An Interview with John Michael Talbot, Author of ‘Desert Dangers and Delights”: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Author of ‘Desert Dangers and Delights”
I want to begin this piece with a disclaimer. John Michael Talbot and I have known each other as friends and colleagues for well over 40 years. In the first instance, it was music that brought us together. We worked together in touring concert venues and coffeehouses in the Midwest, at times with his brother Terry, and then as a solo artist. When he became a Roman Catholic and adopted a Franciscan manner of life, I would often visit him at Alverna in Indianapolis. In 1980, he made his way north to sing at my wedding in the chapel of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. We have maintained our friendship over decades to this day.
Through the years, however, we have also become what I can only call “theological companions”. It likely started with the study of Franciscan sources, but it continued in our studies of Church History and especially the writings of the Fathers of the Church. My academic work on Athanasius of Alexandria introduced me to the early monastic communities that formed in the desert round about Alexandria. At the very same time, John was becoming deeply influenced by the writings that had emerged from these self-same, loosely knit groups of desert fathers and mothers.
This month a new book, ‘Desert Dangers and Delights’ has been published by the Liturgical Press, in which John shares some of what he has learned and experienced in his on-going conversation with this rich theological tradition.
John, why did you decide to finally write this book on the desert fathers and mothers?
JMT: Publishers have requested that I write on this topic for decades. I’ve always considered it above my pay grade. It’s only after an encounter with sickness that brought me face-to-face with death, and friendship with some Coptic Monks in Texas that I felt myself ready to put some thoughts to paper, so to speak. I also feel that they have a great lesson for us in our currently polarized political and religious climate.
In the modern era, most of us lack the opportunity, or even the setting, for solitude. Owing to this we may think of the experiences of the desert fathers and mothers as “other”, that is, it can be appealing but it seems beyond our reach or experience. How do we, or even, how do you, integrate their experience into your own?
JMT: Even during their lifetime Saint Athanasius was writing about St.Anthony of the desert, not only to inspire people to embrace the monastic life (which they did by the tens of thousands), but to inspire people in the secular world to live the gospel principles of radical prayer and renunciation in Christ in an adapted way. So in a sense, this is nothing new.
Today, I believe that they speak prophetically to the “nones,” and, “dones.” Due to Church scandals many people feel that they are “none of the above” in religious affiliation, and or simply “done” with life in an institutional church, or even in the socio-political world. The desert fathers spoke of a way to radically renounce the politicized and polarized world without condemning it. They remained obedient to the orthodox bishops of the Catholic Church, and prayed for the salvation of the world. As Evagrios said, we are “separated from all, and united with all.”
John, through the years we have often talked about the renewal of the Church arising out of monastic or “intentional” communities. This, of course, has been popularized in The Benedict Option. It seems to me that the desert fathers and mothers present another way through the combination of cenobitic and eremitic religious life. How do you see this?
JMT: I’ve only read the Benedict Option a few times. I found some good things there, but it didn’t resonate with my spirit. So, I can’t address it with any authority. I do think, however, that the various classical monastic ways are great examples that are helpful to monastics and non monastics alike.
The cenobitic monastic expression of St. Pachomios, St. Basil and St. Benedict is based on the Greek “koinonia,” meaning fellowship or communion, and is classically a more intense communal life with daily common prayer, work, and meals. The eremitical expression of St. Antony of the Desert is based on the Greek, “eremos,” meaning wilderness or desert, and is more solitary. Additionally, the English for “monk” is “monos” meaning, “alone,” and “one.” These words are found in the New Testament. Jesus is a great example for one who went into the eremos, to be monos.
The cenobitical expression is first found in Acts, where they lived the common life, or “koino bios.” This seems more exclusively evident in the Jerusalem community, which scholars now say grew in a largely Essene part of the city. Koinonia is also used for community. Most later communities (see 2 Cor. 8) had the right to private property, and the privilege of sharing with the needy, with equality being the result. It is rare for normative Christian expressions to meet even the most permissive models for community of goods today.
The eremitical model developed into the legendary wandering solitaries who live in total isolation for years at a time in the deep desert, are fed miraculously by angels and saints, receive the Eucharist miraculously, and see others only at the end of their lives to relate their experience. This was, however, rare. For most, the eremitic expression was more a colony of solitaries that met on a Saturday and Sunday gathering for Eucharist, Agape, and conferences with the more saintly fathers. It is called “the royal way.”
Today, these models are helpful for those who want both more community, and more solitude. And they provide a unity in diversity that still remains both reasonable and radical by modern standards. Most of us need both community and solitude in order to be balanced. Ironically, the semi-eremitical expression can inspire those who live as singles or in families, and come together in small groups on a weekly basis. Very few are called either to more intense community or solitude. These are for those called to formal monastic life. Yet, some are called to monastic life, and it is vital for us to keep the monastic contemplative heart of the Church beating in order to pump the spiritual blood of Christ out to the more active members of the Church.
Yes, as you know one of my dearest friends is an enclosed Anglican Benedictine. It’s a hard life. She prays and sings the offices seven times in a day in addition to her work in the garden and the infirmary. Yet, I think her prayers count for more than all my books, articles and sermons put together.
Now, The book is entitled ‘Desert Dangers and Delights’. We understand the physical dangers of a desert, but what of the spiritual dangers?
JMT: Spiritual combat is not well understood by the average Christian in the West. The desert fathers were experts in understanding spiritual warfare as it unfolds in the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions. The Eight Thoughts first appear in Evagrios and Cassian, and were boiled down to Seven Cardinal Sins in the West. Both lists are helpful in understanding how to “chase the rabbit” of thoughts and feelings back to where they come from, and where they lead, and how they tempt us to sin, or encourage us to righteousness.
I noticed that you included in the book not only your own reflections, but also resources for those who want to go deeper and even study questions. How would you hope this book would be used? As an educator, it looks perfect for use by a small group study or even as an aspect of catechesis.
JMT: Thank you; yes, I envision all of my books being used for further private reflection, and for further reflection in small groups. I think this book is especially pertinent in light of the growing interest in monasticism, in the desert fathers and mothers among those seeking an alternative way to deeper personal spirituality, and communal expressions of Christ and the Church.
John, lastly, what would be the single most important thing that you would hope people would take away from this book?
JMT: Don’t just be a “none” or “done.” Make a radical break from the things in our life that keep us from following Jesus, and provide an environment to support that break, individually and communally, in order to renew our polarized world and Church.
Many thanks my friend…
If this brief conversation has sparked your interest in the lives, writings and sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, I commend John Michael’s new book to your attention. You may find a “new world” that lies out beyond the walls of the city. As John Michael might sing, it is yet another invitation to “Come to the Quiet”.