Today, as the world is stunned and grieving again, heed these words from Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. In this beautiful passage from his De institutione inclusarum (The Formation of Anchoresses), Aelred exhorts us to pray and more than pray for a world in need:
What is more useful than prayer? Give it. What is more gracious than pity? Spend it. Hold the whole world in one embrace of love; consider the good to congratulate them, the wicked to grieve over them; behold the afflicted and compassionate the oppressed; call to mind the miseries of the poor, the groans of orphans, the desolation of widows, the sorrows of those who weep, the needs of pilgrims, the vows of virgins, the perils of men on the sea, the temptation of monks, the cares of the clergy, the hardships that soldiers endure. Open your heart to all, spend your tears on them, pour forth your prayers for them.
It seems that we need these prayers more than ever today.
Source: For Crist Luve: Prayers of Saint Aelred Abbot of Rievaulx, trans. Rose de Lima (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), p. 10.
St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons). Note the bird who is bringing them a cookie.
While doing research last fall, I found a previously uncatalogued manuscript in a European research library (I won’t name the library because it would probably embarrass them to have everyone know that they left a manuscript uncatalogued). The manuscript contained several standard prayers and a Life of Christ, but it really got interesting in the final few folios, which proved to contain an unusual selection of sayings from monks who lived around the time of St. Anthony and other Desert Fathers and Mothers. Based on the tendency of these sayings to focus on baked goods, as well as what appeared to be grease spots dotting the parchment, I dubbed this section the Sayings of the Dessert Fathers.
I transcribed and translated these sayings in the winter but felt I needed to wait until Lent was over to unveil them to the public. Further research is necessary to understand these sayings within the context of early monastic culture, but even a cursory glance reveals a wisdom that I think will surprise you. Where possible, I have indicated the source of each saying.
Here begin the Sayings of the Dessert Fathers –
Go sit with your éclair, and your éclair will teach you everything.
Why, dessert cart, did I let you get away? I have often been sorry that I passed on carrot cake, never that I indulged. (Abba Arsenius)
Keep the hour in which you will eat the donut ever before your eyes.
Take away temptation, and no one will eat dessert. (Abba Evagrius)
An elder said, “He who does not receive all desserts as equal but discriminates, such a one is not perfect.”
An elder said, “She who has the last piece of pie with her does well not to bring anybody else into her cell.”
They used to say of Abba Arsenius that all his life long, when he was sitting, he had a rag on his lap on account of the crumbs that fell when he ate cake.
Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, “Can a man try a new dessert every day?” The Abba said, “If he works hard, he can try a new dessert at every moment.“
A soggy pie is the worst of all baked goods. It is the mother of all bad desserts. (Abba Peter of the Desert)
Ordering dessert does not require a lot of language. Reach out your hands, saying, “Give me that one.” (Abba Macarius)
An Egyptian hermit said, “If you desire a pilgrimage to TCBY, begin by getting in the car.” (Unknown source)
If you start on the cake, do not let a person discourage you. Your endurance will defeat the person. (Amma Syncletica)
God is equally pleased by all desserts. Whatever attracts you at the bakery is good. (Abbot Nestero)
What can get through all the traps of a sweet tooth? Humble pie. (Abba Antony)
In the same way a pudding is not ready until it has had time to chill, so it is with us. (Anna Theodora)
Eating without distraction is wonderful, but eating dessert without distraction is superior. (Abba Evagrius)
How can love function when there is a lack of freshly baked brownies? (Abba Elias)
Whatever helps us to get dessert, we must follow with all our might; whatever hinders us from it, we must shun as a dangerous and hurtful thing. (Abba Moses)
Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh tart.
For he was a man full of discernment and the good odor of freshly baked pie. (an Abba of Rome, probably Arsenius)
Someone asked Abby Anthony, “What must one do in order to get something sweet?” The old man replied, “… whoever you may be, always have the dessert cart before your eyes…”
When we turn our spirit from the contemplation of cheesecake, we become very hungry. (Abba Theonas)
I hope you enjoyed this selection of Sayings of the Dessert Fathers. I am diligently working to get a facsimile published soon. In the meantime . . . don’t forget to eat dessert first.
Note: For the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which bear a strong resemblance to the sayings quoted above, please see The Book of the Elders and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Big news! Today I am taking the helm at The Contemplative Writer, a website offering (near) daily soul care for writers. It was founded by my friend Ed Cyzewski, a wonderful writer and contemplative Christian. (Be sure to check out Ed’s books, such as Pray, Write, Grow and Write without Crushing Your Soul). Ed created a beautiful site, and I’m thrilled to be able to help keep it going.
At The Contemplative Writer, you’ll find a short tidbit nearly every day of the week: book of the month reviews, weekly prayer, and resources on writing and the contemplative life. Today’s post features our Book of the Month, the Cloud of Unknowing. Here’s a taste:
The Cloud of Unknowing is a contemplative treatise written in the late 14th century. It forms the basis (along with a few other historical texts) of the modern Centering Prayer movement.
The Cloud‘s anonymous author was a monk or priest who addressed his treatise to a young disciple just setting out in a religious vocation. Although written in a monastic context, the Cloud (and its “sequel,” the Book of Privy Counsel), has advice for anyone who wants to pursue a life of prayer.
Reading the Cloud of Unknowing, I’m especially drawn to the author’s description of contemplative prayer as rest and even akin to sleep. I don’t know about you, but I think rest is something most of us need in a culture characterized by a lot of striving. Are you tired and anxious? The Cloud author writes . . .
