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The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions)

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,960 ratings  ·  152 reviews

The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton's favorites among his own books—surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit.

The personal tones of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers w
Kindle Edition, 100 pages
Published January 17th 1970 by New Directions (first published 1960)
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Bill Kerwin
Sep 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

This is a selection of the sayings of the Early Desert Fathers chosen by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton—poet, mystic, peace activist, and author of the classic spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton, who was a member of a contemplative community, is not interested in the colorful accounts of demonic temptations, questionable miracles, and extravagant penances—which, he says, were a later development, following the popularity of The Life of St. Anthony by St. Anathasius of Al
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Worldly men have ruined Rome and monks have ruined Scete"
- Sayings from the Desert Fathers


Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk who has written at length about Buddhism and the monastic life, compiles here a sampling of sayings and parables of the Desert Fathers. These were the monks and hermits living in the Scetes desert of Egypt around the third and fourth centuries AD. This isn't a full collection, but more of a sampling of Merton's favorites. Many read like Zen koans. The similarity to Zen Buddhi
Jon Nakapalau
Almost Zen like - truly amazing that this group from so long ago can still speak to us from across the desert of time.
Surprisingly slim, brisk, read. Not 'difficult' study, as the title might imply. Everything is arranged in terse, pithy, succinct little aphorisms and anecdotes. Very rewarding overall; glad I sampled it. Monks, anchorites, copts, and hermits offer an example of spirituality and inner-guidance almost completely forgotten in the West these days; and (as the editor notes in his foreword) all the more neglected with the modern backlash against organized religions. But at the heart of these 4th c. p ...more
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excerpt:

It was told of Abbot John the Dwarf that once he had said to his elder brother: I want to live in the same security as the angels have, doing no work, but serving God without intermission. And casting off everything he had on, he started out into the desert. When a week had gone by he returned to his brother. And while he was knocking on the door, his brother called out before opening, and asked: Who are you? He replied: I am John. Then his brother answered and said: John has become a
Jul 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Abbot Hyperichus said: A monk who cannot hold his tongue when he is angry will not be able to control the passion of lust either."

Thomas Merton has condensed the succinct shrewdness of the hermits of the desert into several powerful paragraphs, each separate and not connected. The effect manages to be bracing and soothing at the same time, unlike the writings of some, which serve mostly to chafe and guilt. While penitence has an undeniably central role in living the Gospel, the feeling
Dec 13, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a Christian counterpart to Zen koans and parables and delightful collection of spiritual tales, wit and insight.

One of my favorites is by Abbot Pastor: "Any trial whatever that comes to you can be conquered by silence."

Or this one, also by Abbot Pastor: "Get away from any man who always argues every time he talks."

And yet another involving Abbot Pastor: A Brother came to Abbot Pastor and said: "Many distracting thoughts come into my mind, and I am in danger because of them. then the eld
Aaron Stokes
Sep 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A brilliant and succinct curation of Merton's favorite Sayings. The great value of the book, however, was the brief introduction provided by Merton in which he elaborates on the motivation of the hermits and their lifestyle. It almost acts as an apology for the monks (which is much needed in our current skeptical age). Merton writes that the hermits -- who have left a "strange reputation" -- fled to the desert in search of salvation. This is underscored by the belief that "Society . . . was rega ...more
Bobby Chastain
Mar 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I began this book as an observance for Lent this year. My goal was to read a quote per day (allowing chance to permit me to miss a day) and meditate on the meaning of the quote. I haven't finished it because it would probably take two Lenten seasons to get through it at that point. However, I think I will continue at the established pace. I walked away from this book realizing how difficult it can be to be truly "not of this world." However, as with all writings by/compiled by Thomas Merton, I f ...more
Apr 29, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In reading this, be aware that Merton was not seeking to present an in-depth analysis of the Apothegmata of the Desert Fathers, nor was he trying to gather together a comprehensive body of their words and sayings. Rather, think of this as a pieced-together collection of an old friend's favorite sayings by the wise early Christian monastics of the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts (all preceded by a short but profound introduction wherein said friend showcases their subtly brilliant understanding ...more
Ryan Milbrath
A very good professor of mine gave this to me as a gift for working with him on the Tao Te Ching. The short, concise statements of wisdom will appeal to any one seeking spiritual and mental enlightenment. A reader can breeze through these nuggets of wisdom in a single sitting, but I would suggest digesting them slowely over time. I usually read only three a day. The depth of the message depends on the reader, but it's refreshing again to see wisdom coming from some of the oldest documents found ...more
Apr 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of my favorite spiritual books of all time. Amazing, and fun, insights into the human spirit and the task of discipleship.
John McDonald
Aug 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
They were known to early Christians as the "Desert Fathers". Although some came from religious orders where they were known as monks, they assumed the life of hermits living alone, praying the Psalms generally, working, and, of course, living by a strict code of celibacy where even thinking about a woman violated their consciences and perhaps even an oath some of them took.

