It seems to me that I was still living in Edmonton, Alberta, just newly married, still following the ways of the world, and of worldly wisdom, evading the Lord's voice, which was daily becoming more and more recognizable to me, while still hoping for some ‘alternate Beauty’ that gave birth to all being—anything and anybody but the God of Israel—groping for any truth that would still let me be Me.
My latest fascination was with popular Zen, with its entertaining stories of the Zen masters and their riddles to enlightenment, called 公案 kōans, questions they posed which defied rational answer and sought to find resolution in human intuition. I thought things like this really profound, ‘Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?’ I can’t believe I was enthralled by such things, even at the age of 22. At least they didn't keep me captive for long.
A young man needs a mentor, and I still hadn't found one. My old college philosophy and religion prof, Doc Dana, was the closest I'd had so far in my young adult life. I'd loved the man, at least thirty years my senior, and hung on his words though not always understanding them. He wasn't an eloquent speaker, or a forceful speaker. He got his points across with a strange kind of gentleness and with such a twinkle in his eyes that I never even noticed, till my third year at his lectures, that he had a withered hand, right or left I can't remember. Since leaving college, emigrating to Canada to join a commune, and then having been ejected from it after hardly six months, I got married and tried to live ‘on the outside,’ as we used to call it, or ‘in the world.’ New Age communes were and are especially dualistic, matter vs. spirit, like the ancient Gnostics.
Anyway, I remember myself walking down a broad street and coming to an old used book shop at the corner. I had some time to kill, and in those days I was a fervent book-aholic, so I meandered inside. I always went straight for the ‘Philosophy / Religion’ section, and that day, for some reason my eyes and hand went straight to a little paperback with The Desert Fathers on the spine. I pulled it out, and my eyes fell on the passage I am going to quote. Something told me, ‘This is the beginning and the end,’ and I quickly checked my pocket to see if I had the sixty cents it would cost me. I did, I bought the book, and then walked the rest of the way home, reading like there was no tomorrow.
The Desert Fathers became my teachers, easing me out of my New Age arrogance and getting me ready to meet their Lord, who would soon be mine. What I read in this passage and in the rest of the book never left me. Without me consciously choosing, I began to emulate what I read there, attitudes and practices. The authentic profound had discovered itself to me, and my conversion to Christ had begun. These my teachers succeeded Doc Dana, building on the foundation that he so gently and lovingly laid, that old Presbyterian minister.
May his memory be eternal.
Now, from The Desert Fathers, pp. 67-68…
So we came to Nitria; the place most famous among all the monasteries of Egypt, about thirty-seven miles distant from Alexandria, and named after the neighbouring town in which nitre is collected, as though in the providence of God it was foreseen that in these parts the sins of men would be washed and utterly effaced, even as stains by nitre are cleansed. In this place there are about fifty (or not many less) habitations, set near together and under one father, in some of which many brethren live together, in some a few, in some a brother lives alone: but though they be divided in their dwelling, yet do they abide bound and inseparable in spirit and faith and loving-kindness.
So then, as we were drawing near the place, as soon as they knew that strange brethren were coming, straightway they poured out like a swarm of bees, each from his cell, and ran to meet us, joyous and eager, the most part carrying pitchers of water and bread, because the Prophet rebuking certain folk had said,‘Ye came not forth to meet the children of Israel with bread and water.’ And after they had welcomed us, they brought us first with psalms to the church and washed our feet, and one by one dried them with the linen that girded them, as if to disperse the weariness of the road, and in very act to purge the stains of mortal life in the traditional mystery.
But of their humanity, their courtesy, their loving-kindness, what am I to say, when each man of them would have brought us into his own cell, not only to fulfill the due of hospitality, but still more out of humbleness, wherein they are indeed masters, and from gentleness and its kindred qualities which are learned among them with diverse grace but one and the same doctrine, as if they had come apart from the world for this same end. Nowhere have I seen love so in flower, nowhere so quick compassion, or hospitality so eager. And nowhere have I seen such meditation upon Holy Writ or understanding of it, or such discipline of sacred learning: wellnigh might you judge each one of them a doctor in the wisdom of God.
These my teachers were, and are, in Christ. Their way of life is not far from us, if we would take hold of the same Word of God that they held on to, and simply understand it, and live it, as it is. My home and your home, our home, a monastery to God, where He alone is Lord, and where is welcome anyone who knocks.
Brethren, let us love one another.