Deconstructing the Desert

Monastic MondayHow can deconstruction relate to the Desert Fathers? Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction is in some ways a critique of religious thought. It exposes assumptions that we rely on in Western culture, such as an overlying concept of intelligibility and reason, that we call the logos, that transcends and anchors all meaning.

Early monasticism is logocentric. They are an oral subculture, surrounding the word of the Abbas and Ammas, which are later codified in the written sayings and the early rules of Basil, Pachomius, and my personal favorite, Benedict. As a movement, they are marked by the desire for meaning. Early monks would go out to the elder practitioners in the desert and say, “Abba, a word.” This is a plea for meaning, for the logos.

However, Lori Branch proposes in her article that the Desert Fathers and Derrida aren’t so different. A concern for deconstruction is the aporia, which is the point where the paradox between two contraries becomes impossible. How can we move beyond this impasse and reach justice beyond the construct of the law? How can we actually give a gift outside of the constraints of exchange. These are also the concerns of the desert. As Branch points out, the sayings as a holistic collection can be contradictory even on the same page. In this the sayings are working out central paradoxes, such as when to follow the law, but without providing easy answers.

In all this, how to give outside the constraints if exchange is a central concern for Derrida and the desert. And it is discussed through hospitality.

Abba James said, “It is better to receive hospitality than to offer it.”

Source: Apophthegmata Patrum

Abba Cassian related the following: “The holy Germanus and I went to Egypt, to visit an old man. Because he offered us hospitality we asked him, “Why do you not keep the rule of fasting, when you receive visiting brothers, as we have received it in Palestine?” He replied, “Fasting is always to hand but you I cannot have with me always…”

Source: Desert Banquet: A Year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers

Once the order was given at Scetis, “Fast this week.” Now it happened that some brothers came from Egypt to visit Abba Moses and he cooked something for them. Seeing some smoke, the neighbours said to the ministers, “Look, Moses has broken the commandment and has cooked something in his cell.” The ministers said, “When he comes, we will speak to him ourselves.” When the Saturday came, since they knew Abba Moses’ remarkable way of life, the ministers said to him in front of everyone, “O Abba Moses, you did not keep the commandment of men, but it was so that you might keep the commandment of God.”

Source: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Benedicta Ward)

And here’s Derrida speaking as cryptically as an abba about the importance of hospitality:

“One must eat well” does not mean above all taking in and grasping in itself, but learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat. One never eats entirely on one’s own: this constitutes the rule underlying the statement, “One must eat well.” It is a rule offering infinite hospitality

Notice that all of the sayings are as conflicted and paradoxical about hospitality and the relationship between law and justice as Derrida. But, together Derrida and the Desert Fathers strive to offer “infinite hospitality.”

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