What traces of the spirituality of the Desert Father have we preserved?
Jean-Claude Larchet: They are known to us mainly thanks to "apophtegms". These are very short texts, which relate their words or their remarkable acts. Some are excerpts from the writings of these Fathers, like Evagrius of Pontus or Macarius the Great. But many of the Fathers gave only oral teachings, providing advice to those who came to visit them. Beginning in the second half of the 5th century, we constituted flourishes of their words and accounts of their ascetic exploits.
What is their particularity?
Jean-Claude Larchet: These are concise but always powerful lessons. The Fathers use symbols, images, paradoxes, which reinforce their power of expression. They are often full of humor and great freshness, full of wisdom but very simple and concrete, close to the evangelical sources, which makes them accessible to all. Most of the time, the apophthegm is the answer of a Father to a visitor who asks him for "a word of salvation", an essential advice for his spiritual life. This response is adapted to the particular case of the visitor, but it is usually universal.
How are they current?
Jean-Claude Larchet: Paradoxically, the Fathers lived in conditions very different from ours: in the desert, fleeing from contacts, living on water and some vegetables, sleeping very little... And yet their writings are still very telling. By delving into solitude, devoting themselves to a very fine analysis of their inner life in order to purify their passions, they have gained an unmatched experience in knowledge and self-control, and have found the basis of nature common to humans of all times.
They are precious counselors for curing spiritual diseases, which they call passions. For example, sadness and spiritual sloth, close to what we now call depression. The Fathers analysed in detail the different forms of sadness (the one linked to the frustration of desires, or to anger, or to demonic action, also those without an apparent motive ...) and propose for each an adapted remedy.
You speak in your book (Thérapeutique des maladies spirituelles. Une introduction à la tradition ascétique de l’Église orthodoxe) about the therapeutic idea of salvation in the Fathers.
Jean-Claude Larchet: This dimension, highly prised today, is essential in Christianity... In the Desert Fathers, salvation must be understood not in legal terms as a redemption, but first as a cure. Salvation is this transformation of man, liberated from the constraints of the fallen world, subject to sin and death, which became a new creation in Christ.
It involves a methodical struggle against the passions that attach us to the world through exercise of the virtues that unite us with God. This is the first meaning of the word asceticism: not purely mortifying practice, but an exercise, an effort, an incessant work on oneself. Spiritual life is that synergy between man's effort and God's grace. God does not compel us, he needs our good will, but without his grace our effort would be useless.
Does not this fight against the ego go against the diffusion of personality that is encouraged so much today?
Jean-Claude Larchet: No, for this ego that feeds on passions is not our true personality, but our egotistic self that veils it. It is a common feature of the Fathers to affirm that sin and passions take man away from his true nature and alienate him. It is a matter of putting to death the "old man" St. Paul speaks about, in order to make the new man, with his source and his model in Christ, live. It is not in attachment to oneself and to this world that the human person is accomplished, but in the love of God and neighbour. As Christ taught and as the Desert Fathers show us, man first has to lose himself if he wants to find himself.