|The obvious place to start, of course, is
with the sayings themselves. There are two collections one organized on themes
such as discretion, humility and lust. This is published by Penguin books
under the title The Desert Fathers -- Sayings
of the Early Christian Monks. There is also an alphabetical collection
which organizes them according to the author of the sayings. This is published
by Cistercian Publications under the title
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. A selection of 150 sayings is made by
Thomas Merton in The Wisdom of the Desert
and benefiting from his lucid style is a very good place to start. All these
collections have introductions which are worth reading.
Interpreting them in the light of modern times is an important task and reading one of the following introductions may well provide an easier entrée than just reading the sayings cold. They both do an excellent job in making this ancient old men and women contemporary
Rowan Williams. Silence and Honey Cakes Lion 2003. A very good short introduction
John Chryssavgis. In the Heart of the Desert -- the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers World Wisdom 2003. Another excellent introduction by an Orthodox priest, particularly significant in emphasizing the role of women
Other helpful introductions include
Stelios Ramfos Like a Pelican in the Wilderness Holy Cross Orthodox Press 2000 . This is what really got me into the depths of the Desert Fathers written by a Greek philosopher it is probably not the place to start straight off.
William Harmless Desert Christians -- an Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism Oxford University Press 2004. A more historical volume it gives background rather than spiritual insight but, nonetheless, is very worthwhile
Perhaps what is most important with the sayings is to orientate yourself towards them as a modern person. It is easy to dismiss them thoughtlessly. Reading the introductions are good but what is most beneficial is actually engaging with them on a regular basis. This is why I found my daily practice of reinterpreting them for the contemporary city so helpful, it got me to know them very well. They certainly lend themselves to a slow, quiet, contemplative reading and are better read one at a time than all in one go. Yushi Nomura's book Desert Wisdom -- sayings from the Desert Fathers Image Books 1984 is a beautiful example of reflection on the sayings, he accompanies brief selections with beautiful Zen monk brush drawings. In groups it works well to display sayings on separate pieces of paper and allow people time to read and choose them before sharing in a wider group
There are other ancient sources on the Desert Fathers. Athanasius's life of St. Antony, the letters of St. Antony and The Lives of the Desert Fathers, for instance. I find these nowhere near as interesting as the Sayings. I also find the early interpreters of the Desert Fathers: John Cassian and Evagrius of Pontus, less interesting. They turned the insights of the desert into a system which ultimately led into monasticism and its concerns with discipline and ladders of spiritual growth. Perhaps this was inevitable and even necessary, but something is lost in translation as far as I am concerned. What is most thrilling in the Desert Fathers is the honest exploration of the limits of the human spirit. The sayings do not provide a system of spiritual growth but varying perspectives on the search for real human transformation. Sometimes individuals got things wrong, sometimes they over did the asceticism, sometimes they got dragged back into the world, but the journey was honest and real and so must ours be.
If the Sayings are to be useful to us we need to earth them into our own context. Mark Gruber's Journey Back to Eden -- My Life and Times among the Desert Fathers Orbis Books 2002 is a wonderful exploration by a Roman Catholic priest of the Coptic descendents of the Desert Fathers but the authentic spirit of the Desert Fathers can also be found throughout Christian history
Celtic Christianity was obviously strongly influenced by the Desert Fathers and there are many books on this. Particularly interesting is Benedicta Ward's High King of Heaven -- aspects of early English spirituality Mowbray 1999 which introduced me to St. Guthlac the so-called Anglo-Saxon St. Antony. I found myself deeply attracted to Guthlac, visiting the site of his hermitage Crowland in the Fens and tracking down the original sources. A similar thing can be done with the Celtic saints. A particularly worthwhile pilgrimage is to the shrine of St. Melangell in the Berwyn Mountains. The organization Journeyings is a not-for-profit organization which organizes pilgrimages to Celtic landscapes.
Another avenue to explore are the Roman Catholic pilgrims in the deserts of North Africa the most famous of which, perhaps, was Charles de Foucauld, but their lives are beautifully betrayed in the film of Gods and Men. Also worthwhile is Meditations on the Sand St. Paul Publications 1982 by Alessandro Pronzato. There are a number of opportunities to go on pilgrimage and experience the desert for yourself and I have a number of friends who have greatly benefited from this.
There are also works which explore Desert Spirituality more widely. A good overview is The Wilderness of God Andrew Louth DLT 1991 which ranges broadly to include the Desert Fathers as well as Charles de Foucauld, St. John of the Cross, the Russian forest and TS Eliot's poem the Waste Land. Particularly powerful in this genre is Belden Lane's brilliant book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes -- exploring deserts and mountains spirituality. The theme in all these works, perhaps, is that the wilderness is a forbidding and dangerous place but whether we choose to go there, or find a wilderness in some way thrust upon us, we can embrace the experience and find it leads us into spiritual growth.
On the web the following website has a lot of useful information