Urban Fathers


What would happen if the great giants of early monasticism such as St Anthony, Arsenius and Moses the Black, happened to be living amongst us now?  What if they turned their back on the Egyptian wilderness and came to live in a very different kind of desert -- the urban wilderness of inner London?  These might seem like strange questions but they have intrigued me for many years, ever since reading Thomas Merton's Wisdom of the Desert whilst living in a tower block in south London.  For although the rocks and sands of the Egyptian desert are a very different world from the concrete and traffic of modern London there has always seemed to me a curious connection between the two places.


I sat with this connection for many years until I had the opportunity to take a long retreat in Wales.  In preparation for this I read William Harmless' account of the early desert fathers, Desert Christians, and something began to stir in me.  Then during the retreat I slowly read Stelios RamfosLike a Pelican in the Wilderness and gradually these strange old men of the desert began to come into clearer focus.  They were no longer so strange, their way of life no longer bizarre and humorous, but rather they appeared to achieve a unique engagement with what it means to be human.  It seemed to me that rather than rejecting human life for some kind of abstract, spiritualised existence they, in fact, were exploring the limits of what it means to be human -- no longer content with a mediocre human life enslaved to mean appetites and the winds of fate, they managed to grasp the mystery of life with both hands and live it to the full.  My old question then began to come into clearer focus -- if these old men were living now, here in the midst of the Inner London communities I have inhabited for 20 years, how would they live, what would they do and what would be the focus of their attention?


I found myself returning to Thomas Merton's translations of the sayings and wondering if I could rework them into a contemporary idiom.  From reading William Harmless it was clear to me that there was something about the desert fathers and their ascetic life which their contemporaries found very attractive.  This made me think about what would make 'urban' fathers attractive to our generation.  It struck me that a group of people who took seriously the ecological crisis and lived in a way which made peace with the earth rather than exploited it, could have a similar impact in our modern age.  Yet, as with the original desert fathers, this asceticism would not be a remote and inhuman discipline but it would always live under the greater law of love.  This gave me the key to start to reinterpret the desert fathers for the contemporary city.


Quickly, other ideas began to fall into place.  The body was obviously central to the spirituality of the desert fathers, it struck me that their true path was not about rejecting the body in favour of the 'spirit' but rather developing an embodied spirituality which made the body part of the spiritual quest.  This resonated strongly with my own interests as a person with a disabling chronic illness and the contemporary search for embodied spirituality.  Also, although there were some desert mothers such as Syncletica, the urban fathers would need to be equally women and men, and with a women taking a significant leading role.  Similarly, talk of ‘salvation’ seems strange and arcane in the contemporary world so the urban fathers and mothers would talk about happiness, even while investing it with a meaning far deeper than it is normally allowed.  And rather than losing themselves in the remote desert -- for modern transport and technology means that few places are now genuinely remote. The modern seekers would view with suspicion the telecommunications technology and media world which locks us into a lifestyle where the urgent overwhelms the important.


Finally I began to think about what most fundamentally connect the desert fathers to our urban age, and wondered if it was the issue of Christendom.  The desert fathers lived, in some ways, as a reaction to the first stirrings of Christendom, in which the way of Jesus began to be transformed into a state ideology.  This is why the desert fathers so valued their independence and can appear at times to be proto-anarchists.  Here is an immediate connection to our modern age where Christendom is breaking down and Christianity is no longer taken for granted as the foundation of the western state.  Maybe the 'urban fathers' are an exercise in imagining a post Christendom spirituality.


Below I offer a few selections of my reworked sayings of the desert fathers


Holy Pandit asked Holy Tony "How can I live a happy life?"  The holy man replied simply. "Don't think you can always get it right.  Don't worry about a thing once it has been done.  Keep your tongue under control and don't believe that your needs are the same as your greed".


A seeker was talking to Holy Isao who was one of the most respected holy men in East London and he asked him 'Why do you seem to find it so easy to resist temptation'.  The holy man replied 'Since I began seeking God I have concentrated on not allowing my anger to spew out and cover other people with my vomit '.


Holy Hyacinth said "It is healthier to eat deep-fried Mars bars and binge drink than gobble up your friend with criticism and snide remarks".


