Friday, May 11, 2012

"Men Intoxicated with God": Reading the Lives of the Desert Father Iconographically

In these early posts, I want to try to think through for myself as clearly as possible how to consider the lives and the writings of the Desert Fathers and how they and their remarkable efforts have played a key and decisive role in the destiny of Christianity.  Recently I have been reading Paul Evdokimov’s work called The Struggle with God.  It is a superb work and I will be following closely his chapter on the Desert Fathers.  He begins by telling us that “ ‘for those who love his coming’ (2 Tim 4:8) the Christian city that the Empire of Constantine undertook to build is profoundly ambiguous.”   “Time appears entirely relative to the return of Christ who will surprise us ‘as a thief in the night’.  Qualitatively, since the day of Pentecost, we live in the latter days, and the parousia that has begun despoils the centuries of their apparent stability.”  In many ways we can only understand the ascetic movement to the desert in light of this ambiguity.  There is a paradoxical movement or reversal that takes place at this moment.  “It is no longer the pagan world that fights and eliminates the martyr; it is the hermit who takes up the attack and eliminates the world from his being.  The Fathers brought back the atmosphere of fighting of the first centuries, finding the equivalent of the aggressive forms of persecution.  The arenas where the wild beasts had torn the martyrs apart were replaced by the immense desert where more fearful beasts rise up, and where the demoniacal powers cast their shadows.”(page 94)  

There is a great temptation for the reader of their lives and writings to think of their asceticism as a bizarre aberration or something comical - reducing the secret depths of their lives to the surface appearance.  But, Evdokimov, tells us, “they become normal for a nature that is on fire.”  Therefore, our reflection on their lives must in itself become contemplative - opening itself up to the deep mystery of their lives and what it reveals.  Again, Evdokimov insightfully captures what the nature of our approach to the Fathers must be:  

“When they discovered the powerlessness of words, they counseled veneration of the mystery by silence.  This is just what the icon does.  An icon of a saint tells us nothing of his physical appearance and gives no biographical, historical, or sociological detail.  It shows the radiating influence of the man beyond history.  A saint bears history within himself, but he shows it in a different manner; he reveals a new dimension of it, in which its meaning is made clear by its last end.  He constitutes a meta-historical synthesis.  We must read the lives of the desert Fathers iconographically, just as we contemplate an icon.” (page 98)  What this means we will consider in later posts. . . .  

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