve avoided a great deal of difficulty and personal sin. I well trained in Reformed thought at a confessional reformed seminary. When I graduated, I was a living picture of “Knowledge puffs up.” My ministry for the years immediately following probably did more harm than good as I feel now like I traveled land and sea to make a convert who then became twice the son of hell (Mt. 23:15). I no doubt had to turn more people away from our blessed Lord by my attitude (despite my good intentions of teaching “THE” truth). Embracing the mystery and tradition would’ve been fatastically beneficial.

        Thanks for the invite, but I’m a long, long way from the LA area. I’m a Tennesseean!

  2. Dear brother,

    I did browse around “Called to Communion”, thank you for that site. I’ll be sharing it too with brothers of that stamp. Something I utilize often for argument is the “Evangelical and Catholics Together” document; the fact that it was publicly supported by J.I. Packer and Francis Schaeffer. That stuns Calvinists!

    For about 5 years I was heavily involved within the Calvinist-tradition, and the most hard-lined assemblies and groups of men imaginable. I had friends over at the Trinity Foundation (curiously enough, Gordon Clark was of the opinion that the best Trinitarian teachings always came from the Orthodox Greeks, and would attend their sermons!), at the infamous cult in Vermont (“Outside the Camp”). Even John MacArthur’s temper is angelic in comparison to some of the bloodthirsty fanatics I knew. Theonomists, Reconstructionists, determinists and judgmentalists of maximal degrees, etc.

    It seems to me there is a resemblance among the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Presbyterian system (government, hierarchy, rankings, etc.), what do you think? It is sad that each Protestant I have known to walk away from things Calvinistic has been condemned by his ex-brethren.

    Thanks for the Orthodoxy site! It looks like a gem. The “Orthodox Way” sounds enlightening.

    I do believe that my involvement within the Calvinist-assemblies in the past years is one of the most wasteful and regretful periods of my life, however, I also believe that God is ultimately conducting His orchestra from above, and that nothing truly is wasted. We can utilize everything that we have learned and gone through, even the things we feel remorse over. We can turn it all around, and it is never too late with God. He permits criminals on crosses to be saved at the last moment! With God all things are possible, and we can do all things in Christ Who gives us that strength (as you know).

    The Desert Fathers seem the closest to Christ’s walk, in manner, in conduct, in character. Simple, solid, trustworthy, sincere, kind, uncompromising, holy, saturated in prayer day and night.

    I feel what you are convicted of … That more harm than good was accomplished during the Calvinistic years. But you don’t seem like a true Pharisee, not a consistent one, not a lasting one. The men Christ crushed verbally in Matthew 23 were irreversible hypocrites of the highest order. You and I are men with conversions like Saul of Tarsus, our beloved St. Paul! Thanks be to God that we could be altered.

    Oh, Tennessee! Well, you must know of the scandalous “Red Beetle”, then! I used to be friends with him too. I must warn you … Some of those wolves might just appear here at your blog in the future to rend us!

    Sincerely, –Brandon

    1. Brandon,

      Again I find many points of similarity. When I enetered the Calvinist tradition, I came from a Pentecostal fellowship. When I drank from the Cavlinism Cool-aid, I didn’t just sip. I chugged. I found my good faithful Calvinist friends, too. Though, admittedly, MacArthur always puzzled me being a Calvinist yet a Dispensationalist. I couldn’t quite get the inconsistency…

      Well, two of the guys who first lodged wholes in my Calvinist wall actually were NT Wright (unbelievabley good!) and CS Lewis (a personal-literary friend whom I have read and “listened” to a great deal). They both pointed out problems I couldn’t quite describe, but had maybe felt. Then, as questions arose and cracks became evident in the foundation of Calvinist Castle, it was only a matter of time before the building had to be torn down. I can’t say I’m disappointed.

      I’ve thought the same thing about Presbyterians and Catholics, though my presby friends don’t like to hear it. I see far more similarity than it seems they do. Instead of a human pope, a final authority outside Scritpure, the Presbyterians (or at least the ones I’m most familiar with) have a paper pope, the Westminster Confession, also outside Scripture. I heard similar language. Like you said, the way the church was organized felt quite Roman. When I’m around my staunch Calvinist buddies now, I try to avoid a good deal of subjects because if I mention Eastern Orthodoxy, I might as well mention any ancient heresy form Church History 101.

      Now, I feel as if I’m starting the Christian life all over again, learning to follow Christ afresh. No longer is salvation a mere legal transaction, but a participation, a sanctifying growth towards theosis. It’s exciting.

      One more thing to send your way. You may have already seen this, but it’s a wonderful video highlighting the difference between the Orthodox view of salvation and the Western (Roman + Protestant, I think). Anyway, if you watch it, I wonder which of the two views is really “Good News”?

      Grace and Peace.

      1. What a video! How thought-provoking and inspiring. God’s love is relentless, ha! Oh, how this world is in such desperate need of that kind of love, which no human consistently keeps up. How ironic it is, that God alone understands a true vision of justice, yet man in his selfishness is constantly fighting to live according to “fairness” with others. God’s love puts ours to shame in an instant! I’ll be sharing that video all around.

        I agree with you, Calvinism is attractive to bullies and oppressors. Only true seekers and lovers of God can try on Calvinism for a phase, then muster the courage to renounce it like a knockoff. Neo-Calvinism is a Mafia for gangsters and thugs. The video melted my heart! This proves that Reformed Theology appealed to my flesh, not me as a whole man, not my spirit.