A brother seeker who was looking to live a celibate life came early to a meeting at a church hall and stumbled on a group of young sisters having an aerobics class in leotards and lycra.  He was flustered and embarrassed and clumsily fled from the hall.  Later when the holy woman who was supervising the sisters met the brother she said to him "If you truly had the calling for a celibate life you would have been able to wait in the hall without embarrassment".


Holy Olu had a car.  He went to holy McKenzie to talk to him about it "I have a small car and I find it useful for taking people to hospital and other holy men borrow it to make visits and help people in various ways.  But I am uncomfortable with owning it -- what should I do?"  The holy man thought about it and then said to him "How you use your car is good but it is better to live the simple life and not be burdened with possessions".  So Olu went and sold the car and gave the money to an environmental project.


Holy Priya spent 14 years in Dagenham praying to God every day to learn how to manage her anger


A holy man once said "There are two reasons why we do not achieve what we want to achieve.  Firstly we push ourselves too hard and go beyond our limits.  Secondly we want instant results rather than patiently continuing with the work we have begun.  Many people wish to live good lives which are healthy and environmentally friendly but most wish to achieve this without regular sustained effort."


A parliamentary commission on faith and social cohesion decided to come and visit Holy Mohindra and so went off to Stepney to see him because they had heard what an important influence he was in the community.  But someone warned the holy man about this so he sneaked away to his local pub for a quiet drink but on the way he ran into the commissioners and they asked him where Holy Mohindra' flat was.  He told them "What do you want with him?  He is an extremist and a fanatic".  The commissioners carried on and came to a community house run by some seekers inspired by holy Mohindra.  They said to the people there "We heard about holy Mohindra and wanted to come and talk to him but we just ran into someone who told us that he was an extremist and a fanatic".  The people at the community house were horrified at who could have described holy Mohindra like this.  The commissioners gave them a description of the person and they immediately recognised him as Mohindra "O that was holy Mohindra that you spoke to, he did not want to speak to you, he is not interested in recognition, so he described himself as a fanatic".  Somewhat perplexed but, perhaps, a little wiser the commissioners returned to Westminster.


A story was told about holy John the small.  One day he announced to his wife "I want to totally commit my life to God.  I want to live like the angels -- constantly praising God, without getting caught up in the trivia which is always getting in the way of our prayer".  So he left everything and went to live on the streets.  But after a week he returned to his wife.  When he pressed the intercom his wife asked "Who is it?" He replied "It's John".  But his wife replied "It can't be John he has become an angel".  John carried on but his wife did not let him in, keeping him waiting for some time.  Eventually she opened the door for him and said "If you are a man, you are going to have to start doing trivial work again like ordinary people, but if you are an angel why are you so keen to come back to this home of bricks and mortar?"  John realised he had been a fool and said "Forgive me, my darling, I deceived myself and made a bad mistake".


The Mother came on a group of seekers arguing about what kind of people were closer to God -- monks and nuns, the oppressed or environmental activists.  She interrupted them and said "Imagine three seekers living together.  One concentrates on silent prayer, another has a chronic illness but remains thankful and the third looks after the other two quietly and without complaining.  There is no difference between these three for they are all doing the same work".


There was a seeker who in a humble manner encouraged the other seekers when Holy Tony was visiting.  But when Tony spent some time with him on his own he challenged him over a small matter and found him very defensive.  Holy Tony said to him "You are like a house with an elaborate security system but you go out and leave a window wide open so that burglars can come and go freely".


One of the holy men used to say "When we began this adventure of seeking a holy life in the wilderness of the city we used to get together and talk in a way which got right inside me and nourished my whole being -- it felt as if we were really getting somewhere, recreating something of heaven here on earth.  But now we get together and we just criticise everything, no longer recreating heaven but inventing our own little hell."


A seeker visited a holy man who lived a very solitary and obscure life on an estate in Hackney and stayed with him for a while.  He found living with the holy man a very beneficial experience and stayed much longer than he had expected.  When he was leaving he said "Forgive me, my friend, I have disrupted your way of life".  But the solitary replied to him "My way of life is to offer you hospitality and to see you on your way in a more peaceful frame of mind".


