I had sensed early on in my Christian life that the ascetic virtues of simplicity, charity, solitude and so on were supposed to be very important, even though they were largely ignored in my early Christian education. Monasticism is practically non-existent in protestant Malaysia, even in the high church Anglicanism I grew up with. This is a huge shame. I feel now that it was very difficult for me to grasp fully the love, sacrifice and suffering of Christ without the witness and example of monastics who have renounced the world to live in as Christ-like a manner as possible.
My first introduction to monasticism was through Buddhist monasticism. Buddhist monks and nuns are fairly common in urban Malaysia, and as a child I found their way of life fascinating. Even today, when I have frequent contact with Russian Orthodox monks and nuns, when I think of a monastic I imagine first a shaven-headed Chinese person in a yellow robe.
I encountered the book Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura and Henri Nouwen in the library of my orthodox church in America not long after I started attending. This book was my first introduction not just to the desert fathers and mothers, but to Christian monasticism in general.
The book is a compilation of the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, who fled to the Egyptian desert starting in the 3rd century A.D. to form Christian communities where they could live lives of solitude, austerity and sacrifice, away from the creeping complacency of Christian life in the newly-Christianized Roman empire. The traditions of these desert fathers and mothers form the basis of all Christian monastic communities today.
Nomura includes beautiful illustrations to these short sayings and stories in a distinctively Asian manner. Monks are clean-shaven and bald, and the landscapes evoke China or Japan rather than Egypt. This stylistic choice works very well however, and emphasize how the sayings and stories often have themes similar to Asian mysticism. For me, this was an incredibly refreshing reminder that Christianity has Eastern, rather than Western origins, and that the chasm between “Western” Christian values and Chinese values, which is such a defining part of Christian life here, is not as stark when I cease looking at Christianity solely through an American or Western European lens.
I feel that Yomura’s artistic choices will be of value to a Western reader too. They emphasize that certain ideas in Asian philosophy and religion that have started to appeal to some young Westerners are not absent in Christianity. They are present in a fuller, perfected form in the early traditions of the church, and are in fact an essential part of those traditions and of the Christian faith.
The illustrations are in black and white and delightfully simple, appropriate for the austere lives that these saints lived. I feel that the selections of the sayings are fairly representative of the original texts, and the themes range from the importance of fasting, prayer, and contemplation, to the dangers of judging others, to the need to let go of material goods and power over other people.
I suppose that the most complimentary criticism you can give a book is that it is too short. I finished the book wishing it was twice as long, and there were many, many sayings and stories that were not covered. But as an introduction to an important, yet often ignored part of the life of the church, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers is available on Amazon, and for Malaysians there is an entry for it on the MPH website, though they appear to be out of stock. The original sayings themselves are easily available online, for instance here.