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Faith of our fathers, living still?
Earlier this week I decided to treat myself to Sister Benedicta Ward's
*Wisdom of the Desert Fathers*, a collection of sayings from the third and
fourth centuries. It would be nice, I reckoned, to take a break from the
contention about sexuality in current Christian discourse.
Alas, I no more escaped from sexuality in the writing of the desert
fathers than would anyone who decided to read the bible with the same
Of the 237 passages collected in *Wisdom of the Desert Fathers*, 29 (12%)
address "How to deal with the warfare which lust arouses in us."
One significant difference is that the discourse is focused on the beam in
the fathers' eyes rather than on the motes in others' eyes. That priority
does not hold in much church discourse on sexuality today.
Another significant difference is the rigor of the cures celebrated, much
more intense than any Aversion Therapy promoted recently by the Religious
A brother at Scetis [a prominent monastery in the desert west of
the Nile delta] was a good fighter. The enemy suggested the
remembrance of a very beautiful woman to him and he was much
afflicted by it. Providentially, another brother who went to
Scetis from Egypt said to him, while they were speaking
together, 'The wife of so and so is dead.' Now it was the
woman about whom the ascetic had experienced the conflict.
When he heard this, he took his cloak and went to open her
tomb by night; he soaked the cloak in the decomposing body.
Then he returned to his cell bringing this bad smell with
him, and he strove against his thoughts, saying, 'Here is
the desire you are seeking--you have it--be satisfied.'
And he chastened himself by means of that bad smell until
the warfare in him ceased. (page 10)
Nor were the desert fathers silent about homosexuality. They manifested
remarkable insight about what provokes some people to be so concerned
A brother attacked by the demon went to see an old man
and said to him, 'Those two brothers sleep together.'
And the old man saw that he was mocked by the demons,
and he sent someone to call them. When evening came,
he spread a mat for the two brothers and covered them
with a single covering, saying, 'The children of God
are saints'; and he said to his disciple, 'Shut this
brother in the cell outside because it is he who has
this temptation in himself.' (pages 15-16)