Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Strange Timelessness of 'Vitae Patrum'

The extracts below are taken from ‘The Desert Fathers’ translated from the Latin by Helen Waddell, and published in 1936 by Constable & Co Ltd, London.


 Title Page of 'The Desert Fathers', Adapted from 1st Edition (1615)

In the Preface to the book, we learn that ‘the original of these translations is the Latin of the Vitae Patrum, a vast collection of the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers, edited by the learned Rosweyde, and printed at the Plantin Press in Antwerp by that most exact typographer and his very good friend  Balthazar Moret, in 1615. The texts assembled by Rosweyde, were those with which the Middle Ages were most familiar: not the Greek originals, with the translations into Latin made for the most part in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries.  Rufinus and Evagrius were contemporary with the men of whom they wrote: Pelagius and Paschasius a century or so later. Jerome and Cassian write at first hand of the desert, in Latin, not in Greek.The present book contains only a fragment of its vast original, which runs in the 1628 folio to more than a thousand pages in double column.’ 

‘I first came to the Vitrae Patrum sixteen years ago, not for its own sake, but in a plan I had of reading for myself, with a mind emptied, what the ordinary medieval student would have read, to find the kind of furniture his imagination lived among. It held me then, as now, with its strange timelessness. I began a translation of it, continued at intervals in the years since. This book is not a study of the Desert Fathers, their place in the ascetic tradition, or the authenticity of the sources. That would demand a range of languages and of knowledge far beyond me. A few of the gentlest stories of the Desert Fathers, the kindness between them and the wild creatures they lived among, appeared in Beasts and Saints (1934), and it must be remembered that whilst  the Desert has bred fanaticism and frenzy and fear:  it has also bred heroic gentleness” (Helen Waddell  - 1936)


The Desert Fathers  Of the Excellent Way of Life of Divers Holy Men -  (John the Sub-Deacon, Book III)

The Abbot Sisois was dwelling alone in the mountain of the Abbot Antony:  for his servant tarried in coming to him, and for ten months he saw no man.  But as he walked upon the mountain, he found a certain Pharanite herding cattle.  And the old man said to him, “Whence comest thou, and how long hast thou been here?” And he said, “Indeed Father, I have had eleven months on this mountain, and I have not seen a man except thee.” And the old man, hearing it, went into his cell and smote himself, saying, “Lo, Sisois, thou didst think thou hadst done somewhat, and thou hadst not done so much as this man who is of the world.”

This same Abbot Sisois sitting in his cell would ever have his door closed.  But it was told of him how in the day of his 'sleeping', when the Fathers  were sitting round him, his face shone like the sun, and he said to them, “Look, the abbot Antony comes.”  And after a little while, he said again to them, “Look, the company of the prophets comes.” And his face shone with a double glory, and lo, he seemed as though he spoke with others.  And the old men entreated him, saying, “With whom art thou speaking Father?” And he said to them, “Behold, the angels came to take me, and I asked that I might be left a little while to repent.” The old men said to him, “Thou hast no need of repentance, Father.” But he said to them, “Verily I know not if I have clutched at the very beginning of repentance.” And they all knew that he was made perfect.  And again of a sudden his face was as the sun, and they all were in dread.  And he said to them, “Look, behold the Lord cometh, saying, ’Bring me my chosen from the desert.’” And straightway he gave up the ghost. And there came as it might be lightning, and all the  place was filled with sweetness.

They told of the Abbot Macarius the elder, that he was once walking in the desert, and found the head of a dead man lying on the ground: and when he stirred it with the staff of palm that he had in his hand, the head spoke to him. The old man said to it, “Who art thou?”  And that head answered the old man, “I was a priest of the heathen that used to dwell in this place, but thou art the Abbot Macarius, who hast the Holy Spirit of God. Wherefore in whatever hour thou hast had pity on them that are in torment and hast prayed for them, then are they a little consoled.” The old man said to him, “What is this consolation?” That head made answer, “As far as the sky is distant from the earth, so deep is the fire beneath our feet and above our head.  And standing in the midst of the fire, there is not one of us can see his neighbour face to face. But when thou dost pray for us, we look one upon the other, and this doth pass with us for consolation” Then said the old man, weeping, “Woe to the day in which man was born, if this be the consolation of his pain.”

'An old man was asked by a certain soldier if God received a penitent man. And after heartening him with many words, he said to him at the last, “Tell me, beloved, if thy cloak were torn, wouldst throw it away?”  He said, “Nay, but I would patch it and wear it.” The old man said to him, “If thou wouldst spare thy garment, shall not God have mercy on His own image?”'   (‘Divers Sayings’ – John the Sub-Deacon, Book IV)


St Kevin and the Blackbird   (Beasts and Saints 1934)

‘At one Lenten Season, St Kevin, as was his way, fled from the company of men to a certain solitude, and in a little hut that did but keep out the sun and the rain, gave himself earnestly to reading and to prayer, and his leisure to contemplation alone.  And as he knelt in his accustomed fashion, with his hand outstretched through the window and lifted up to heaven, a blackbird settled on it, and busying herself as in her nest, laid in it an egg.  And so moved was the saint that in all patience and gentleness he remained, neither closing nor withdrawing his hand: but until the young ones were fully hatched he held it out unwearied, shaping it for the purpose.’ 


                                          Saint Kevin

For a sign of perpetual remembrance, many images of St. Kevin throughout Ireland show a blackbird in his out-stretched hand.
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All you holy Saints and Hermits, pray for our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, and for the Church.
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