Thomas Merton--himself a monk at the Cistercian (Trappist) abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, points out that these men--all
There are several good books with quotes from the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). What sets this volume apart is that these are selected and translated by Thomas Merton, the influential Roman Catholic monk and peace activist, who also wrote an excellent introductory essay also entitled “The Wisdom of the Desert.”

He talks about when Christianity was not only legalized by the Emperor, but made the official religion so that it became a means of temporal power. The monks fled into the desert to retain
Sep 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fetching description of monastic life followed by casual translations from the Verba Seniorum by one of the great spiritual writers of modern Christianity. My favorite inclusion:
"There were two elders living together in a call, and they had never had so much as one quarrel with one another. One therefore said to the other: Come on, let us have at least one quarrel, like other men. The other said: I don't know how to start a quarrel. The first said: I will take this brick and place it here betw
Feb 05, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: christianity
This is a very readable collection of stories from the earliest stages of the monastic movement in the 4th century. The vignettes are variously clever, profound, ironic, humorous, and radical. Most are sound-bite brief or just a bit longer. None are comfortable for our self-indulgent generation.

A few of these sayings have stuck with me over many years. For example, when I feel that familiar little temptation to bend the truth to burnish my reputation, I'm often haunted by this saying from 'Abbot
James VanSteel
May 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
The powerful and useful introduction by Merton gives psychological, spiritual, and historical context for these sayings. The selected Verba highlight the emergent virtues of the monks' hermetic life: Silence, prayer, poverty, humility, patience, hospitality, work, charity, non-attachment, and, perhaps surprisingly, fellowship.

Some quotes below and the numbers of a few that stood out to me, featuring several of the Church's early and most lauded Saints like Jerome, Anastasius, and Anthony.

Mack Hayden
Feb 07, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
The mystics of any religious tradition are usually the ones that interest me most, but I can't say I found much in here that compelling. Merton's introduction really sets these guys up as particularly insightful into the spiritual plight of man, but, while there are certainly some profound parables or inspired reflections presented here, I felt like this was largely a manual for self-hatred to an extreme degree. Then again, I'm coming at this as an agnostic, so I may not be the best judge of any ...more
David Campbell
Even after nearly two decades in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist monk, poet, and essayist Thomas Merton’s formal literary training show no signs of wear in his Latin-to-English translations of the ‘Verba Seniorum’ (‘Sayings of the Elders’) chapters of 17th century Flemish Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde’s massive ‘Vitae Patrum’ (‘Lives of the Fathers’). Early 4th century persecutions by the Roman Empire hit the Coptic churches established by St. Mark in Egypt especially hard, giving birth ...more
Feb 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
unconventional, often bizarre, yet eternally wise & thought provoking. this little book is a gift. ...more
Timothy Ball
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tim-s-shelf
And he also said: he who is quarrelsome is no monk: he who returns evil for evil is no monk: he who gets angry is no monk.
Cooper Renner
Sep 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Tiny tales of the “desert fathers”, translated from an ancient source, and preceded by Merton’s essay. Not quite Zen-like, but perhaps as near as orthodox Christianity gets.
Jul 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Seek the timeless wisdom of the Desert Fathers

While the lives we lead here and now might seem wholly other than those lived by the holy ones who sought to encounter the LORD in the Judea and Egyptian deserts (just like Jesus and John the Baptist and the prophets of old did before them), nothing could be farther from the truth.

Sinful and destructive patterns of thoughts and action we know as Lust or Pride or Gluttony they named as Demons sent by the Evil One. They also knew that these demons coul
Feb 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: self-help, religion
Excellent read full of snippets of wisdom. I am not Christian but in general there is wisdom to be found and learnt. Obviously you can skip/read past the bits referring to Christianity specifically.

This is the kind of book you need to take notes of while reading. A very easy read and can be finished very quickly.
Aug 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Typical Merton

It's difficult to review a spiritual piece like this because it doesn't read like a bestseller or work of fiction. The only thing I can say is that if you know Thomas Merton's work, you will enjoy this book.
David Withun
Jun 10, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Mark Baller
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Lots of saying that Merton translated some good most not
Catherine Corman
whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe

-The Wisdom of the Desert
Brian Tucker
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
So so good for the soul
Austin Hood
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Certainly deserves more digestion than this reading challenge can present, but a powerful little volume that reminded me of the power of parable and increased my respect for aesceticism
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Thomas Merton was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in the American state of Kentucky, Merton was an acclaimed Catholic spiritual writer, poet, author and social activist. Merton wrote over 60 books, scores of essays and reviews, and is the ongoing subject of many biographies. Merton was also a proponent of int ...more

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