In this article, three relatively recent works of popular spirituality are discussed with a focus on the appropriation of the Apophthegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers (and mothers). It is shown that such appropriation implies a complex dynamic of breaching and bridging as the critical, “breaching”, voice of the desert is called upon to bridge the gap between antiquity and modernity. The process of appropriation implies both the selection of specific texts and a favourable reading of the same. It is also informed by the formal training as well as the personal experience of the respective authors: Henri Nouwen, Anselm Grün, and Kathleen Norris. As the oscillation between ressourcement and aggiornamento is brought to bear on the congenial transplanting of ancient wisdom to the (post-)modern world, it becomes apparent that in these spiritual bestsellers the more problematic aspects of the desert are hardly ever breached themselves.
Henri J.M. NouwenThe Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981; repr.2003); Anselm Grün Der Himmel beginnt in dir: Das Wissen der Wüstenväter für heute (Freiburg: Herder 1994/1999; repr. 2008).
For bibliography see HarmlessDesert Christians333–338. Recent translations in: Robert E. Sinkewicz Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006) and Augustine M. Casiday Evagrius Ponticus (Abingdon: Routledge 2006).
NouwenThe Way94–95. Remarkably Burton Christie quotes the same story to complete the final chapter of his study on the word in the desert. See Burton-Christie The Word 291 (only the epilogue follows after the closing words of chapter 9).
GrünDer Himmel84–104. Cf. Evagrius Ponticus Antirrheticus in Evagrius Ponticus ed. Wilhelm Frankenberg (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung 1912) 472–544. In her study on asceticism Elizabeth Clark – taking her cue from Evagrius’s title – characterises this protective use of Scripture as “talking back.” See Elizabeth A. Clark Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999) 128–132 esp. 131–132. A recent translation of the work (with introduction) is by David Brakke: Evagrius of Pontus: Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons (Collegeville: Cistercian Publications 2009).
Willemien Otten and Theo Salemink“Prologue: Religious Identity and the Problem of Historical Foundation. The Foundational Character of Authoritative Texts and Traditions in the History of Christianity,” in Religious Identity and the Problem of Historical Foundation. The Foundational Character of Authoritative Sources in the History of Christianity and Judaismed. Judith Frishman Willemien Otten and Gerard Rouwhorst (Leiden: Brill2004) 4.