On the Way . . . Not Yet Arrived

Most of the characters represented in these sayings and stories are men who are “on the way” to purity of heart rather than men who have fully arrived.

The Desert Fathers, inspired by Clement and Origen, and the Neo-Platonic tradition, were sometimes confident that they could rise above all passion and become impervious to anger, lust, pride and all the rest. But we find little in these sayings to encourage those who believed that Christian perfection was a matter of apatheia (impassivity).

The praise of monks “beyond all passion” seems indeed to have come from tourists who passed briefly through the deserts and went home to write books about what they had seen, rather than from those who had spent their whole life in the wilderness. These latter were much more inclined to accept the common realities of life and be content with the ordinary lot of man who has to struggle all his life to overcome himself.

The wisdom of the Verba is seen in the story of the monk John, who boasted that he was “beyond all temptation” and was advised by a shrewd elder to pray to God for a few good solid battles in order that his life might continue to be worth something.

– Thomas Merton in The Wisdom of the Desert