A seeker asked one of the holy men "Imagine there were two seekers: one reads widely in all spiritual traditions, only eats organic, fair trade food and perfects his meditation technique; whilst the other cares for homeless people.  Which one is closer to finding God?"  The holy man replied "Even if that one who is so scrupulous, never so much as set foot in a Tesco, he would not equal the one who cares for the homeless".


A journalist came to see holy Simone, but she was warned about it so she put on her pinny, borrowed a cigarette from her neighbour and began mopping down the stairwell where she lived.  When the journalist came asking where the holy woman lived she replied "There aren't any holy people living here, darling, we're all sinners".  So the journalist left.  Sometime later the local MP came to visit but a friend warned the holy woman.  She went down to the off-licence and bought a large bottle of cheap cider.  Sitting on her doorstep in some dirty clothes she greeted the MP with a cheerful wave and invited her to sit down with her and drink the cider.  The MP was horrified and made a quick exit saying "If this is what the holy people are like we are better off without them".


Holy Tony and some friends had gone to the park and were sitting under a tree talking when a journalist came along and saw them.  So he came up to them and said "I thought you were holy men why are you here relaxing and enjoying yourselves, shouldn't you be praying or doing good deeds?"  Tony looked up at the journalist and said "Please lend me your mobile phone" So the journalist did so and Tony proceeded to phone a friend and have a long conversation with her.  The journalist started to get uncomfortable and Tony said to him "Is there something the matter?"  So the journalist said "I'm worried about my mobile phone, you will run down the battery and I need to use it".  So Tony said to her "It is the same with us.  If we spend all our time praying and doing good works we will become exhausted and no use to anyone.  Human beings also need time to recharge their batteries".


One of the holy women was asked by a seeker why she lived such an austere and simple life and she replied "It is true that we live a simple, austere life, seeking as the environmentalists say to 'reduce our carbon footprint', and that we live a very rigorous life without indulgence.  We don't do this to be trendy and impress people but because this is the life to which Jesus has called us.  Its true value will only be realised after our deaths".


Holy Miriam said "The person who knows how to be alone and spends time in quiet contemplation is like an organic tomato matured under the Italian sun but the person who is never without company and gossip is like an industrial tomato force-grown in a Dutch greenhouse ".


Two seekers came to visit a holy woman who lived a very simple life and never ate meat.  But when she heard that they were coming she immediately went out and bought a chicken and cooked a splendid roast dinner saying "Simplicity and vegetarianism are great but hospitality is better, for then you set aside your own desire and celebrate your friends".


This is the story of Holy McKenzie and how he came to East London.  "From an early age I found myself drawn to God rather than all the things young people generally get interested in.  I was therefore persuaded to become ordained and eventually became the Minister of a small suburban church.  But I didn't enjoy it so I gave up the Ministry, found myself a small flat in south London and became involved with a group of people seeking God.  It so happened that we worked with a group of young people and one of them, a young woman of 17, became pregnant and said that I was the father.  Everyone became very excited.  Her parents insisted that I take responsibility for the child so I looked to get a better job in order to have more money to fulfil my responsibilities.  When the day came for her to give birth she had a very difficult labour and in the midst of it admitted that I was not the father but that she had been sleeping with her next-door neighbour.  My friends brought me the news and were very happy for me.  But I disliked the attention, and now that I had no more responsibilities decided to leave that place.  This is why I ended up here in East London".


A seeker once wanted to talk to holy Ade of Finsbury.  He wrote him letters, tried to find his phone number or e-mail address (but he didn't have a phone or computer) and eventually came to visit him and knocked on his door.  But the holy man refused to answer him so, eventually, disappointed and sad, he left him alone.  One of holy Ade's friends asked him why he refused to speak to him seeing as he was so disappointed and sad.  The holy man replied "I know that one, he's only interested in words.  He's trying to make a name for himself by writing a book about us".


I find this final story disconcerting.  It challenges me not to reimagine the desert fathers by writing about them, but rather to engage in a lived interpretation which reawakens them in the day-to-day realities of 21st-century London.  Here, indeed, is an agenda for life.  I think I have only half begun.