Join me at The Contemplative Writer to read the rest of today’s post, and while you’re there see if you’d like to sign up for the weekly newsletter and/or the daily emails.
Blessings on your journey today!
Last week at the gas station, a man I didn’t know approached me at the pump and asked me if I could give him some change to help him fill up his car. “I’m running short on money this week,” he said.
I hesitated. Should I give this man money? I didn’t know anything about him—where he’d come from or where he was going. I didn’t know what he’d really do with any money I gave him. But then, as the fuel pumped through the hose into my car, the truth pumped into me. Maybe I didn’t know who this man was. But I knew what he was. He was a pilgrim.
I’ve been studying medieval pilgrims lately, as well as biblical pilgrims, and I’ve come to see these travelers as fellow passengers on the journey of life. The guy at the gas station had all the symptoms of pilgrimage. Trust me, I know this condition when I see it. After diagnosing him, I knew I had to help him. He was, after all, a fellow traveler. I just wish I hadn’t hesitated.
For my own benefit, and perhaps for yours, I drafted this list of 4 ways to recognize a pilgrim (hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with a staff, a scrip, or a funny medieval hat):
Pilgrims are strangers
That person you just met or who just asked you for help may be unknown to you, but their very “strangeness” might make them a pilgrim. In Roman times, a peregrinus, the Latin word from which we get “pilgrim,” was someone “not from these parts.” It was a legal term. The Bible teaches that Christians are pilgrims because we’re not from these parts, either. (Heb 11:13) We don’t belong to the world and its ways. We’re all strangers here.
Pilgrims are travelers
In the Middle Ages, peregrinus morphed to mean someone on a journey, usually one of sacred import. Have you encountered any travelers lately? Maybe someone fueling up at the pump next to yours? Or someone on a difficult path through life? Every person is on his way somewhere—or trying to be, if he gets a tank of gas.
Pilgrims are in need
Some pilgrims are happy, healthy, and wealthy. But historically, pilgrims traveled in desperate circumstances. Medieval pilgrims frequently were ill or were atoning for sin or crimes. Many arrived at their destination completely broke. They relied on others to help them. I’m reminded of the guy at the gas station, who didn’t have any money for his journey. And maybe reminded a little of myself. I’ve never lacked money for gas. But I’ve come close to not being able to pay the rent and other bills.
Pilgrims are the faces in the mirror
I’d have been better prepared to recognize a fellow traveler if I’d glanced in the mirror before I got out of the car. In my own face, I would have seen all the symptoms of pilgrimage—like the man I met, I’m a strange traveler with lots of needs.
I don’t know how much clearer God could have made things. He taught me about the journey of life AT A GAS STATION. I did what I could for the pilgrim I met. It wasn’t much because I didn’t have much to give him. I’m not ashamed of that, because we give what we can. But I am ashamed that I hesitated. I hope my list—and perhaps a mirror—will help me to diagnose a fellow pilgrim more quickly the next time I see one.
Today, the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers the English mystic, Walter Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396). It’s a great opportunity to learn about this little-known figure from Christian history.
Walter Hilton was an Augustinian canon (a priest who takes vows and lives under a rule) known for his letters and treatises providing spiritual counsel. Evelyn Underhill calls him “One of those . . . quiet and secret friends of God who have never failed the Church.”
I’m in awe of many of the contemplatives and mystics from our Christian past. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that kind of faith. But in many ways, Walter Hilton is very accessible to us today. Here’s why:
Hilton struggled with his vocation – Hilton is a mystic for every person who doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up. He began by studying law; then he may have lived as a hermit for a time; finally he joined the Augustinian order as a canon. It comforts me that this great Christian thinker did not have it all figured out (at least, not at first)! I also think it’s interesting that Hilton did not choose to become a monk – as a canon, his was a public ministry. He was drawn to monasticism but seems to have had a heart for “the world.”
He said that interruptions can be a way to serve God – We (okay, I) usually bulldoze ahead with our schedule and our priorities, especially if we think we’re doing God’s will. But in a letter to a wealthy layman, Hilton counsels us to accept the interruptions that inevitably come our way:
If you are interrupted in your devotions by your children, employees, or even by any of your neighbors, whether for their need or simply because they have come to you sincerely and in good faith, do not be angry with them, or heavy handed, or worried — as if God would be angry with you that you have left him for some other thing — for this is inappropriate, and misunderstands God’s purposes.*
I try to remember this every time my children come bursting in on me!
Hilton said that all Christians are called to the contemplative life – In the letter I mentioned above, Hilton told a wealthy layman that Christians “in the world” can open themselves to the love of God, just as cloistered monastics can. In fact, he encouraged the layman to adopt a rhythm of work and prayer in his active life.
Hilton helps us to see that wherever we are, we can love and seek God. Even in the active life, we can rest in God. We can walk with him and seek to be transformed into his likeness.
If you want to read some of Hilton’s works, I recommend the Epistle on the Mixed Life — the letter I quoted from above. Also, read his fantastic passage on the Christian life as a pilgrimage in his treatise, The Scale of Perfection. I wrote a blog post about it here.
By the way . . . it’s neat that the late medieval mystic Margery Kempe is remembered by the Church today, too. We know that she read some of Walter Hilton’s works! I love it when things are connected.
*Toward a Perfect Love: The Spiritual Counsel of Walter Hilton, trans. David L. Jeffrey (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985), p. 18
Lisa’s book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, is on sale (Kindle version) for $2.99 for a limited time. Check it out and share the news!