This is not one of Daniel’s works which will immediately go to the top of the queue for publication because it is not a meditation primarily concerned with the Bible; which is not to say that it is not a great book, because it is. Daniel’s interest as always is prayer and meditation, but here it is focused on the practice of 5 of the desert fathers, Abbas Anthony, Lucius, Isaac, Moses and Sisoes, with side journeys looking at ‘matters arising.’
Of the five men discussed, Anthony and Moses are the two something of whose biographies are known; the chapters concerning these two therefore have more to do with them as individuals and their growth in faith.
The main theme with Anthony is unceasing prayer and how he arrived at this; the answer is, through many difficulties, difficulties with which Daniel makes sure we can identify. The point is made that where Athanasius’ well known account is more or less a hagiography, the apophthegms found in the two collections, the ‘alphabetic’ and the ‘systematic,’ are relatively bare of praise, presenting facts; indeed Anthony is seen to denounce his own negligence and failings. Humility is the central motif to Anthony’s life.
Abba Moses was an extraordinary man, a violent man who was saved out of a criminal background, who we then see struggling to accept the grace of God. He was evidently a most impressive figure to those around him, and he learned to love God, a God who answered his prayers, and yet seems not to have grasped God’s full acceptance of him.
The general theme is that of unceasing prayer, and the accounts of the other men focus on this, but diverge from the way prayer practices developed into recounting some very interesting experiences, including for example Arsenius whose whole being was filled as though with fire. In a sense, these men in their solitary practices in the deserts of Egypt are indeed remote from us today, yet, as Daniel says in his introduction, ‘ by the grace of the Holy Spirit there is woven between them and us a wonderful communion, one to which we all too often pay little attention.’