        Humorous you mentioned that about MacArthur … John W. Robbins had embarrassed him in “The Gospel According to John MacArthur” over at The Trinity Foundation regarding that very point. It is to go against the Bible, anyways, to take the name of Calvin, or Paul, or whichever man.

        I predict that Wright will make his way into my reading stack soon enough! And I love many things Lewis wrote.

        “A handshake in thought” (Rimbaud), and my applause for tearing the false building down. I always say that to the brave rare ones who actually abandon the tyranny of neo-Calvinism. It’s funny you said “presby friends”, since “presby” can also mean “something old”. I don’t have fellowship with any Protestants anymore, my friends are new, they are people like yourself. It’s not because I reject them, it’s because they have so many problems with things I say and ask. There’s hardly any compatibility, which has corroded to rust and ash by now.

        You are right, and how poetical a sentiment! A paper Pontiff, the supposedly infallible Westminster Confession! That concept is genius, brother. Can you imagine a Desert Father’s opinion of the modern Calvinist movement at hand, or Christ walking into one of their churches? Would He make a whip and drive them out? Would He show any approval?

        In the following 2 videos, theosis is alluded to. Hope you enjoy them! Pausing along the way is helpful to me for savoring the quick captions:

        I see that you and I could talk forever about the things of God, and so we shall! Whether on earth, whether in Heaven, or both!

        –Brandon

      2. Brandon,

        Those monks are convicting in their humility, simplicity, and love for God. It’s also convicting to hear men with such clarity describe the simple (but not easy) path to holiness through prayer. Of all the virtures and disciplines available to man for his growing in grace, prayer is the most important. It almost makes sense because, for me at least, prayer is the most difficult.

        Prayer is such a simple concept, but such a difficult practice to embody. Especially as the Fathers wrote about ceaseless prayer. Prayer is so countercultural in that through prayer (non action) the greatest works are accomplished. We modern westerners (me, for sure) think active obedience is preferred. We’d rather “do something” for our growth process. Yet, God calls man to relinquish his own image of his own status and fully realize his utter dependence upon God for all things. How convicting! My “work” for God may turn out to be more work against God if I don’t also spend time in true prayer (which is a struggle).

        Thanks for sharing those vidoes! They were convicting. And, I really like the way your closed your response. How fitting, yet how sadly we forget that those in Christ really will spend time speaking of the Lord and growing in communion with him forever, both here and hereafter. Amen!

        Grace and peace.

      3. I am in agreement with you regarding prayer. Hope things are going well for you. I’ve just picked up a pamphlet on St. Herman. I wonder if Christopher McCandless had known anything about him. You truly pointed out something profound by saying that through prayer, non-action, the greatest works are accomplished. I appreciate that you, even as you are exploring the Orthodox way, still reject a preference of active obedience, as you must have within Protestantism. I am the same way. I still am thankful for the writings of Martin Luther concerning justification by faith alone, ultimately. I got very uncomfortable the other night at an Orthodox lecture when the Fr. said we could live our whole lives in moral obedience and personal holiness, but that if we died at our last breath in an unrepentant sin, we would spend an eternity in the torments of Hell. Perhaps there is still a bit of the Protestant in me! I cannot accept that. What are your thoughts on this? I would not try to pick a fight with you, either. –Brandon

      4. Brandon, I’ve wrestled a good deal with justification by faith alone and the topic of eternity. Actually, I’ve put down some introductory thoughts on “paper” on “faith alone” and on eternity.

        I am rather interested in the theological debate surrounding “sola fide” because there is a wonderful (and biblical) argument that suggest salvation is based on faith alone, but not my faith, but the “faithfulness” of Christ. In Greek, “pistis” is translated often as both “faith” and “faithfulness”. Also, there are other bits of Greek grammar that would support the arugment that Paul is referring not to “faith in Christ” but “faithfulness of Christ” due to grammar (due to Paul’s use of genitive case). If my salvation is based upon my “faith alone”, what exactly does that “faith” entail? How certain must the “faith” be? Does God grade on a curve? Could I “get in” with 51% faith over doubt, or must I score above 70, 80, or 90%? But, if it is the “faithfulness of Christ”, Jesus was 100% faithful, even to death on a cross.

        I hear a counter-argument that says, “No, it’s not the quality of your faith, but the object of your faith.” I wonder about such a statement. The demon’s believe, and their belief is concerned with Christ, the object of our faith. They believe (or, know) who Jesus is, his power, his perfection, etc. But, they are not saved. I’ve written more about this in my previous post on “Sola Fide”

        On eternity, I really lean heavily towards the beleif in eternal restoration. This view has been in the church since the earliest Church Fathers. You might not find this view so much in the Western (both catholic and protestant) church, especially after Augustine, but in the Eastern Church (orthodoxy), the belief is still accepted, though not necessarily main stream. In my post on “Time, Eternity, and Salvation” I consider a few passages of Scripture where even if eternal restoration is not explicit, it sure sounds like a belief or hope of the apostolic authors. Also, I think there is a logic and beauty to the belief that has been passed down through the ages.

        If you find time, read those posts. I’d love to hear what you think about them.

        Grace and peace, brother.

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