Desert fathers novel


Scholar & author Derek Bickerton has been nice enough to send me a copy of his latest novel (and in exchange, a copy of my Patron Saints for Postmoderns will soon be on its way to him). Bickerton is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, author of several widely-praised books on language, and novelist with a thing for church history. His new novel (he has written several others) is called The Desert and the City. I confess I’m still only a few pages into the book, but so far I’m enjoying the ride. And when the highly respected scholar Benedicta Ward, editor of the Penguin Classics and Cistercian Studies editions of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, calls your desert fathers novel “charming and sensitively done,” then you’ve clearly got something.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

“It is late in the 4th century AD and Zachary, a young Greek fromm Alexandria, has decided to become a hermit. Spurned in love, he ventures to the fringe of the desert to join a colony of Christians.

“At the colony, Zachary learns from a fascinating mix of individuals who help him take his first steps on the road to spiritual perfection. But an untimely return to Alexandria to join in an attack on a pagan temple pulls him off course, and he falls victim to anger, drunkenness and lechery.

“Agonized with remorse for his sins, Zachary sets out alone into the deepest desert to wager his very life against his hope of salvation.”

The book is advertised as “volume 1 of the Commandment Trilogy.”

The writing is marked with humor, insight, and vividness. Here’s a sample, from the beginning of chapter 1:

“Before he became a hermit, Father Moses had been a bandit. Had anyone remarked on the oddity of this career change, Moses would have told them there was less difference between bandits and hermits than you might think. Both lived a hard life; both knew firsthand the pains of hunger and exposure. Both dwelt far from the civilized world and its temptations, and neither had much respect for the laws or customs of that world. Both had to take responsibility for their actions; neither could say, ‘My master commanded me to do so and so.’ You might almost say that a hermit was just a bandit purged of cruelty and greed. At least, Moses himself was living proof that a single touch of God’s unfathomable grace could turn one into the other.

“Now as the sun cleared the desert horizon, he came from his morning prayer within the cool cavern of his cell to water his herb-garden. The sand and rock underfoot still held the night’s chill, refreshing to the bare, calloused soles of his feet. Before him, glorified under the level light, the salt-white plains of Scetis stretched away to the farther escarpment. As the sun rose they would dazzle, then blind those who traversed them. But now in these first moments of day they looked like an enchanted snowfall.

“Moses picked up one of the two wooden buckets that stood outside the cave, the one with holes in it, and lowered it into his shallow, brackish well. Behind the well grew rows of bean plants, herbs, straggling gourds; to water them, all he had to do was swing the loaded bucket at the end of one long lanky arm and let the water spout out of the holes. Moses enjoyed watering his plants in the cool of the morning. There were those in Scetis who thought it wrong to take pleasure in earthly things, but Moses could never accept this. You might, indeed you had to, turn from such things to the inner life of prayer if you were ever to perfect your soul. But how could it be God’s will that you should despise His own creation?”

I’m looking forward to reading on . . .

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