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Alexander Ryrie: The Desert Movement

Alexander Ryrie

The Desert Movement – fresh perspectives on the spirituality of the desert

ISBN: 9781 8482 5094 9

Canterbury Press, 2011, £16.99,

This is not ‘merely’ another collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Whilst acknowledging his (and our) debt to Sr Benedicta Ward’s ground-breaking book The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers of 1975, Fr Ryrie (a Priest Associate of the Sisters of the Love of God) seeks to situate the ‘Desert Movement’ in a theological, historical and geographical matrix which goes well beyond a collection of sayings, in this sense it is a worthy addition in the corpus to Rowan William’s book Silence and Honeycakes.

Ryrie makes many interesting points about the Desert Movement, stressing that it was no new development but a Christian version and continuation of a pre-Christian ascetic tradition manifested in the Essene Movement of Qumran and the Therapeutae of Alexandria. He also stresses that the Desert Movement was not merely situated in Egypt (it is tempting to think of the Movement as a purely Egyptian phenomenon) but in the area we would now term as the Middle East and as far North as Syria (there is a very interesting appendix on the Cappadocian and Syrian Monastic Movements).

The book begins on familiar territory with an exploration of the Desert Movement in Egypt (Lower and Upper) and Judea, which Ryrie describes as the ‘motherland of the Desert Movement.’ The book then moves from a geographical survey to the much-neglected contribution made by the Desert Mothers. Ryrie suggests that the development of the phenomenon of the Amma was similar to that of the Abba pointing out that early Ammas remained within the outskirts of settlements and that the ‘anchorite’ phenomenon of such wonderful Saints as Amma Syncletica was a later development.

In the second part, Ryrie describes the ‘continuation’ of the Desert Tradition citing the contributions of John Cassian and the much-maligned Evagrius. He then describes the progress of the Tradition through Gaza and Sinai. The book concludes with a valuable chapter on interpreting the legacy of the Desert in our day. In this, as in so much of the book, Fr Ryrie helps our understanding in his ‘profound and accessible’ prose. I am glad that it is in our library at Glasshampton and I commend it warmly to those who, like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, seek to realize the Image of God through prayer.

 

Joseph Emmanuel nSSF